Previews// I Am Alive

Posted 17 Feb 2012 12:44 by
Games: I Am Alive
You lure in the one with the pistol. Don't draw your gun, you've only got one bullet. Slash his throat with machete. Draw. Shoot the other pistol holder. Take ammo. You're charged by a man with a bat. Ignore him. Shoot the one going for the fallen gun. Now use your machete on the bat guy. You've taken a hit, it's cost a little health. That's acceptable. You Are Alive.

Fighting the sort of hardy, tough-as-nails bastards who've survived the end of the world in I Am Alive is pretty tense stuff. If you've got any bullets at all in your gun, count yourself lucky. If not, you might be able to bluff them into submission. But then, if they have a gun and do have ammo, you might not.

It's tempting to call I Am Alive survival horror, but with its absence of the supernatural or much by way of blood, I'd probably just say it borrows heavily from that genre. The horror comes from the basic premise ? in the aftermath of 'the event' (something environmental, I'd guess) society has broken down. America appears to be in ruins, there's no law and the folk who are still around are frequently intent on gutting each other in the squabble over the few remaining resources. Man's basically shitty nature is the enemy, people!

You play a bloke who's been separated from his family since the event and has spent a year walking across the country to get back to them. He's just a bloke. He has no mad ninja skills or superpowers or anything like that. He's pretty good at climbing, but that's about it.

Everything's very grey and the entire design's pretty sparse in I Am Alive. The city around you is ruined, with clouds of dust billowing around the wrecked environment. Cutscenes take the form of footage on Bloke's video camera, with thin dialogue and little exposition. There's nothing flashy about I Am Alive. I get the distinct impression that someone at Darkworks (which started development) or Ubisoft Shanghai (which is finishing it) is a big fan of The Road.

I Am Alive is not your stereotypical post-apocalyptic dystopian armageddonous game. It's grey and it's slow and, like a good survival horror game, is built around the build-up and release of tension.

The game centres around climbing and occasional bouts of fraught combat. The climbing is not of the sort Altair, Ezio or Cole McGrath get up to, though. It's not about racing over rooftops with the gleeful abandon of a spider-powered toddler, it's about working quickly, efficiently and intelligently.

You have a stamina bar that starts draining the moment you do anything strenuous, and climbing definitely fits into that category. You might be able to have a drink or lodge a piton in a wall to regain a bit of strength and avoid a death plummet, but you'll still need to be fast to make the most of the temporary boost.

Combat, as you probably gathered from my melodramatic opening, is similarly tough. You can try drawing your pistol to blag your way out of a situation, but there's no guarantee it'll work. You'll need to identify primary then secondary targets and work fast to avoid a knife to the gut or a bullet to the face. And don't expect to survive either of those injuries.

The bare bones plot, with its sparse dialogue, is also surprisingly compelling. The need to find your family, mixed with the game's overall intensity and the fact that you might actually face significant penalties if you die create a real sense of urgency.

I Am Alive is not, unfortunately, without its faults. My first gripe is one that I hope will be fixed in the final code ? the climbing controls can be very fiddly at times. When you want to transition from moving sideways to sidling up a pole you might have to take two or three stabs at latching onto the vertical rail. As you have a stamina bar that's constantly menacing you, the fiddliness is incredibly annoying. Hopefully, though, that will be tweaked before release.

The other gripe is too big to be something that's ironed out between now and March 7th, but hopefully it's something that gets sorted a little further into the game. I Am Alive is all a bit linear. While initially you get the impression you might be dealing with an open world, it rapidly becomes clear that you're being guided through the environment. In climbing sections, don't expect more than one line to take.

You might occasionally be rewarded for wandering off the beaten track to the other beaten areas of the environment with the discovery of a can of fruit, but there's not far to wander. While different encounters with other survivors demand different approaches, they really do demand that particular approach. Don't expect to improvise.

While I've never actually found myself in a post-apocalyptic environment (or any other extreme survival situation, believe it or not), I suspect that after the zombies/asteroids/blobby-space-things come, survival will have more to do with the decisions I have to make than my physical prowess. That's why I'll die alone in a comic shop, clutching a multipack of Snickers.

In the preview code I played, though, there are no significant decisions to be made. No scavenging trips to be taken, no alliances to be formed, no safer routes to discover. You have a predetermined course of action, and that's that. You can opt to help the odd NPC in exchange for an extra life, but that's about as deep as it gets.

As I said, hopefully things will open up further into the game, but based on the design choices I've seen that doesn't look like the route Ubisoft Shanghai is taking. I can understand why ? they've opted to keep a tight rein on the tension at the expense of a sandbox approach. They've also, I expect, worked within the limits of their budget, given that I Am Alive got shunted into PSN/XBLA territory after initially being planned as a disc-based retail release.

Despite its current shortcomings, there's a lot to recommend I Am Alive, though. It's a very interesting game that plays with different genre tropes to become something all its own. It's worth keeping an eye on.

I Am Alive will be on XBLA as of March 7th. Our review will out on March 6th.
Games: I Am Alive

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