Okay, so I've had a little break and I'm writing up part 2 of my review, which is focusing on gameplay mechanics. I had this pasted as a comment beneath my part 1, but since moved it to this seperate post, because I think some people were not seeing it...
Challenge Level :
Several people (in this thread) have said that the episode is too easy, which to me is missing the point. My main problem with the episode was that I found it too easy, but I've read others who got lost coming out of the farmhouse, or who are having a tough time with the blizzard or with the wolves. We are each coming to the episode with a different experience level with the long dark. And it is, at its base a (really very good) survival simulator. And for a survival simulator to be engaging, all the wonderful mechanics that are in place need to be relevant. And to be relevant, the difficulty of the game has to be carefully matched to the experience leve each of us bring to it. For all of us, there is a difficulty level that is too easy, that would make us yawn and just go through the motions, and for all of us there is difficulty setting which is too hard, and we would get frustrated and give up. And... That difficulty level is different for each of us.
So the chapter isn't too easy but it is missing more challenging difficulty settings, and this means that for experienced players, none of the wonderful gameplay mechanics kick in, and so we just go from A to B on the map, completing stuff, while enjoying the scenery, and perhaps yawning once or twice.
This is very sad for us experienced players, because, we all love the long dark (we've played it a lot right, coz we like it!)
The two basic things I'd want to see so I could enjoy a more challenging playthrough are:
Less Loot. If you've played loper your used to blitz searching towns for stuff. There is just too much of everything to make the game challenging. Too much food, too many clothes, too much medicine, too many matches, too much ammo. etc etc. As someone else also mentioned, you can have hatchets, knives, revolver, hunting rifle, bow, a wolfskin coat and moosehide satchel with 2 hours of starting the episode... Less loot.
Colder temperatures. This ties to having too many clothes available as well, but its also just too warm... I carried three of four survivors the whole way home without ever having to stop and make a fire... duh.
Carrying Companions and Doctoring:
This a great idea, but it feels only half way implemented.. On a more difficult setting I'd want to have to put them into warmer clothes, and have to worry about their food levels as well. The whole doctoring component is great but its massively under implemented, no one gets any illness other than dehydration and the one diabetic, what about infection, food poisoning etc... All the mechanics are already in the game! And four carry companions is just repetitive, I felt like I was just lugging living meat across the landscape. What about just one or two, and actually make it a challenge, so that you'd have to break the carry across several days, finding shelter along the way? Even overloaded, I just slung them across my shoulders and stomped all the way across the landscape to the community center without stopping for breath.. Except for one time... (here comes a vignette!)
So I was carry the guy who is further away and I'd worked out that timberwolves aren't good at climbing terrain, so the "fight music" came on (more about that later) I climbed the nearest rock ledge and went to put the bloke down. Except I couldn't, because apparently you can't put wounded people down on the top of rocky outcrops.. I mean, it was pretty flat, but what'evs.. fair enough.. So then I'm climbing back down again, all the time getting mauled and watching my health bar disappear, and maybe muttering to myself under my breath. Anywhos.. I get they guy on the ground, get out my revolver with a bazillion rounds of ammo, and make like mad-max on those pesky pleasant valley wolves. As the smoke from my gun cleared, there was a righteous dead-dog fest all around me, but I was now down to about 10% health, and freezing, so I'm thinking perhaps stop for the night after all, and look on my handy satellite nav map and there a blinking prepper cache within one click of my present location (thanks sat nav) so I head for that. I navigate there like a satellite guided arrow, and get my man down on the bed with me having about 5% health. Hoorah. I'm thinking, some bed-time stories, perhaps a little bro-mantic bonding with my dude, who keeps on muttering for his mother and father, I think... Okkkay, maybe less emphasis on the bro-mance... Nevermind, at least a good night sleep amongst all this food and water... I stop short, oh crap, water. I'm down to a quarter which will be good for about 2 hours sleep, and a quick check of my dude (I can't use my sat-nav Doctor HUD thingy since I've put him down) tells me he needs water too. Okay... I need water. No biggie, this ain't my first rodeo, I'll catch two hours sleep and then pop outside and cook some snow up like the pro I know I am. Two hours sleep. Check. Pop outside... Nope. No can do. Can't leave the bunker without my companion... Oh right... no wait... WHAT? Is the game worried I'm going to run off without him? I just want to cook some friggin water FFS. Sense of humour failure... sigh... Okay. I need to take the dude upstairs while I make the water. Can do... Except... I can't see my hand in front of my face. Nooo problemo, Robinson Crusoe here has a lantern. Turn on lantern - check. Locate dude - check. Pick dude up - check. WTF my lantern has gone out. Of course... Can't carry lantern with dude... okay no biggie... I consider... I could put lantern on ground but then I won't be able to come back for it since I'll be leaving dude outside in cold (this actually makes more sense, thanks big brother). I decide, its a prepper cache, how hard can it be to find the exit in the dark once I have dude on my shouders... and.. I keep the lantern. WIN. Execute plan. find prepper cache exit... 30 seconds stumbling around in the dark feeling like a moron, and a little like its not entirely my fault. Literally 60 seconds (that's actually feels like 5 minutes, honestly, try it.) No luck.. Major frustration kicks in.. I persevere.. stagger stagger - dehydration kicks in, and then Astrid actually goes ahead and says it "Hang in there, we're making good progress". I laughed out loud, in a slightly manic-psychotic way...
