Six years in the making. A troubled development cycle. Is I Am Alive a survivor?
I’m a sucker for post-apocalypse fiction. I love the idea of an exciting and dangerous new world, I guess. Okay, so billions will have to die so I can have my fun, but you can’t make an omelette without cracking some eggs. I Am Alive is a post-apocalypse survival game, where you play a normal man trying to survive in an anything-but-normal world.
So, the end. I Am Alive takes a leaf out of Cormac McCarthy’s book (pardon the pun) and doesn’t explain exactly what ‘The Event’ is. All that we are told is a number of earthquakes shook the planet for weeks, causing buildings to collapse and a thick layer of choking dust to appear on ground level. The Event killed millions, though the game isn’t clear on how much of the planet is affected.
You play the role of an unnamed man trying to get through the skewed and dangerous landscape to his wife and child. The problem is that the dust shaken from the earth is impossible to survive in, so much of the game is spent traversing toppled skyscrapers and climbing around modern day ruins in order to survive. The other big danger is the other survivors who – after a year surviving in the wreckage – have grown to be untrusting of others as society has become survival of the fittest.
The climbing sections of the game are tense to say the least. Rather than being some kind of superhero character like Ezio from Assassins Creed, you have a stamina meter that slowly decreases during your ascent. When it reaches zero, you will fall and die. This is a game changer for the climbing/platform genre as you need to prepare which way you will go first. You have a few helpful items on hand, like pitons that you can shove into the face you are climbing for a life-saving rest, but they are few and far between. The climbing isn’t hard to control, but planning your route up the side of a skyscraper can be difficult when your stamina is diminishing in front of your eyes. When you finally plant your feet on the roof, you and your character will sigh with relief in unison. The only real complaint I have with the climbing is it can occasionally be difficult to see what is climbable, which can cause some frustrating retries of a section.
Another feature to keep the tension up is the lives system. For each checkpoint, you have a base amount of 3 retries. Once those are used up, you go back to the last auto-save, which are also pretty scarce. In the hardest difficulty mode, you have no retries. Once you die, you start again from the beginning of the game. I Am Alive likes tension. And frustration.
I Am Alive isn’t all climbing. You will come across groups of survivors who may be hostile, cautious or in need of help. While these encounters aren’t all that varied, they do take some thought to beat. For example, you very often have no bullets for your gun. So, you can bluff by pointing your weapon at the enemy. They will back off and raise their hands in the air. You can tell them to move back, giving you time to run, or you can kick them off the edges of buildings. Occasionally, they will drop to their knees and surrender, giving you a chance to knock them out instead of killing them. Other times, they will see your bluff and come at you, machetes in hand.
Sometimes you will need to feign surrender. By default, your character will raise his hands and try to placate the hostiles. They will move in to surround him. During this time, you need to prioritise who is the biggest threat. So, the guy with the gun comes up close, you slash his throat with a surprise attack and collect the ammo from his body. You can then shoot the next closest enemy and force the other one to surrender. Whilst this combat isn’t overly fun, it fits the mood of the game nicely and is another tense addition to the survival.
The graphics engine is a little dated, using the LEAD engine that was used in Splinter Cell: Conviction. But we’re talking about an XBLA game, not a full release. It looks great for an arcade game. The animations are mostly smooth, but the lip-sync during dialogue or cutscenes is terrible.
The dust layer works well as a mask for the obviously limited draw distance, and is suitably bleak and moody also. There are never more than a couple of colours on screen, as the colours are all but de-saturated. This has been criticised in other reviews, but I think it lends itself well to the atmosphere of the game.
The sound is so-so, and probably the weakest part of the game. It sounds like the directional sounds aren’t working correctly, so when you hear a voice in the distance that sounds like it’s coming from in front of you, it’s actually above and behind you. It takes a while to get used to and is a bit jarring. The voice acting is average, with no real emotion given to any of the characters, but there aren’t any dodgy accents here either.
The game lasts around 6-7 hours and has a strange, out-of-place scoring system that gives you a percentage score that takes into account how often you’ve died, how many survivors you’ve saved and items collected. I’m not sure if this would make me want to play it again, however.
I Am Alive probably isn’t all that it could have been, but it provides an interesting, tense experience that you’re unlikely to forget for a while. Having said that, with the dated engine and limited combat options, I hope Ubisoft will work on a full retail release over the next couple of years.