I Am Alive has had a chequered past and no mistaking. It was passed around Ubisoft internally like a hot potato with Ubisoft Shanghai finally holding the package when the music stopped. Initial trailers and the promise of truly horrific and tense survival horror title kept internet interest in the product at a high even when it disappeared from Ubi’s release schedules. Finally the game for-goes its initial destination of retail and comes to Xbox Live, with a PS3 release imminent.
I Am Alive is set in a post-apocalyptic world. A massive “event” has taken place and left the planet in ruins. Buildings are left crumbling, earthquakes rattle the world frequently and mankind has returned to its animalistic cave-dwelling roots. You take the part of Adam. A regular Joe who ended up on the opposite coast of America when the event took place. He’s spent the past year trying to get back to his home town of Haventon where he hopes his wife and child are waiting for him.
The story, which will last you anywhere from four to seven hours dependent on skill and persistence, takes up as Adam reached the outskirts of the city and treks to his apartment. Game play boils down to a mixture of Resident Evil and Uncharted/Tomb Raider. It has you navigating a seemingly massive, but actually limited, section of the city on a series of fetch and carry assignments. As you perform these main tasks you can also come across up to twenty fellow survivors in need of assistance. These are minimal side quests that are no more than giving a certain resource to a person that will in turn hand you an additional retry bonus. For example one person wants an inhaler for his Asthma, another wants a last cigarette before the end comes. These are little more than distractions to be honest and your desire to complete them wanes as the game progresses.
Aesthetically the game has gone all out for the drab greys and highly saturated hues of title like Silent Hill (the first one), Limbo and movies like the Book of Eli. It makes a striking and profound impact and goes a long way to making the game actually work. If this had been presented using the regular palettes of an Unreal 3 title then you’d have barely batted an eyelid at it. As it stands the game looks strikingly different and moves reasonably well too. Unfortunately the animation is laughable at times, it suffers from major clipping issues and, despite the unique setting, the overall look of the interior environments becomes very samey. The inhabitants of the city are also all very cookie cutter.
Sound design has been incorporated well and the score ranges from thumping drums and crashing symbols to tickling notes and foreboding violins. Voice work is adequately undertaken but the dialogue is shallow and lacks pace or a real sense of grandeur. All told though the audio and visual aspects of the game are more than adequate and set a bleak and believable scenario for you to interact with.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the core mechanics of the game. If you’re going to make a platform heavy title, then you need to make sure your platforming mechanics at least work properly all of the time. Countless times you find yourself trying to climb up a building or ledge and watching as Adam just squirms back and forth constantly and then oops! You’ve run out of stamina (a very neat idea that makes even climbing tense) and you’ve plunged to your death. Luckily checkpoints are well placed. Oh no that’s right, they’re not! More often than not if you mess up a small part of a chapter then it just pays to restart the whole thing rather than use one of the limited retries on offer.
How so? Well the game makes very good use of the limited resources mechanic. Starting the game you have a pistol but no bullets. You can scavenge bullets from armed gang members that you encounter out in the city. Most of the game you’ll maybe have one or, on rare occasions two, bullets to use. This means you have to pick targets well when gangs approach.
Fooling gang members in to thinking you’re a placid conformer to their jeers they will approach close enough for you to one hit kill the first guy with your machete (which you pick up early in the game). You then use a precious bullet to off any others with guns. You then use a neat threat mechanic which normally leads to the none gun wielding thugs backing off. You can then force them in to pits, over ledges or in to fires. Some will also flat out surrender and drop to their knees. This adds great tension and means encounters are tense. It also means if you screw up you’ll waste precious ammo and are better of restarting the chapter.
The problem with the above mechanic is that it doesn’t always work as advertised. You’ll slash the first gun wielder, pop another then back a couple of guys up to a fire with the pistol (this works even if the gun is empty as they’ll believe, initially at least, the gun is loaded). You then press X to kick the guy in to the fire but instead you start a machete struggle where a quick time event has you hammer RT in an attempt to resolve the locked machete blades and kill the foe. In the mean time the other guy just walks up and stabs you and there is nothing you can do about it – game over.
Little design issues like that just layer frustration upon frustration to the point that the horrors that are unfolding in the game around you are equalled by the stress you’ll be experiencing at the expense of the controls and design hang-ups.
It’s a huge shame as there are a number of design choices and game ideas that really do make the world, and the game, very intense and gripping without resulting to zombies or mutant monsters attack you wave after wave. The game builds great tension and a world I really wanted to explore more and inhabit further. If I must be harsh it’s hard to see what took the team the four plus years of development time. Ubisoft made the correct call bringing the game to download services rather than full retail. As a statement on the descent of man in to selfish anarchy in times of adversity it makes a great play this aspect and pretty much succeeds in its premise.
Another well realised mechanic that is flawed by execution is the stamina bar. You use stamina for all actions. The speed that it decreases depends on what you’re doing. So running or climbing it drops faster than walking around. You have to plan climbing routes well to make sure you can get to a ledge to rest before your stamina drops. You can alleviate this by finding small pitons that clamp to the buildings and allow you to hang from your rope for a few moments to rebuild stamina. Stamina is also removed when you end up down in the dense gritty dust on the floor of the city. All of this really lends urgency and strategy to each step of your journey. It’s a shame that it just adds frustration at times when you’re desperate to get up out of the dust and Adam just won’t climb a pole.
I Am Alive has a great number of well thought out game ideas beating beneath its derivative and slightly broken chest. Control issues, graphical glitches, overly repetitive missions, bad checkpoints, frustrating design choices, several lock-ups and a sub-par script all greatly hamper the title.
For £10/1200 MSP the title is worth a shot if you like your survival horror heavy on the survival side. If you have a great affinity to The Road, Book of Eli or the post apocalyptic genre in general then you’ll also get some mileage out of this gritty title.
As an experimental title it’s worth a look-see and a brave attempt by Ubisoft. Just don’t expect it to be a completely finished and polished product. With luck other titles will take the good parts from I Am Alive and run with them as the general premise and new mechanics are solid, they’ve just been baldly implemented in this case. Maybe someone will get a stab at a follow-up as the game lends itself to this premise. If Ubisoft can gather the right team then this could be a great series – it just needs a lot more work to make the higher grades.