You’re flying, when suddenly you start to go down.
There is a sudden impact of the crash, and everything fades to black. You’re not in water, and there isn’t the soothing voice of Jack Ryan welcoming you down. On the flip side there isn’t the homicidal citizenry of Rapture spouting inane babble, so count your blessings. Instead, there’s an infinite wasteland of cold, snow, and blasts of wind that absolutely hate you. Seriously, this wind hates you.
Orthogonal Games’ sophomore installment is described as “Not a survival game, but instead a game about surviving.” and the distinction couldn’t be more accurate. You play an Antarctic scientist who has crash landed and must figure out a way to survive. Stumbling out of your downed aircraft, you make your way to the abandoned Sutro Research Station to link up with the charming McMurdo via a fax machine like device. Here the real story begins, and you must figure out a way to get out of here without freezing. The gameplay is straightforward: go to different stations to collect different equipment, return said equipment to your home base. Rinse and repeat. But what happens in between these fetch quests is what makes this game such a masterpiece. Near Death drops any semblance of “realism” by measuring your hunger, or sleep, or thirst. You know you’re hungry, tired and thirsty. But you can’t do anything about it, and Orthogonal Games’ decision to do away with the micro-managing aspect of survival games pays off; the distinction of being a “game about surviving” is highlighted. Your primary two objects are your flashlight and personal heater. Managing both is easy, and they are essential to your exploration strategy. Instead of hoarding resources to ensure your hunger meter never drops below optimal stats, you are encouraged to gather what you need to ensure your immediate survival. Canvases, wiring, batteries, light bulbs and other various objects are the items you’ll be managing to ensure you don’t freeze, become lost, or run out of light by crafting basic electrical and handyman tools. The inclusion of minimalistic crafting and inventory complements the focus on experience.
But enough about gameplay, let's talk about the wind effects environment.
The first sight of the Sutro station is one of almost apocalyptic proportions. Everything around you is pitch black and what little you can make out is covered in snow. Moving closer to the station you see darkened buildings in the distance. Once inside you see the destruction nature has wreaked on these buildings. Entire walls are gone, windows blown out, roofs torn open and snow covering entire areas. In short, it’s awesome. Accentuating the feeling of devastation is the perfect sound effects and score. I cannot praise the audio of this game enough. It is present enough to give the experience weight but knows how to be sparse enough to highlight how alone you are. You constantly hear the howl of the wind outside and the crunch of your boots on snow and debris, and creaking door hinges hint at how long Sutro has been abandoned. The almost oppressive darkness in the bowels of the various buildings in Sutro are at first terrifying with the possibility of The Thing lurking around every corner (please someone make a mod for this), but when your nerves settle you realize the atmosphere is just taking its toll on you. When you’re outside the questionable cover that Sutro provides, the real danger presents itself. Winds in Antarctica reach incredible speeds (highest recorded at 199/mph), and you are no safer in virtual reality than you are in reality. The wind is arguably your greatest enemy, besides the cold, and several of the objects you can craft directly assist you in navigating through it. Such as the crafted stakes with light or tied with rope which are invaluable when you can barely see in front of you. Of exceptional note is the effect the wind has on your POV. You are constantly buffeted around and have to navigate the wind as much as you do the terrain. I often found myself having to wait until the wind blew another direction for me to head off the way I wanted. Unless you are adequately prepared, you will quickly lose your sense of direction and become lost in the maze-like area that makes up the research station. As the game progresses, the wind becomes worse, almost to the point that it looks like you’ll die if you stay outside for even a minute.
The brevity of the game is a double-edged sword.
Clocking in at 3 to 5 hours long, you experience all there is in the first playthrough, and I don’t think that’s an inherent issue, only an issue to some. But its length also makes it an actual experience. With how straightforward the game is and well placed the story elements are, you become drawn into the world Orthogonal Games created and become invested in your survival.
Near Death definitely takes from other survival games, notably The Long Dark, but it manages to capture the intensity of all that comes with survival games without making it a game about micro-management. The experience of actually surviving Antarctica in a realistic simulation affords Near Death a sense of immersion that few entertainment mediums can achieve. With the exceptional visuals and damn near, if not perfect audio, Near Death is a game that is worth the price in money and time. Pick it up, turn on your flashlight, and don’t stop until you’re inside.