The long awaited I Am Alive from Ubisoft launches this week on Xbox LIVE Arcade for Xbox 360, and is also set for release on PlayStation Network for PlayStation 3 in the near future. Despite being originally unveiled as a full retail product, the publisher pulled I Am Alive kicking-and-screaming back to the drawing board and re-revealed it two-and-a-half years later. However, that it managed to survive until launch at all is something that we all should be thankful for.
I Am Alive sets the scene through self-narrated recordings on a handheld videogame. A catastrophe of global proportion has left the US as a desolated wasteland, and the player’s character has spent the last year trying to cross the country and return home to his wife and daughter. We enter at the point when his homecoming is within reach, when he’s already past many trials and faced many obstacles, and is already wise to the ways of this lawless land.
Within minutes of beginning I Am Alive, it’s obvious that has shared tech with the Assassin’s Creed series. After running and jumping, climbing is the third thing you learn to do. And in that athleticism I Am Alive is so similar to Ubisoft’s other leading platform/adventure franchise that millions of gamers will feel right at home. The main difference comes in the form of the Stamina Gauge, a mechanic that will greatly affect your adventure from start to finish.
The Stamina Gauge measures your actions and decreases with exertion such as running or climbing. It will always refill, unless you allow it to be depleted. When that occurs, it will continuously decrease as you rapidly tap the R Trigger to force yourself past your normal boundaries, and any of the gauge spent this time around will not be recovered automatically. Instead you must find refreshment; water or food littered around the world will recharge the meter. The second half of you meter depicts health, which works in much the same manner as far as consumption of items goes, but does not recharge automatically at any point in the videogame, even when reaching checkpoints.
I Am Alive is a videogame that encourages the player to explore despite its linear structure. As a videogame designed around careful exploration and discovery of that single path forward, it’s good to see that the system is clever enough not to allow the player to jump freely, but only if there’s somewhere appropriate to land. If I Am Alive were to have it’s way gone forever would be the leaps of faith every gamer over the age of twenty five will have experienced on many occasions, to find both good and bad results. However, while this design is a refreshing change, the omission of a similar system with your pistol ammunition is disappointing, and poor collision detection when leaping from a grappling hook placement is never less than frustrating.
Throughout the duration of it’s campaign I Am Alive makes such a concerted effort to provide a sense of reality-driven desperation that it’s a shame the design team haven’t gone whole hog: the idea that an ambulance would bring a smile to your face as an excited sense of potential supplies washes over you, or that a gun locker might provide you with the ammunition you so urgently need, should you be able to break into it. These are details that would create a sophisticated alertness in the player; a closer relationship with the environment and a mise-en-scène that would not have gone unnoticed. Unfortunately there is often a sense that everything has been orchestrated, undermining the tension of struggling for survival. Every platform section, every journey through the thick, choking dust and every enemy encounter appears to have a right way and a wrong way of doing it, rarely is the player free to use their own initiative. It seems that for every remarkable design decision that has been made, a blunder lurks just around the corner. And of course, it would be hard to suggest that the basic premise of I Am Alive is anything new, as it’s clearly building on the foundations laid by Resident Evil 4 with the pathfinding platform action of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. It could actually be this relationship to the latter – and it’s reportedly poor sales – that could’ve contributed to Ubisoft’s decision to release I Am Alive as a digitally distributed title.
In addition to the normal gameplay mode, I Am Alive offers a second known as Survival. In this supplementary mode, the system is designed in the same fashion but the player is no longer given the opportunity to retry from checkpoints upon death; in the normal mode players can collect retries from the environment or by helping survivors, but in Survival mode this mechanic is withdrawn in its entirety.
A stunning amount of attention has been made to the videogame’s art direction. I Am Alive is already famous for it’s washed-out look, in which only the brightest of colours can escape the white/grey filter placed on top of the world’s palette, but there are also dozens of smaller effects that create the unique sense of desperation: ink-like blacks that bleed into cracks and added blur effects on distanced objects when picking up speed, I Am Alive is a videogame that takes the player’s participation in it’s world very seriously.
When you look at I Am Alive, you look at a statement of just how far videogames have come in the last thirty years: while there’ll always be room for the high-score chasing shoot-‘em-up and hand-eye co-ordination challenges of traditional 2D platform videogames, they are now the niche. The future lies in structured adventure experiences. It’s a flawed presentation, one which it would be easy to pick holes in and suggest what else could be done to make the experience more unique, but given that it’s platform action and ever-present sense of tension blend so well, it’s easy to overlook these issues in favour of the dramatic storytelling. I Am Alive is about to make a very important point about our industry: if videogame adventure experiences such as this can now only be considered suitable for digital distribution services, retail products are about to become the rarer breed far quicker than we may have previously expected.