Thursday, March 15, 2012

30 Minute Playtest: I Am Alive

Ah, you can't beat a good bit of apocalyptic fiction. There's something extra dramatic about fighting for survival in a world where all the rules of changed and survival is something you do out of habit rather than because living seems a particularly rewarding thing to do.

Of course, it's a tough genre to pull off. Make your catastrophe too cosy or your characters too annoying and you'll end up with something more akin to Stephen Baxter's Flood or Otomo's Legend of Mother Sarah, when what you really want to be going for is The Death of Grass or, in videogame terms, the Fallout series.

I Am Alive has certainly had a long time try to perfect the tonal balancing act required of apocalypse fiction, having started development with Darkworks back in2008 before being taken over by Ubisoft in 2010 and finally finished this year.

In essence, it's a survival horror game: your resources will never be sufficient to the task at hand so you every act in the game will be underscored by uncertainty and tension. Because your resources are so low the game requires you to be clever in dealing with the occasional lawless survivor that threatens you - you can do battle with weaker weapons such as knives or bow & arrows, but much of the time you'll find yourself bluffing opponents with an empty pistol, hoping to maneuver them into a vulnerable position.

The flipside to having to conserve your resources when dealing with baddies is trying to figure out how best to use the food and medicine you've collected on your explorations. You can hoard it for your own benefit, but some of the desperate survivors you encounter have tales that will genuinely tug on your heartstrings, and you'll find yourself giving away hard won resources to save others. Worse still, there will be times when you simply can't help the apocalypse victims you come across, and have to watch them die, wishing you'd done a little more exploring, searched a little harder for medicine that might have helped.

So far, so satisfyingly bleak, but I Am Alive has more up its sleeves, with a sizeable map to explore and a heavy emphasis on climbing. The wrecked buildings and monuments you scramble over are reasonably complex and suitably vertiginous, and unlike other climb-centric games such as Assassin's Creed, there's a real sense of consequence to your decisions: your stamina depletes as you climb and returns as you rest, and if it runs too low whilst you're climbing you can fall to your death. There's an emergency button bashing mechanic that allows you to prolong your remaining stamina, but at the cost of permanently lowering your reserves until you can find food and medicine to restore them. The upshot is that choosing the wrong direction once or twice on a long climb can bring your game to an abrupt end or put you at a disadvantage for the next arduous climb.

The climbing and inventory management aspects are probably enough to sustain the game on their own, but there's a third element to the game that will presumably add even more immersion: exploration. During our half hour playtest we were frequently frustrated by an unfulfillable desire to interact with the environment, unable to search cars or enter every building. As we progressed deeper into Haventon, however, it began to feel like the game world was slowly unfolding in new directions, offering greater opportunities for exploration and scavenging. As long as that continues, then I Am Alive will have plenty to reccomend it.

Aesthetically, the game's misty gray colour pallete is fitting, but it does get a trifle dull after a while, and feels like an excuse not to push the game's graphical capabilities too hard. On a boxed game, we'd be inclined to feel a little shortchanged by I Am Alive's lacklustre looks, but for an XBLA game we can't grumble too much. After half an hour, the game hasn't managed to knock our socks off, but it does seem to have promised enough that we can't resist playing on and seeing what it delivers.