I Am Alive has had a rather extraordinary development life. What first started as a fully-fledged boxed title ended up being canned several years ago, only to be revived last year as a downloadable title with a revised gameplay direction. Ubisoft Shanghai explains that offering this dark survival game as a download allows the studio to achieve things that they couldn?t in a traditional AAA release.
This ?brave new world? philosophy that the developer has seeps right into the game itself. You play as a chap surviving the elements of a post-apocalyptic world - it?s been a year after ?the incident? and the protagonist has reached his hometown in an attempt to find his missing family. He?s not sure if there are any survivors - or even if his family is still alive - which gives the game world an underlying feeling of tension, mystery and intrigue.
Many games have used the post-apocalyptic open world angle, but I Am Alive
eschews the kind of action sequences associated with third person and first person shooters and instead presents a rather minimalist goal - survival. And it is survival in the purest sense. Everything you do has to be paid attention to for fear of coming a cropper later on in the game.
A big element of this is in the stamina gauge. The moment the protagonist arrives at his hometown, he is presented with a destroyed bridge with debris and cars scattered all over the place. There?s no direct way across, so you must clamber around the bridge supports and other parts of scaffolding to safely make your way to town. In doing this (and almost any other exhaustive action) the stamina gauge starts to drain, with dramatic music fading in when you?re close to running out.
You won?t be able to get very far in one fully-charged stamina gauge, so you must keep climbing back onto your feet at regular intervals to recover your lost energy. But if you?re traversing an area where no such safety zone exists and your stamina bar becomes empty, the whole bar starts to shrink, affecting the max capacity of your stamina for future use.
Smashing the right trigger will help you resist this effect until you get to solid ground, but if it shrinks you?re stuck with a handicapped stamina bar for good. At least until you revitalise yourself with a bottle of water or food - rare commodities in this uncertain world. You can collect pitons throughout the game and slam one into the wall during a climb for a man-made resting point. You?ll need to do this as you tackle much larger obstacles - one segment we saw involved a monstrous climb up the side of a torn building, with grappling hooks required to traverse larger gaps.
The map of the world around you seems quite expansive, and you can travel wherever you like as long as you?re able to survive. But it?s not a truly open world, with the game?s direction being linear and focused, in much the same way that LA Noire
offered a vast explorable city but directed you to crime scenes as required. Lower levels of the city are clouded by smog, and certain objectives will require you to descend into the polluted depths.
It?s hard to see down there, and the environment there drains your stamina quite quickly, requiring you to climb up various drainpipes and ladders when necessary to avoid gagging to death. As well as this sense of blind panic, the game will mess with your head by throwing in sounds and shadows of unidentifiable objects and creatures. Not cool, man. Not cool.
Later in the game, you?ll be responsible for the safety of others, and this is where you will come across different survivors and need to figure out whether they be friend or foe. In a segment I was shown, the protagonist was traveling through dilapidated subways with a kid called Mei on his back. It?s not long before he runs into a group of men with lead pipes and guns. One of them starts to threaten him.
This is where you need to quickly assess the situation - you don?t know whether these guys are just protecting their turf and are unsure of you, or whether they mean to do you harm whatever your story is. After a short dialogue between your character and who you assume to be the gang leader, it?s clear that they mean nasty business. At this point, you can choose to perform a surprise kill on the guy fronting with you or to stay diplomatic. The consequences for either will be quite dramatic.
Surprise killing can only be achieved if you have a machete or other close range weapon handy, and afterwards you can reach for your gun and try to hold them at gunpoint. The camera changes from a third person to first person view for this moment, with your enemies holding their hands up asking you to cool it. Sometimes, one of these guys might take an opportunity to attack you back, meaning you must act quickly and decide whether to be merciful and clock them in the head or kill them outright.
While the action is linear, you can discover extra things by checking every nook and cranny. If you?re curious enough to wonder why a couple of seemingly friendly survivors are able to obtain a large supply of meat, you might be ?rewarded? with discovering a secret society of cannibals right around the corner. You then have the option of rescuing some fellow victims trapped in a cage, ready to be the next casserole. By saving those in need, you earn yourself more retries (read: lives) and they will give you some information that can help you locate your family.
I was only able to see the game from a couple of different unlinked scenarios, but what I do see are a lot of gameplay features and design elements that indeed probably would have been too risky for inclusion on a standard AAA title. But what would be traditional retail?s loss seems to be digital distribution?s gain, as graphically this makes every other digital effort pale in comparison. Hopefully some hands-on time with the game will prove that the gameplay matches the studio?s ambitious approach.