I’m a big fan of the end of the world. Whether it via nuclear holocaust, natural disaster or even the rare but equally exciting alien invasion, there’s just something about the end of civilization that gets my blood pumping. Maybe it’s the epic struggle for survival in a barren, hostile environment. Maybe it’s a fascination with law vs. chaos and the slow decay of morality. Or perhaps it’s the idea of man’s ability to remain hopeful in an utterly hopeless situation. Whatever the reason, the post-apocalypse is one of my favorite settings for any medium.
Naturally, I was very excited when I heard about Ubisoft’s apocalyptic platformer I Am Alive. It was described as a gritty and realistic take on the genre, which really grabbed my attention as I have been waiting for more realism in my wasteland. Don’t get me wrong, Bethesda’s Falloutseries is one of my favorites (and the tongue-in-cheek-retro-50’s-scifi-thing is genius), but a little more realism in the post-apocalypse sounded like a great opportunity for a fun and challenging fight for survival in the aftermath of a worldwide catastrophe. Unfortunately, that’s not what what Ubisoft has delivered.
The game opens with an anonymous person sitting at a desk in an old burnt-out room. After nervously hitting 'Play' on a camcorder, we are introduced to the main character. “Um, this is a little awkward for me but if you found this I’m probably…,” he utters, indicating that things are already looking pretty grim. He goes on to explain that it is a year after 'The Event,' a mysterious disaster that brought an end to society. After a cross-country trek he is now only a few hours from his old apartment where he hopes to find his wife and daughter. There is an initial feeling of desolation and loneliness as our exhausted hero, dirtied and haggard, stands alone on the highway beneath a cloudy grey sky. The world is bleak and drained of color, a scenario highly reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s descriptions of the ruin in his quintessential survival novel The Road. Sounds pretty good so far, right? Well, not really, as that is pretty much where any sort of praise for this title stops.
After the opening cinema, I Am Alive rapidly degrades into a mélange of endless climbing and jumping amidst a murky sea of dust, occasionally broken up by bouts of repetitive violence or scenes from the protagonist’s video camera. Not to mention the fact that the game makes no effort to develop any of its characters (even the protagonist remains nameless) to the point where it wouldn't matter if a pack of wild dogs ate their hearts out.
The first challenge is to navigate the collapsed bridge that leads into the fictional city of Haventon. The controls are fairly simple and easy to remember. The hardest thing to do is holding down the 'A' Button and pointing the joystick in the direction you want to jump. In real life, climbing things is hard and can be very tiring, in game this translates to your stamina bar, which constantly drains as you climb. Doing more strenuous activities, like trying to hang from one ledge and jump to a pipe a little farther off costs more stamina. The importance of stamina should also give you a clue as to one of the major focuses of game play in I Am Alive: resource management.
As is appropriate for a post apocalyptic game, resource management is a big factor when it comes to making it through the game and it is also one of the things Ubisoft does right. Food, medical supplies, ammunition and the cleverly named “Retries” are all things you need and they are all scarce. As a survivor of the apocalypse a feeling of desperation should permeate the play experience but you should never become so frustrated with the lack of supplies that you just quit. A survivor should always be on the brink of starvation, of dehydration, of running out of ammo, of sanity, and I Am Alive found a great balance in this aspect of the game. I always had just enough to keep going, but never enough to feel comfortable. Being forced to rely on a cache of “Retries” as opposed to being able to save was a nice touch, though the concept is fairly meta and took away from my emersion a bit. The most bullets I was ever able to stockpile was five and that was a brief but glorious time.
Making it across the bridge equals my first taste of local hospitality; a man sitting by a fire pulls out a gun and demands that I, 'back off'. As I am not one for trouble, I simply I move away slowly and head into the city proper. The residents of Haventon it seems are either scared, paranoid or just a wee bit predictable. Any survivor you come across is either going to ask you for help by way of supplies or try to get a look at your insides by way of machete. And this certainly would have made the combat a whole lot more interesting if it wasn’t just the same scenario repeated ad nauseam.
Combat goes as such, with anywhere between three and five angry men approaching you and sporting some very pissed-off facial expressions. It's at this point where you can draw your weapon and fire, draw your weapon and try to bluff your way out of the fight, or wait until one of them comes at you and you give him a nice machete-surprise of his own. From there it’s all about eliminating anyone with a gun and hoping the remaining offenders surrender. If not, you can keep your gun steady and try to herd them to a ledge in order to kick them off, or you can run up and repeatedly tap the right trigger in melee with them. To mix things up, you are later rewarded with a bow and arrow and though it does help out, it's just too little, too late. The ability to bluff with an empty gun is a great little gimmick and I appreciate the frank lethality of it all, I would hardly call the combat fresh or exciting when every encounter feel like a bad case of déjà vu.
Along the way you run into various survivors, most of whom want your help in the form of a specific resource like cigarettes or a medical kit. How have they made it this long if they are apparently incapable of doing things for themselves is beyond me, but forking over the goods earns you an extra “Retry” and brief tidbit of information about 'The Event' (and yes, that laughably vague term is used throughout the game, almost to the point of annoyance). Since I didn’t really care too much, I did not go out of my way to help these lazy bums. More often than not I didn’t have the supplies they needed and wandering blindly in the dust to try and find them wasn’t a very appealing activity to me.
Dull monotonous, uninspired gameplay is but half of the issues here as I Am Alive's narrative is just as equally bad, if not worse. As mentioned before, the major players in I Am Alive are anything but scintillating. By the end of this tragic downloadable title, it would honestly have been preferable if all involved parties would have died during the enigmatic 'Event.' What should have a moving piece into the depths of the human experience and how we can triumph over adversity, is marred by a narrative that does very little to pull on our heartstrings. I Am Alive tells a short, unoriginal story in a flat and uninteresting way.
I feel as though a lot of opportunities were missed with this one, especially given how it can shine when it wants to. But like a stern father looking down at a child who has brought home a poor report card, I shake my head and say, 'I’m not mad, Ubisoft. I’m just disappointed.'
Fun Factor: The gritty realism of the world certainly draws you in but the repetitive nature of the game and lackluster plot and characters definitely pull you back out. As far as platformers go, I can’t say I hated the game but I can’t say I loved it either, a resounding, meh.
Difficulty: There are two modes of play: Normal and Survivor. I only played on normal and though I did have upwards of 20-something deaths this was due more to the lethality of combat and poor stamina management on my part than the game actually being hard. I would say I Am Alive presents an easy to moderate challenge for the average gamer. It is safe to assume that survivor mode ups the difficulty by making resources less available to the player. It’s doubtful that combat changes much.
Length: I beat it in 6 hours but I wasn’t going out of my way to explore everything nor was I actively trying to help every survivor I found. If you’re more of a “completionist” than I, you could probably get another couple of hours of game play.
On the Negative Side: Great atmosphere and a moody score cannot make up for a plot that is derivative and boring, characters you care nothing for, or an ending that can only leave you supremely dissatisfied.
Bang for Your Buck: Definitely not worth the 1200 Microsoft Points ($15), you’ll have to put up for this one. but if the price ever drops under $10 I’d say go for it, maybe.