I Am Alive. Those three words conjure so much. They seem to make it clear that staying alive is key, that survival is all that really matters and that it’s not a foregone conclusion. It’s not a statement you’d make as you buy a cup of coffee, for example. No, when you have to make it clear that the grave hasn’t claimed you just yet, your life probably isn’t on the up-and-up.
This is certainly true of the world you’re thrust into as I Am Alive opens, with the unnamed protagonist showing you the entirety of his possessions. He guides us through what he needs to survive in a world of collapsed cities and almost ubiquitous concrete dust, all brought about by The Event, which seems to be a series of giant earthquakes (and that’s all you ever find out about the disaster). It can all fit inside a backpack, and consists of essential survival equipment like water, climbing gear, a gun (without bullets) and, strangely enough, a video camera.
While the camera hardly seems like an item you’d pick to take with you in a typical end-of-the-world situation, it does come in handy with much of the game’s story being told from the vantage point of that lens. This is fairly effective as a technique, and works better than the points where the story is passed to you in-game. It’s not that the effort to include multiple methods of story telling isn’t appreciated, it’s simply the fact that the sound mixing is so abysmal that it can become impossible to hear what the characters are saying. This gets worse when you’re injured, as the sound is deliberately muffled and you can easily miss out on important dialogue.[boxout]This certainly isn’t the only area in which I Am Alive is found to be wanting but it’s really the lack of polish that hurts the game the most. There’s just so much that you feel could be good if someone had poured a little more love and attention into the game.
That’s the real problem here, and the biggest frustration. Throughout the game you can clearly see what the end goal was, just where the target was set. The fact that there are hints of a good, or possibly even great, game constantly appearing only makes the actual experience’s failure to achieve those aims all the worse.
Imagine, if you will, a lost sketch from your favourite artist, Matisse or Rembrandt, Da Vinci or Picasso. This master has sketched out one of the most beautiful scenes you’ve ever seen in your life, a true work of art. Then someone with a B in GCSE Art comes along, looks at this beautiful sketch and proceeds to “complete” it using only felt-tipped pens. You can still see what lies beneath, and there are indications that this was something great once but it’s now been marred forever.[drop]After the various iterations and changes to I Am Alive’s development team and even distribution model since it was first announced, what we’re left with is a game that seems like an odd cross of survival horror and Uncharted, although it lacks most of the horror elements.
The only time you get the feeling you’re really playing in a survival horror game is during the section that takes place at night, and to be fair Ubisoft deserve some credit for creating a genuine feeling of tension in that section.
The combat is best described as brutal, and incredibly frustrating. This isn’t a game where you’re going to spend a couple of minutes shooting at a guy, everyone drops in one shot to the head or one thrust of your machete. There are armoured enemies but even those can be taken out with a single shot when you find their weak point. The same applies to you, although if your health is high you can probably take two or three shots before you die. In practice though, once one enemy’s managed to hit you with a bullet or stab you with their machete (for some reason no-one has a normal knife any more) you’re probably going down.
Now the rapidity with which you die isn’t necessarily what frustrates. In fact, for many, it may be a selling point. I Am Alive is meant to be difficult and feel brutal, and that’s one area where you can’t fault what Ubisoft has done.
No, the reasons for frustration are twofold. Firstly, the combat is largely trial and error. People often describe Halo as utilising combat puzzles but I Am Alive completely redefines the term. In a one on one situation you’re probably going to be fine but if a group approaches you you’ll need to think fast. Take them out in the right order and the fight ends without you taking any damage at all, shoot at the wrong guy first and you’ll probably end up dead.
This leads to combat becoming incredibly linear, with there generally only being one solution to any situation. If you need to bluff with an empty gun, an element that is admittedly quite cool, then the only way to get through that chunk of combat is by bluffing.
While that’s frustrating, it’s not necessarily a huge issue by itself. The problem is that I Am Alive uses a life system, although it calls them retries. Die and you’ll head back to the last checkpoint, losing a retry. Used up all your retries? Then it’s back to the start of the section, which can lose you quite a lot of progress and time.
Of course, you do get your retries back up to three at the end of a section, and they are scattered throughout the world as well. You can even earn them by giving some of your supplies to those in the world who constantly seem to be crying out for your help, regardless of your distance from them (another problem in the audio mixing).
The aim with retries is obviously to try and increase the tension in any scene, knowing that you only have a few attempts to get it right. In reality all it does is frustrate, leading to a reluctance towards entering combat. To be fair to the game, it does coerce you into trying to evaluate any combat situation before you get involved but overall the impact is far more often negative than it is positive.
Oddly, while the retry system proves a frustration in combat, the same isn’t true of climbing. Fortunately this probably forms a bigger part of the game than combat does, and it’s far more enjoyable. Climbs are littered with dead ends or less efficient routes which are to be avoided if you don’t want your all important stamina meter to drop. In a similar way to evaluating combat before entering it, you’ll find yourself staring up at a building trying to work out the best route so you can make it in one go.[drop2]There’s also something very satisfying about the game’s climbing, it just feels far better than in games like Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed. There are still issues, in particular junctions between various climbable objects can be tricky to navigate and result in you briefly heading in the wrong direction but overall, watching as you grasp for handholds, shin up drain pipes and embed a piton into a wall is one of the game’s strong points.
What could perhaps be considered another high point is the game’s graphical performance but it’s tricky to judge. Again, there are moments of brilliance. In particular, the effect of the dust on lighting is simply fantastic, it helps to introduce a feeling of claustrophobia at certain points, which works well with the fact that it drains your stamina if you stay in the dust at street level for too long.
However, the rest of the game’s graphical performance lets down the lighting engine. It just feels mediocre throughout. Textures seem bland and there’s little that stands out as really unique. If the area of the city you’re allowed to roam were larger, this could perhaps be forgiven but the play area is small enough that it could have been more striking.
As for the story, it generally feels flat. There just doesn’t seem to be much of a driving force behind your actions, and given the protagonist’s desire to find his wife and daughter he seems to do very little about it. Whilst I won’t spoil the ending, it leaves enough plot threads hanging as to be utterly bewildering, making you feel that the writer just wandered off before wrapping things up.
- Good lighting effects.
- Well realised climbing mechanic.
- Terrible audio mixing.
- Combat is largely trial and error.
- Retry system leads to frustration.
- Lacklustre story.
There are points where you can see Ubisoft’s aims, where an interesting and imaginative game could be just around the corner. However, the generally linear gameplay leaves you feeling a little underwhelmed, reinforcing the sense that the title isn’t living up to its potential.
The real problem is the lack of a feeling that you’re surviving. You always have a clear objective in front of you, there’s always some location you have in mind or object you have to fetch. Other characters in the world, particularly those that you kill who are often just defending what’s theirs, give you the sense that they just want to get through the day. Sadly this same feeling never really comes across from the unnamed protagonist, and it leaves the game feeling hollow at its core.
Version reviewed: Xbox 360.