So eventually I do find the exit, and get me and the guy all toasty and hydrated and then start heading to the community center. And maybe I'm feeling a little bruised by my prepper encounter, so to show off, and make myself feel better, I walk along the railing of contemplation bridge, with a 200lb dude on my shoulders... I'm a friggin gymnast, I don't even stagger. hang on.. what... then I realise, there is absolutely no risk of dropping my companion... I dance to the left, then switch right, I even try dropping down a 3 meter ledge... torn clothing, major bruising... But I'm a Jedi, my dude (Wade I think was his name, remember now coz it struck me as slightly ironic.) is just glued to my shoulders, light as a feather....
So yeah, there is all this, at least on the harder difficulty settings: More doctoring, more illnesses, manage patient clothing, manage patient food levels, no auto-updating satellite GPS map, no sat-nav Doctor HUD thingy, perhaps a little staggering (and risk of dropping) when carrying a fully grown adult, certainly not going more than 100 meters without needing to catch breath, and not going more than a couple of kilometers without a longer pause for rest.
I had a major downer on them damn timberwolves to begin with. They felt like randomly occurring forced encounters, not like meeting a dangerous brand of wildlife out in the wilderness. I mean... the fight music and the spiffy changes to the head's up display... I thought Hinterland is all about minimalist HUD stuff, and now I'm looking to see how many wolves there are by reading a number on the bottom of the screen rather than counting the nasty snarly things with the sharp teeth? And who needs the morale counter... how on earth would you ever know that anyway... Its simple keep on shooting at them or running away from them until they get scared and run off, or you get to safety, or die. right? And the fight music... well okay, its kinda fun and dramatic, but I think I should know I'm in a fight before the music kicks in... And that's another thing, the wolves aren't out there stalking for prey, they start off running madly towards you. I'm like 95% sure coz I watched them from miles away once and they just beelined for me. Its lame. Sorry, but it is. The wolves shouldn't just appear out of nowhere and beeline for you, they should be roaming across the map (or at least across the terrain near the player), with the chance of the player evading them, I mean not safely, not consistently, but there should be a chance to spot them first and hide. In the end I did have one good timberwolf encounter, that felt more organic, when I was going up the mining road to the coal mine, and they attacked. This time after I broke their morale they headed higher up, one died, and then they regrouped with one less and attacked again. It was fun because I killed them ALL, but actually more importantly, because it felt they were wildlife in the environment, not just demon wolves swooping in to mess with my live human meat return service. Oh... and, you guys need to fix the AI so they don't all get stuck behind you when you drop down a ledge, and the weirdness when they die and fall into the landscape...
Storymode vs Survival:
So... Are any of you old enough to remember the "choose your own adventure" story books? You reach a fork in the road, do you : turn left (go to page 3), or turn right (go to page 5)... That sort of thing?
Well story mode TLD is one long "choose your own adventure book", except that there is always only one ending. Its okay that it is, I understand that huge titles like Fallout have a limited number of different endings, and that with each parallel storyline you are doubling the work you have to do. And I'd rather have a single good story, than the choice of x different lame ones, and yes I'm still comparing TLD to fallout But if you're going to have one story then make the "turning the pages" bit as fun as possible... Part of this I've already addressed in the challenge level section, but I'd love to have seen more than this... I mean in the end Astrid gets through the mine, but what meaningful choices has the player made to get there. A game that does this really well is This War of Mine. It doesn't have a prolific story arc, but you have to make choices, and sacrifices.
What if... all the survivors were out there in the game world from the beginning? All deteriorating slowly from the start? What if rather than being told to collect X amount of stuff before the blizzard, you were just abstractly warned that a blizzard might hit? What if you actually had to feed the survivors in the community center, and tend to their medical needs with all those good medical supplies and doctoring know-how, but you didn't know that at the beginning. What if the wood you collected actually went to stoke the fire there and keep everyone warm? First playthrough, you keep yourself well and healthy, and you get through all the quests, but it takes so long that everyone dies. Is that okay for you? Do you want to try again, and try to rescue more people? What if you can't rescue everyone? How does it sit with you telling someone's loved one's that you were too late and they had frozen to death... Personally that's the game I want to play. A lot.
But instead everything is totally wrapped-up, you can't carry Gwen down from the plane until you've found all ten ID cards???, what about just letting us choose and then tell the person "I couldn't find your loved one", how does that feel? I even think that someone at hinterland knows all this, that at some point this other game was the vision, because otherwise why bother with the passenger manifest? But somehow, all the good stuff missed the final cut
One response to all this is that this more complex non-linear gameplay belongs in survival mode, and that its just not what storymode is about, but that response saddens me because you guys have done SO MUCH WORK in storymode, and it has all the elements of a terrific and meaningful survival experience, it just needs (needed ) a little more cooking...
Thanks for reading. Love the game.