I Am Alive Review – I Am Alive Turns Out to Be Dead On Arrival

boxartlg

Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer:
Ubisoft Shanghai
Genre:
Action/Adventure, Survival
Platform:
Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network
Release Date:
March 7th 2012 (XBLA), April 3rd 2012 NA/April 4th 2012 EU (PSN)
ESRB:
M – Mature
MSRP:
1200 Microsoft Points (approx. $14.99)

As if rallying around its own title, Ubisoft’s I Am Alive somehow managed to endure over the last four years in spite of countless setbacks and changes. Surviving a total studio switch in 2010 (Darkworks to Ubisoft Shanghai) and somehow making the cut in 2011 when Ubisoft announced cancellations, I Am Alive finally released on March 7th 2012 hoping to make a significant impact on the digital arcade market – something which the developer/publisher had failed to do with From Dust.

Unfortunately, the end-product ended up offering what a majority of games which spend years in development-hell do: an overall unsatisfying and disappointing experience…

After only ten minutes into the game does the player discover the hauntingly obvious fact that this was once supposed to be a full AAA title. Common sense would dictate that making the shift from AAA to arcade would’ve called for a severe change of developmental focus to better fit the four hour completion time and $15 price tag but instead we’re left with something that feels incomplete, gutted, and always falling short of its potential.

The story, the combat, and the survivor-centric portions of the game are without a doubt the biggest perpetrators of this.

In I Am Alive the player steps into the shoes of a man named Adam who, at the time of what’s referred to only as “The Event”, was away from his hometown of Haventon while on business. Sustaining serious injuries during the cataclysm and hundreds of miles from his wife Julie and daughter Mary, Adam sets out on a year-long journey on foot back to the city. When the game opens Adam is just about to cross the bridge into Haventon in the hopes of finding his family safe and alive within the desolate wasteland he once called home.

Haventon, where the game takes place, is a disaster zone.

Although the premise is pretty cut-and-dry it gets off track surprisingly quick. After finding their house abandoned, Adam ends up getting pulled into a series of favors for the benefit of three other survivors: Mei (a young girl Adam mistakes for Mary), her mother Linda, and Henry (a wheelchair bound survivor who’s a friend of Mei and Linda’s and doesn’t dare leave their high rise apartment safe-house). Even though the entirety of the game takes place over about a day and a half it seems a little ridiculous that the protagonist would spend the last three-hundred and sixty-five days trekking back to Haventon with the intention of finding his family only to abandon his search hours after arriving in the city at the whims of three total strangers. Perhaps Adam is just that good of a guy but personally it comes off as a tad unrealistic.

Yet the worst mistake I Am Alive’s story makes is that it’s incomplete and it does little to hide the fact. Without giving too much away, the game ends in an almost absurd abruptness. One of the characters goes missing, a reference is made to “guys with guns” no one’s’ “ever seen before”, and the fates of Adam and his family along with the two other survivor characters is entirely up for speculation (though one can deduce a few things from the ending cinematic). While open-ended conclusions are a perfectly acceptable story-telling device it just doesn’t work in this game’s case. The truth is that the player never really gets to understand or connect with either the characters or the world in which they inhabit and thus it’s impossible to ask us to form our own opinions and ideas concerning what happened from that point forward much less truly care about this character or that character’s fate.

Finally, even after four or five hours of play we’re still left just as clueless in relation to “The Event” as we were even before playing the game. While on the one hand keeping the player in the dark concerning the specifics helps sort of create an atmosphere of instability, terror, and despair (e.g. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) you have to assume that over a year after the disaster word may have gotten around either concerning the event itself or the kind of world which it left in its wake. I honestly refuse to believe that our protagonist managed to make it hundreds of miles across the country over the course of a year and didn’t pick up any relevant information either through word of mouth or first-hand experience. No doubt, back when I Am Alive was supposed to be a full title the specifics surrounding “The Event” would’ve been revealed as the game progressed however all those ideas must’ve been left on the cutting room floor when the choice to go arcade was made.

"The Event", the harbinger of all this madness, remains a mystery throughout.

Equally unfulfilling is the game’s combat. While the concept of having very limited access to pistol ammo and more of a reliance on melee combat, intimidation, and deception was certainly intriguing I Am Alive really fails to support this type of gameplay. Once the player breaks out from the tutorial-esque beginning of the game the size of enemy groups becomes much much larger – eliminating any hopes of staving off threats with only a single bullet. Even though the option is there for the player to intimidate enemies by merely aiming at them this will only hold them back for a couple of seconds before they call your bluff and rush you. Naturally, one would assume that this is where the melee aspect comes in. Unfortunately I Am Alive forgoes any sort of free-style hand-combat system and instead relies on 1-on-1 button mashing sequences that leaves the player wide open to attacks by other enemies.

That being said you would assume that I Am Alive would have to support a “fight or flight” style of gameplay where the player would have to choose when it would be a good time to make a stand and when to run away or simply avoid the confrontation altogether. Sadly running away isn’t really an option in a majority of cases since groups of enemies will generally inhabit areas that the player needs to move through. Avoiding them is also a dead end as the game has no semblance of stealth-play and provides near zero opportunities to cleverly evade possibly dangerous quarrels.

