|System: Xbox 360, PS3|
|Dev: Ubisoft Shanghai|
|Release: March 7, 2012|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language|
by Becky Cunningham
There are undoubtedly survival horror fans who will enjoy I Am Alive far more than I did, who will find tension where I found tedium and who will wrangle strategic choices out of what is essentially a linear experience. I wish these gamers all the best with Ubisoft's new downloadable post-apocalyptic journey, but I can't help but think that different development choices could have given this game a great deal more appeal than it offers. I Am Alive starts with so much promise, but quickly founders within the limitations of its own design.
I Am Alive immediately gets the player's attention with a deliciously bleak and gritty visual design. This isn't the typical overly saturated brown or gray color palette found in many modern games. Instead, color is used sparingly to convey information to the player or to subtly highlight the remnants of a now-destroyed society. Using this palette and a video recorder as a storytelling gimmick, players are quickly introduced to main character Adam Collins, who found himself stranded far away from his family when a mysterious cataclysm shook the United States. It has taken him a year to return to his hometown of Haventon, which seems even worse off than the places he's traveled through.
Adam's seemingly simple quest to return to his apartment and find his family quickly turns into a survivalist ordeal that involves climbing up and down destroyed structures while attempting to get around a destroyed town. Exploration and resource management are at the core of the gameplay experience. Adam must scour the city for rare resources such as bullets, medicine, food, and drink. He has limited stamina that quickly depletes whenever he runs, climbs, or even walks through areas thick with dust.
The problem with the game's exploration component is that it's all just a bit too mechanically laid out to preserve the illusion of the game's premise. Junk and obstacles seem haphazardly laid out at first, but soon prove to have been carefully placed in order to funnel the player through the single correct path in any given segment of the game. It's reminiscent of 2008's Prince of Persia, but replacing floaty acrobatic travel with grunting and struggling efforts interrupted by pauses to drink a juice box in the middle of lengthy stamina-draining climbs. Actual exploration is limited to occasional short side trips off the main path in the hopes of finding supplies.
Thanks to a non-interactive environment, all creativity has been removed from the project of survival. In need of a first aid kit? Too bad, you can't search the many broken-down ambulances. You'll have to find one randomly lying in the middle of the road, Doom-style. Want to move that stack of orange boxes, hide under that ledge, or clamber around a flimsy-looking obstacle? If it's not a pathway the developers strictly intended the player to use, all objects remain unclimbable and stoically immovable. This can be very frustrating on occasion, when the appropriate path is difficult to find and the player resorts to bumping up against objects, hoping they are climbable. It's also very immersion breaking, with the game appearing to promote a realistic survival experience but actually providing a very gamey one.
Adam will frequently run into other survivors of the cataclysm, some of whom will plead for a portion of his precious resources for use in their own survival. Others will see him as easy prey and attack. Adam has only a gun and machete for protection at first, though later he obtains a bow that can be used to take out foes from a distance, as long as he doesn't lose its single arrow. As bullets are very rare, he will often need to bluff and trick belligerent foes by either pretending to be helpless, then sneak-killing them, or by waving his empty pistol about threateningly. Encounters with other people are the one area in which Adam has a tiny bit of choice in his actions, though sluggish controls somewhat mar the combat experience and prompts to repeatedly mash the right trigger button in "struggle combat" feel unnecessary.
Helping survivors rewards the player with bits of background information about what happened to Haventon and in theory rewards players who have preserved resources by flawlessly tackling the game's challenges. With the excessive linearity, however, that flawlessness is fairly easy to attain by simply repeating any of the game's segments with the knowledge gained from the first round's trial-and-error attempts.