Near Death Review: The Martian on Ice

You are a pilot running supplies to Antarctic Research stations. Your Plane goes down in a storm. You stumble out to try to find shelter. It’s -38C with the wind. You make your way into the nearest base. It’s abandoned. You’re Near Death.

An hour and a half later, you’re using the rope lines you’ve been planting to guide yourself through the blizzard. It’s now -80C and you can’t see anything but the mild glow of the base’s wall lamps. You ran out of batteries for your torch when you left the last shelter. You need to reach a safe spot right now.

Near Death was created by Orthogonal Games. (previously of The Novelist, a game which has been highly recommended to me) to paraphrase their own words, “it’s not a survival game, It’s a game about survival”. And it is great.

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This is not Rust or The Long Dark or Day Z. You won’t be fighting monsters here or competing for resources to build massive bases. Instead, Near Death is a solitary, isolating experience. You are alone. You have incredibly limited tools, just a torch and a portable heater. There’s a crafting system, but all it does is give you options for existing a few minutes more. On multiple occasions while playing this game, I burst out laughing in exhilaration as I desperately came across a room to hide from the elements in. The game world doesn’t want you moving around.

You shouldn’t be here. That much is clear.
Which makes the moments of levity all the better. Most of these come in scripted sequences where the pilot communicates with her home base on a teletyper fax machine, the dialogue mostly coming off charming. In fact, swap the snow for sandstorms, and I’d have said this game was an adaptation of the Martian. (A Book and Movie I adore, so high praise.)

Mechanically, this is a very linear first person game. There’s collectables to find that can potentially upgrade your gear a little, and some minor platforming sequences that anyone who has ever played a Half Life game should be familiar with. There’s little groundbreaking on display. Which is fine. Because for the most part, everything is presented in an expert style. Technically an open world, the developers have created a route that will neatly take you through each area, and build the game world as it builds the players skill set. It rarely feels like you’re being hemmed in by anything but the storm.

With that in mind, one of the facets of the game I found really enjoyable was that there’s no cold meter on the bottom of your screen, ticking down to doom. Instead, the player is forced to actually monitor their character, listening to them whimper and realising that they can no longer run. When you finally reach breaking point, the player character snaps in a blaze of glory, able to use a last burst of energy to either find shelter and warmth, or die.
As a mechanic, it’s incredibly fair, offering just enough time to reach safety if you are able to keep a calm head. Which is actually understandably tricky.

Screenshot 2016-08-03 22.55.14

This is a game which could, uncharitably, be described as a series of fetch quests bound into a game world with a hostile weather mechanic. I have no doubt that some will do just that, especially with the short play time.  That’s not fair though.

This game is short, can’t deny that. But it is simple and direct. It knows exactly what it wants the player to feel, and does so fairly expertly. The gameplay is fundamentally tied to the narrative, with a building sense of horror and isolation. As the player, defiance becomes your response. This experience won’t stop you. You can get to the next safe room.

In the end, the whole game builds to a final (very spoilery) sequence that I was mesmerised by.  Beautiful, haunting and entirely appropriate for what the game has been building to.

The game is not long, and it is comparatively not expensive at £10.99.  You should set aside an hour or two and just enjoy a fantastically crafted experience.


Near Death is available now, for PC, Mac and Linux on Steam and from the Developer’s Site.

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