However the worst part about the game’s combat is that it becomes severely repetitive. When Adam finds himself surrounded by hostiles the player almost has no other option but to perform the same strategies over and over again – namely using the machete to carry out a surprise kill followed by a quick-draw of the pistol and the unavoidable standoff which follows. Perhaps the only time when this repetition is broken is when the game introduces a new type of enemy which sports body armor (and cannot be intimidated) – forcing you to quickly activate free-aim and put down the brute with a head-shot. Yet, even this gets old quick as this type of enemy then becomes a common sight for the rest of the game.

Adam will also come across a bow and arrow but will only have one, retrievable, arrow.

Lastly, the most un-polished part of the game is none other than the non-hostile survivors Adam encounters throughout the game world. In short, these people are usually in need of help that requires the player to give up a certain item whether it be food, a pack of cigarettes, or a med kit. If these people are helped Adam will then receive a short blurb concerning the back-story though a majority of these conversations can be summed up as “it was horrible, we’re lucky to be alive” – thus providing almost no helpful or interesting information whatsoever. More importantly in addition to these tid-bits of knowledge the player will also receive an additional retry which is only truly helpful if you tend to die a lot. Beyond that helping survivors will net you some game achievements and the number of them you assist gets factored into your end-game score (which also lacks any true relevance).

Yet it’s not all bad news for I Am Alive surprisingly.

If there truly is one thing which the game does pretty well it’s stressing the survival side of the gameplay. Most titles which claim to really put the screws to the player end up becoming a lot easier than advertised – modern “survival horror” games like Dead Space and Resident Evil 5 are perfect examples of this. However this game keeps things pretty tense and unnerving the entire time.

While the combat could’ve used a lot more work I will admit that every single confrontation feels like a fight for your life as you find yourself facing off with five or six other armed people only having a gun with two bullets and a machete at your disposal.

However the greatest feats of survival come into play concerning the game’s platforming (loose definition) elements. Haventon, as mentioned, is just a step above being a complete ruin and so the player has to scale buildings and other works of architecture in order to reach objectives, survivors, or items. While this may sound like no big deal to fans of Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed this game has something which those two do not: a stamina bar. As soon as Adam begins climbing his stamina will begin to deplete, and when the indicated bar hits zero he can pretty much kiss his butt goodbye. In order to keep his stamina up Adam has to rely on two things: items which, when consumed, regenerate his energy or climbing tools called pitons (which are just as scarce as bullets) that are nailed into the surface and allow him to stop to refill his stamina.

Adam will be scaling skyscrapers, apartment buildings, and even a mall - no small feats of strength and stamina.

Working against the player are some cleverly designed set pieces which provide adequate challenges. In most cases the kinds of buildings and such you’ll be scaling cannot be conquered within a couple of seconds. Thus the player will have to actually rely on items, pitons, and the occasional out-of-the-way “rest-stop” ledges in order to survive the ordeal. Yet the most impressive aspect of the design is that unlike the aforementioned games the path up is not easy to discern. The player might be given numerous ways up or around but will soon find themselves stuck at a dead end or going in the completely wrong direction – forcing you to expend all-too important items and pitons in order to get to where you actually need to be.

Equally unforgiving are the sections where Adam has to traverse the street level of the downtown area. Unlike the outskirts which the player goes through at the beginning of the game, the streets later on are covered in a thick dust which drains stamina pretty quickly. This draining effect matched with the fact that Adam won’t be able to see anything five feet in front of him leads to some incredibly tense moments as the player desperately seeks a way up above the dust – hoping that the stamina bar isn’t so low as to make the escape impossible. Even when a gas mask is found towards the end of the game the threat of the dust isn’t completely nullified as the mask only slows the stamina burn.

To top it all off there are no saves in this game. Instead the game will auto-save at the beginning of each “episode”. That being said, when the player dies they’ll then be forced to restart the entire level from the beginning no matter if you were only five minutes or forty-five minutes in. To save yourself from such a peril the game offers up retries which, when used, will take you back to somewhere relatively close to where you died. As previously mentioned retries are a reward for helping survivors but the player can also begin with three of them if they choose to select the default difficulty over the hard one. This system will be torturous for some but for others it won’t be that big of a deal – especially if you’re helping out people.

In conclusion I Am Alive may have honestly been better off never seeing the light of day. There’s no doubt in my mind that if Ubisoft had made this into a full AAA title things could’ve been a bit different. Getting that kind of treatment would’ve warranted more attention to areas like the combat, the story/characters, and the visuals (which range from decent to pretty terrible sometimes) but it’s pretty easy to see what’s going on here. Rather than simply ditch the project and throw out all the time and effort that went into this game over the last couple of years Ubi instead thought it best to cut their losses and at LEAST attempt to get something out of it – hence the arcade release.

So is I Am Alive worth $15?

Not really.

Granted, the game does sport some pretty impressive and challenging survival gameplay but the fact that almost every other aspect of it feels unpolished and lackluster makes it a title to avoid until it lowers in price or you have some money to burn away.

The Good:

+ Stresses “survival” more than most AAA titles out there.

+ Provides a nice atmosphere very much akin to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and manages to hit on all the usual apocalyptic archetypes (hopelessness, fear, cannibalism, mercilessness, the loss of humanity, and unattainable salvation) in only four hours.

+ It actually released…

The Bad:

- Unfulfilling story and cardboard thin characters.

- Should’ve had a better designed and thought-out combat/intimidation/stealth system.

- Helping survivors is almost completely useless unless you’re an achievement hunter or in dire need of replays

2 out of 5 star rating

(2 out of 5 stars)