Sunday, March 25, 2012

I Am Alive - Is It?

March 2009. This was the issue of Game Informer where I had first heard of I Am Alive. As I read the preview, I became intrigued by its concept and believed that it would be released in retail for consoles later that year. I anticipated the game, but then it just seemed to fall off the face of the earth, with only speculation and rumor as to its final fate. Then sometime last year I had finally heard that it would be coming out, but as a downloadable title instead. I also learned at that time that the project had changed hands, going from developer Darkworks to Ubisoft Shanghai. Since the Xbox 360 version came out first, with the PS3 version soon to follow, I have decided to review that version.

The premise of the game is one other thing I should mention that has changed. Originally, it would follow 27-year-old Adam Collins, a normal office worker who happened to be in Chicago when a 10.9 Earthquake had struck. He would have dug himself out after 3 days to a city in ruins, in which he must search for his ex-girlfriend Alice, whom he still had feelings for. He would have also had to band together with other survivors to get them to a base camp so they could be rescued in a week, all while aftershocks continue to shake the city and turn the environment into the game's greatest enemy. What I ended up playing however, was a bit different. I Am Alive instead follows a man, still named Adam, after he travels to the fictional city of Haventon to search for his wife, Julie, and daughter, Mary. A worldwide cataclysmic event has left the city in nearly uninhabitable ruins, as a cloud of toxic dust is now prevalent in the air. Almost immediately, he gets involved with the wheelchair-bound Henry, a little girl named Mei, and her mother Ling as he tries to help them with various tasks that will ultimately help them leave the city for good.

Of course the important thing about the differing premise is how it's executed, and I think it was done quite well. The story isn't the best, but it is compelling enough to keep the player interested, plus the characters are interesting and fleshed out enough to suit the relatively short title. However, the rest of the execution is where the gameplay takes the reins.

The combat in I Am Alive comes in two flavors: Melee and Shooting. Shooting is pretty responsive, with only two buttons needed to aim and shoot while the shots are auto-aimed. It is possible to switch between targets by moving the camera, though sometimes it takes a bit longer than it should to get to the target you want in a tight situation. There are only three weapons that can shoot, a pistol, bow, and shotgun, which all have their own effective uses. Both of the guns can be used to intimidate enemies and control a situation effectively, as long as you don't take too long to stall, and the bow is more suited to firing from an exceptionally longer distance while the shotgun is best for rare crowd control scenarios. Ammo is scarce throughout the game, with the shotgun having only five shots and the bow having two shots maximum but the arrows easily retrievable, which does create more of a tactical mindset while figuring out the exact steps needed to take out a group of enemies under certain conditions while still trying to conserve ammunition as much as possible. Melee combat on the other hand isn't very free, instead taking the form of machete battles not completely unlike the chainsaw duels of the Gears of War franchise. Since the minigame can be interrupted however, melee is best used when there's only one enemy left.

Enemy variety however, is just about equal to the number of weapons in the game in terms of how many types there are. They can all be taken out in the same ways, but their tactics are different. Machete wielding enemies are more likely to rush you, while ones with pistols are more likely to attack from a distance. However a third type, which wears armor, requires that you manually aim the gun at their head with the click of a stick, a mechanic where I wasn't quite sure if I was aiming right until they were right in my face. One mechanic the game mentions is that taking out the tough guy in a group will automatically make the weaker ones surrender, though I questioned this since it was a bit difficult to tell which one would be considered the "tough one" and thus I accepted it at random. In any case, there is some risk to be involved with trying to use certain maneuvers in combat, and with it comes reward. Enemies with pistols will drop a bullet for you to use and armored enemies will drop some much needed protection that can extend how long you last in a fight.

Adam's success is dependent on two gauges: Health and Stamina. Health is drained when taking damage, obviously, and Stamina is drained when doing anything that would require exerting above a certain level of physical effort, mostly from running, climbing, and machete combat. If this gauge is drained completely, then a rapid press of the trigger button will keep him going, but will feed off of the maximum capacity instead until death. Fortunately Adam's Stamina regenerates automatically while standing, although the maximum capacity doesn't. Should either bar drop for whatever reason, items exist in the world to aid in their recovery, such as placing a Piton during climbing to act as a temporary breathing point. These items are scarce however, which does contribute successfully to the atmosphere of the world, since I not only tried not to use the items so that they may be used to help other survivors, I also tried to ration as much as I could in an attempt to be as efficient as possible. One annoyance however was the lack of health items in comparison to stamina items, hence the efficiency comment.

Of course, one of the biggest enemies would be the air itself, which is rendered so toxic that the Stamina gauge drains all by itself. This increased the alertness of my actions and helped heavily contribute to the tone, at times reminding me of Silent Hill or Resident Evil to some degree due to the heavy dust acting as a very thick fog. Climbing to a higher elevation can lead to recovery, though exploring enough will yield items that can accomplish the same task.

On the technical side, the graphics are very decent for a downloadable title and do provide a solid amount of detail work on the environments to help each location stand out, be it a building, the dust-filled streets or the subway. However, the characters models, especially Adam, didn't seem completely attractive by way of resembling graphics from the older games of this console generation. Voice acting is also solid and music is pretty well cued, although the enemies could have had more varied dialogue. The sound effects also weren't annoying, which is a plus.

I Am Alive is a game with an interesting premise and solid execution. For $15 it's a pretty decent download and fans of Survival Horror may get a kick out of it. As I played however, I could only wonder what the original premise would have been like to play through. Still, I don't regret playing what I got anyway.

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