I have played I Am Alive. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d get to type. Originally announced at E3 in 2008 and scheduled for a Spring 2009 release on Xbox 360 and PS3, this game has long been suspected as vapourware. Something Ubisoft never formally cancelled but was rarely mentioned after that E3 trailer. In fact, it was more than three years before it was officially mentioned again.[videoyoutube]Even that wasn’t exactly a smooth announcement, downgrading the game to an XBLA/PS3 downloadable and promising it in the winter. The game’s location had been switched from Chicago to a smaller town called Haventon but the disaster-survival setting remained intact. The game’s next public appearance, a trailer with disturbingly poor character models, appeared halfway through December and in January the game was finally confirmed – for XBLA, at least – as a March 7th release.
So the development path has been a rocky one with a couple of diversions but now there is preview code out in the wild and we can start to see if it was worth the wait.
I Am Alive isn’t a particularly pretty game. Visually, it looks like a mediocre multiplatform game from early in this generation. Character models are poor, faces are angular and blocky and the animations feel a little dated. All of that is easily discernible from the trailers that have been released so far.
But you’d be a fool to ignore it because there are prettier girls at the party. I Am Alive seems to have a certain intelligence about it and it does things that are original and interesting. The survival aspect is strong and the atmosphere is built well. There has been an “Event” which sees the protagonist making his way home to reconcile with his wife and child.
This post-apocalyptic world seems to be the result of some sort of natural disaster rather than the usual nuclear war or scientific disaster that sets up these drab, grey worlds. There is thick dust everywhere, specular highlights and masses of radiant glow hide any pop-in and mask the draw distance in much the same way as early Silent Hill games but that’s not to say that there aren’t instances of quite impressive vistas that seem to arrive out of the gloom.[drop]Most of the scenery, in the early stages that I played, are greyed, desaturated and bleak. The wreckage of humanity litters the broken city streets and humanity itself seems irreparably set against itself with gangs of marauding thugs threatening your safe passage back home. It might not be the most beautiful game available but it does have an abundance of well realised tone thanks, for the most part, to some very interesting gameplay mechanics.
Ostensibly, it’s a third person action adventure game. You can run and jump, climb and fight. There are collectible items like health packs, consumables and ammunition. You could almost think of it like uncharted set in Fallout’s Wasteland. But there is a survival aspect still intact from that original announcement in 2008. Some hostile confrontation can be diffused by simply backing away slowly, some will require more direct action.
In the game’s opening, you have a pistol but no bullets. Your first encounter with a machete-weidling enemy teaches you that bullets aren’t everything. You’re encouraged to pull the empty gun on the approaching thug and intimidate him into peril, where he can be dispatched without ever hearing the click of your trigger.
The next encounter might need to be replayed once or twice before you work out the successful technique to get through it, almost like a combat puzzle. You can surprise attack an enemy as they approach you but striking will alarm the others in his group. If you’re lucky enough to find a bullet, you should take out the most dangerous foes first, or the most menacing. Sometimes killing the leader of a little group will scare the others into submission. Wasting ammunition will seemingly always come back to haunt you.[drop2]Atmosphere and combat might be enough to carry I Am Alive into the download lists of many but there’s another element that brings a whole separate set of difficulties. You have a recharging stamina bar, which is semi-permanently shortened if you over exert yourself. If you use stamina, it automatically (and swiftly) replenishes as soon as you stop using it by standing still on solid ground or planting a collected piton and taking a breather as you climb. If you over exert while climbing, you will need to use something from your backpack to rebuild your stamina.
In itself, this wouldn’t be a big problem but there was a section in the preview which required the traversal of a large wall. There were multiple paths and several of them led down dead ends, using up your stamina as you went. Too many wrong turnings and you will run out of stamina and fall off the wall. So the traversal section becomes almost puzzle-like as you have to find your most direct route as your stamina meter depletes.
I was expecting the worst from a game which has been cloaked in enigma for almost four years but I Am Alive has pleasantly surprised me. There are areas which could have been improved, for sure, and it is impossible to fathom how it has taken so long to get here, other than a lengthy rest on a dusty development shelf. It seems to have achieved something which many games this generation have sacrificed in favour of those luscious HD graphics, though: atmosphere and tone.
I Am Alive is released on XBLA as part of the House Party promotion on March 7th.