Genre: Action Developer: Ubisoft Publisher: Ubisoft Classification: M Release Date: 7th Mar 2012 Platforms:
Average of 3 Ratings
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I had reasonable expectations for this arcade release, not high or off the charts, but I was hoping Ubisoft Shanghai would bring something real to the survival genre - much like Cormac McCarthy did with a decidedly human touch to the end of days in his brilliant book, The Road. I was praying ‘survival’ wouldn’t need to have ‘horror’ hyphenated and slapped along side of it to make a title economically viable and for a few brief moments I truly believed it could happen. While I Am Alive and its developers should be commended for its concept, the end result is a mish-mash of the broken mechanics, ugly graphics and frustrating gameplay that greatly impinges on the more ‘human’ (or less human, as it were) elements.
A catastrophic incident known as “The Event” has devastated the planet. Toxic dust clouds skirt the earth like rolling fog bringing a quick choking death to all it envelops. There’s no electricity, no running water and every man, woman and child fends for themselves. It is gritty, primal and completely imaginable. It was a relief to not see mutants running around, or zombies or fallen angels or any other such tripe. We’ve all seen these scenarios played out countless times before. The emphasis here is survival. In I Am Alive it’s not just a genre heading it’s a life or death struggle for it and I was looking forward to testing my mettle.
The premise is simple enough. You’re searching your hometown of Haventon for signs of your wife and daughter who you’ve been separated from for nearly a year now. You navigate generally linear paths (barring moments of exploration) to scavenge for supplies and weapons while searching for clues to their whereabouts. You’re not a government-trained super-soldier or some sort mutated badass. You’re just a regular Joe - a husband and father desperate to see his family again. The idea alone got me excited, the translation of it to gameplay, however, not so much.
Let's begin with the graphics. There's a reason they scaled this one back from a full release, if you get my meaning. The black and white tones work well in the higher-level production cut-scenes but the rest of the time it looks absolutely average. The perpetual dust storms or clouds, which initially almost invoked feelings of depression framing such utterly bleak surroundings, began to look more like an obvious cost cutting manoeuvre to fudge draw distance and backgrounds. The rendering is spotty and after a few minutes amidst the desolation I too became overwhelmed by a dark depression, one that failed to dissipate as I proceeded onwards.
Managing your resources is a tense exercise and a definite plus for the title. While exploring for supplies like food items, water and inhalers to increase your health and stamina as well as looting for rare commodities such as firearms, bullets, machetes and bow and arrows you’ll come across pockets of humanity. Some are in desperate need of assistance causing you to weigh up your options after delving into your inventory. Do you pass on that precious first-aid kit to help a wounded son rocked by his mother or ignore their cries and pleas for help and press on? Others don’t want or need your help. They’ll keep to themselves if you’re lucky.
Combat is an entirely different beast in I Am Alive where even an empty gun at the right time could save your life. Those with plans of running and gunning will be sorely disappointed - I could barely count the times I had more than a single round chambered in my sidearm. Dispatching enemies is a mixture of timing, picking your fights and moments to strike and intimidation. It’s not always best to brandish your weapon and shove it in the face of your would-be attackers. Slowly backing away has its advantages. You can lure them in and go all Danny Trejo on their arse with your machete - or pull your sidearm and back them off a ledge or into a fire for a flambé surprise, great for controlling up to three unarmed enemies. Larger groups become problematic as the combat’s flaws rear its ugly head.
I lost count of the number of times I’d have to wade through five or so enemies, several armed and after snuffing one and executing a beautiful headshot on another in the space of less than a second I’d find some other **** firing his deceased partner’s weapon (after I was sure I’d run past the body to try and collect it or any ammo) and turn me into Swiss cheese. It was unbelievably frustrating and tested the strength of my Xbox360 controller several times over. The clumsy attack and run mechanics coupled with AI cheap shots made it hard to persevere; yet for review purposes I soldiered on. Later on you procure a bow and arrows allowing stealth attacks to thin the herd but the broken fighting mechanics were already etched in my mind and sadly this trend followed through to the climbing.
You have a stamina bar that depletes as you scale buildings and negotiate through the remains of the city. Jumping from ledge to ledge eats up larger chunks of stamina. The bar replenishes when you take a rest on solid footing though many times you’ll be struggling to cover the distance necessary. When the bar is empty you’ll have a limited amount of time for ‘extreme exertions’ to make it to a rest point that, in turn, shortens the amount of stamina you recover if you make it intact. It’s a clever mechanic offering a constant risk versus reward tug of war.
You also have a limited number of pitons (climbing spikes used as temporary rest stops) and a grappling hook to help you cover greater distances. Again, all solid ideas but the implementation is so damned shoddy. These tense climbing sections are made even harder by the schizophrenic controls, imprecise at times and too sensitive at others. Traversing a T-section often causes the character to have an aneurism trying to decide which direction to maintain even though your thumb hasn’t changed position on the controller.
Other times I’d look to grab a handhold for a moment’s respite after shimmying along a pipe and watch in total disbelief as my character couldn’t decipher the complex command inputted by pressing and holding “up” on the thumbstick. If there wasn’t such an emphasis on resource management and stamina conservation I might have been less harsh, but considering climbing is pretty much the core gameplay mechanic these mistakes are inexcusable.
I can’t even begin to describe how much I tried to like this game. Countless times I sat there and knew exactly what the developers were trying to achieve. Whether it was a faint cry for help leading me to frantically try to discover its source or those fleeting moments when I identified with a desperate man forced to take desperate measures to survive in a very different world, I could clearly see Ubisoft Shanghai’s intentions. Unfortunately the execution was so unresponsive and flawed it destroyed any immersion or emotion the experience could have potentially delivered and that is a crying shame.