Staying Alive For Less Money
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These days consumers have a lot of choices when it comes to gaming. Take the Ubisoft game, I Am Alive. Originally released as a disk-based game, it offered some unique gameplay in a post-apocalyptic world that emphasized climbing to hidden areas, a basic stealth mechanic and different ways to get around or through hostile situations. It was fairly well-received by the press and players, but didn't really stand out enough to be considered a classic. Fast forward to today, and the game is being offered over the PlayStation Network, through Xbox Live and on various PC download sites like Steam.
For just a few bucks, gamers can access a formerly top tier title, reborn in all its glory. But how well does a title like this hold up? I dived into the dusty world to find out.
In a post-apocalyptic world devastated by global earthquakes and ongoing tremors, you walk alone. Five hundred miles from home when the Event struck, you've spent a year walking back across a ruined United States. You've travelled roads littered with wrecked vehicles and split by ravines, you've climbed ruined buildings to stay above the poisonous dust hanging low over the devastated country. Food, medicine and ammunition are cripplingly scarce. Those few survivors you've met on the way are ready to kill to protect what scant supplies they have. Others are ready to kill to take yours from you.
Now you've reached Haventon, the city where you lived before the Event with your wife, Julia, and your daughter, Mary. But, like everywhere else, this city is in ruins. To get to your old apartment, you have to pick your way through jumbled wreckage, find a safe way around the deep chasms which have opened up across the city, and over the towers of debris blocking your way. In addition, you also have to stay above the dust, which saps your stamina while you breathe it, and will suffocate you if you don't get clear in time.
You find your apartment empty with only a letter telling you your wife and daughter were evacuated, but not to where. Back outside you hear a young child crying. Thinking it's your daughter, you go looking just in time to rescue Mai - not your daughter, but still a child in trouble - from thugs who no doubt have less than good intentions. There follows a series of missions, helping Mai, her mother, Linda, and their friend, Henry, to escape the city. During these missions there's opportunity to assist others in trouble, who reward you with items and snippets of information about where your wife and daughter might have ended up.
As you wander, almost blind, through the deadly fog, your stamina bar slowly drops and then starts pulsing. Tension rises as you fail to find anything to climb. You can't run, that uses more stamina, and when you do find a climbable area you know the bar will drop all the faster, since climbing burns yet more stamina. Let it drop too far without finding a resting place, your fatigue also drops, meaning you only regain partial stamina when you do find a rest point. If your fatigue drops to zero in the fog, you die. If it drops to zero while climbing, you fall. And die.
Luckily, fatigue (and stamina) can be replaced instantly by resources if you have them. These appear as items - of which there are three main types: those which replace stamina, those which restore fatigue and those which restore health. Don't be too quick to use them though, even when it's all going pear-shaped. They're limited and have a one-time use. A fourth, and rarer, item is retrys, which can be found among the debris like other items, and will sometimes reappear at checkpoints. Retrys let you restart from the last checkpoint if you are killed for any reason, but if you run out of them, you have to load the game from the last save point, which might have been some time ago. This can mean replaying up to half an hour of game time before you reach the point where you died. Retries also get eaten up during climbing missions, of which there are many. If you can't find a rest point, or you miss a ledge, or simply don't make it to safety in time so your fatigue runs out, you will fall. Cue next retry.
There is a healthbar, which shows any damage you take, such as dropping too far or getting hit by an NPC. In combat, you can only take two or three hits - less if you're up against a firearm - before that healthbar hits zero. In that respect, the game is realistic - frustratingly so. Even if you have bullets or arrows for your weapons, you only ever have one or two rounds at a time, though you can use your pistol as a deterrent to bluff your way out of a situation. Some of the more aggressive NPCs can be subdued just by pointing your gun at them, and you can force them back (into a fire or over a drop) by ordering them to back up. This only works as long as they believe your gun is loaded, though, so no dry-firing! Some NPCs are more confident and will have a go, even if they only have a machete, especially they think if you're pointing an empty gun.
Combat is about strategy. Selecting which guy to shoot your only bullet at when faced with a group can make the difference between death and survival. There aren't enough bullets going around to waste, so you can't fire blindly at just anyone and hope for the best.
A fair number of the people you meet, especially early on, are innocents and won't hurt you. Save your bullets for the more deserving. You can walk past some folk without any conflict, though they might warn you off and will retaliate if you attack them, and you have the option to help people with your resources (for which you earn valuable retries).
Given the often low visibility, your general vulnerability against attackers, the limited resources available and the constantly-dropping stamina bar, it's enough to get your heart thumping on a regular basis. Either that, or you'll find the game so limited in what your character can do you'll find it infuriating. The puzzle element involved in figuring out how to get from A to B, whilst not exactly taxing, was enough to keep me interested. Walking in haze, not knowing what or who might be up ahead got my heart hammering fairly regularly. The absence of zombies, mutants and aliens was refreshing. There's enough challenge in this game just from the environment.
On the whole I enjoyed I Am Alive and found it immense fun and sufficiently challenging, especially during the last few missions. I liked the moody music and the washed out colors, which gave everything a mean, dirty look. I can see why some reviewers have rated it low, though. The game's not perfect.
The visibility can be annoying when you're lost and looking for the next area. When climbing, you sometimes grab the wrong hand-hold or move in the wrong direction when the camera is positioned above instead of behind you. Not good when you're low on stamina. In combat the pistol sights will sometimes fix onto the wrong target, and when it's a case of shoot the right guy, and fast, you don't want to be messing around, and you definitely don't want to shoot the wrong guy with your only bullet.
The game concludes suddenly and at a point where you think another mission is about to start. The final shot is ambiguous and leaves scope for a prequel/sequel. I felt it was thus a little disappointing and suspect the developers either ran out of money or interest. This is a shame, as the game was different enough to the usual offerings to warrant a longer version.
For atmosphere, suspense, and the sense of desolation which lay ripe throughout the story, I felt it was worth the money, even if the ending came way too soon. And although there is not much hope of a sequel at this point, I Am Alive remains a solid game that gamers can now find for not very much money, and through a variety of platforms from the console to the PC.
Martine Ashe is happy on either the PS3 or Xbox 360. She'll pick up anything with a good story and strong characters but has yet to find an FPS that doesn't make her barf.