Also on: PSN (4/1/12)
Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
Medium: Digital Download
You might think that post-apocalyptic games are a dime a dozen (Gears 3, RAGE, Fallout, etc), but one that takes a grittier, more realistic approach to the de-evolution of modern man is actually quite rare. Think about it; generally speaking, a lot of them don’t even take place on earth and almost all of them involve mutants hell-bent on eating you. Don’t get me wrong, these games have their place, but at the end of the day they boil down to nothing more than “kill all the mutants!” Conversely, I Am Alive takes the road less travelled, offering an experienced based on humanity’s presumed downward spiral after at cataclysmic event.
This premise is something we’ve seen in literature and film for years, but has yet to properly make its way into videogames. “The Event” in I Am Alive happened almost a year ago and since then, well, everything has gone to poop. Earth is barely inhabitable with severe dust storms causing a ruckus, food, water and other resources becoming fatally scarce, and there is a general sense of desolation the world over. Not surprisingly, order was the first thing to go out the window and with no policing or military — in other words, no consequences — it didn’t take long for civilization’s complete regression. And when you’re living in such a barren and stressful environment the survival instinct gets kicked into overdrive, primarily, protect what’s yours and take what isn’t.
In I Am Alive the adventure revolves around a protagonist attempting to find his wife and daughter after being stranded on the other side of the country by the “Event”. As he explains in the opening, ‘4 hours to fly out east; better part of a year to walk back.’ Fortunately, he is an avid mountain climber, giving him all the skills necessary for traversing the dilapidated and crumbling urban landscapes. Story is delivered through camcorder clips — like the “found-footage” movies that are all the rage these days, being viewed by an yet unknown character This leads to the question of whether or not the protagonist made it to his family and keeps things mysterious (in the short-term, anyway).
Climbing also makes for an entertaining way to rely less on gunplay (which is the route most often taken by post-apocalyptic mutant games) and more on exploration. Being that it’s developed by Ubisoft you may be expecting Assassin’s Creed-style climbing, but that isn’t the case. Instead I Am Alive uses a far more realistic approach, dependent on an ever-depleting stamina meter to create a sense of tension and urgency in your movements. And if you strain yourself too much, your auto-replenishing stamina meter reduces in size, requiring items such as food or water to repair the damage. This wouldn’t be a problem if these “health” items weren’t so few and far between.
Another really big gameplay mechanic is its unique take on combat. With resources like ammo and med-kits being as difficult to find as they are, avoiding confrontation is as smart as it is necessary. There’s no point instigating a fight with multiple gang members when you’ve only got one bullet in the chamber. In order to keep you on the edge of your seat I Am Alive uses intimidation, threats, and sneak-attacks to minimize the amount of combat you encounter or to tip the battle in your favor when you’re forced to fight. It actually makes for much more intense skirmishes than if you were to just run in and shoot up the place; you never know if things are going to go well or not.
At this point you’re probably thinking, ‘this game sounds great!’…and on paper, it does sound great. However, the concepts get overshadowed by the game’s downright frustrating implementation. Personally, I think it stems from the controls. It’s not that they’re completely horrible; it’s that they’re incredibly stiff compared to what I’ve become accustomed to this generation. Maybe I’ve gotten spoiled by the fluid controls of games like Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed, but I Am Alive feels more like last-gen title (looks like it too)… Think older Tomb Raider games; not absolutely bad, but… rigid... or at least not as dynamic as what I’ve come to expect.
Worse still is that it affects most aspects of the game. The climbing, for example, is made needlessly more difficult than it should be. Often you find yourself cursing at the screen because you climb in the opposite direction you intended to go. Now even though it’s simple enough to correct, the problem is your stamina/grip meter is quickly depleting the entire time. It happens quite a bit, too. Similarly, when you’re in a stand-off with a group of gang members and you’re out of bullets, you have to walk them ever… so …slowly …towards a ledge/pit/fire to kick them off of. So instead of being a really cool bluff mechanic, it just ends up taking forever and sometimes doesn’t even end up working properly (instead of kicking them off the ledge/pit/fire, you grapple them, leaving you vulnerable for attack from behind.)
As a result of this abrasive implementation, the climbing, stand-offs, and the subdued level of action ultimately end up getting a little stale (actually it gets formulaic, which makes it stale). This is probably why Ubisoft decided to make this game a $15 downloadable instead of trying to artificially lengthen it to a traditional “full-size” game. Luckily they made I Am Alive short and bitter-sweet at around 5 hours, and then priced it accordingly. Even though the game ends up being slightly lackluster, I still appreciate them getting aggressive with the pricing.
All in all, I Am Alive does most things well on paper – it’s tight and succinct, priced as such, and it’s a type of game we’ve yet to really explore (a gritty and realistic look at post-apocalyptic survival). Unfortunately, in spite of how cool it could have been, it ends up missing the mark by quite a big margin Conceptually it’s like a non-boring version of The Road, mixed with Book of Eli-style action and Uncharted urban climbing, that then gets crushed by marred controls and lack of proper design… Too bad, too, as they had all the right pieces to an excellent puzzle, they just didn’t bother to actually put the puzzle together.