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I Am Alive emerges from the dusty veil of three years in development darkness...
Apart from having the best potential name for a sequel ever in I Am Still Alive, Ubisoft's post-apocalyptic survival game hasn't had much going for it in the three years since it was initially revealed via a lavish CG teaser trailer. Over all of that time, only last month did Ubisoft first invite journalists to see the game first-hand and, with a Winter launch slated for the title, it's presumably the last time it'll be publicly demoed before an emergence on Xbox Live Arcade and PSN. This is a game that's suffered one delay after another, has switched developer from Parisian outfit Darkworks to Ubisoft's Shanghai studio, and has been converted from a triple-A boxed product to a 2GB digi-download console game. It's been through the mill then, but there's a lot more to this than a protracted game that Ubisoft is doing an accelerated PR job on to get it out of the door and off its release schedules as quick as possible. It might just be the next big thing to land on Microsoft and Sony's digi-download platforms.
When the game's Creative Director, Stanislas Mettra and Ubi Shanghai's Business Development Director, Aurélien Palasse took us through the demo and answered some questions from journalists, a word that kept coming up was “expectations”. More specifically, the references were to the internal 'quality expectations' of Ubisoft for a triple-A boxed product, which I Am Alive failed to meet in its original form (hence why it was converted to a smaller, digi-download title). But don't be misled by the business rhetoric of games publishers – in this context, not meeting quality expectations doesn't necessarily mean that a game is less good or poorly executed; it's much more likely to mean that it has less mass market appeal or that it's not as easily accessible to casual/moderate gamers. Having seen I Am Alive in the flesh, without the dressed-up tricks of screenshots or trailers, we can honestly say that we've played many triple-A games (some of them Ubisoft's) with much less impressive visuals and game design. That's not to say I Am Alive is graphically stunning – it's an intriguing game world with some decent post-apocalyptic vistas, certainly, but it's no RAGE or Fallout 3 – it's just to say that it's about as good as a 6-8 hour game gets with 2GB of hard drive space to utilise (that's the XBLA limit).
Another word that came up a lot during the presentation was “risk”. Stanislas Mettra was happy to talk about how developing for XBLA and PSN means that you can take more creative risks and potentially create a more innovative game – here on TVG, we haven't been shy about mentioning that these platforms have spawned some of the best games of this generation, period. I Am Alive, then, is best described as a survival game (perhaps unsurprisingly), but what is surprising is that these survival elements aren't solely focused on killing mutants/zombies/cannibals/insert post-apocalyptic beastie here. Instead, the kind of survival that takes centre-stage is merely travelling across the devastated environment – I Am Alive positions much of its survival gameplay around scaling the toppled skyscrapers and dusty underbelly of Haventon, the fictional city that's depicted in Ubisoft Shanghai's tale.
It all comes down to an inventive stamina gauge. While clambering across the ruins of Haventon in a style reminiscent of Uncharted's Nathan Drake, I Am Alive's protagonist loses stamina from the left-hand side of a dual-pronged energy bar. To recharge that left side of the bar, he needs to find a ledge or level ground somewhere to take a rest. Should he start running out of stamina mid-clamber, then you can press the trigger button to maintain the current stamina level, although this does come at the expense of some non-rechargeable health from the right-hand side of the gauge. This concept is then fleshed out with various pick-ups: pitons, for example, are single-use climbing hooks that can be nailed into the environment at any point. You can then hold onto them for a stamina recharge, although it goes without saying that you have a limited number of pitons and must scavenge the environment to find new ones. If, on the other hand, you find yourself running-down your health bar due to some poorly planned clambering, then medicine is also dotted around sparsely and can be used to renew the critical right-hand side of the meter.
In effect then, I Am Alive is in part a climbing game, albeit one where some vague apocalyptic nastiness has made climbing a lot more vital then merely scaling a summit for the challenge of it. And the apocalypse is certainly of the hazier variety – not much is known about it in terms of back-story other than it's left a layer of dust at ground level that's not very good for you. This also folds into the gameplay whereby you can't spend too much time in the dust lest it run down your stamina bar and start eating into your health (see the tutorial vid at the bottom of this article). But it's not all clambering and pitons either – although essentially linear in design, unfolding from one point-to-point task across a map to the next, I Am Alive also provides opportunities to explore through side-missions and saving 'victims'. Should you successfully save a victim along your travels then an extra retry is added to your stash, and these are critical in the harder 'Survival' difficulty where restarts after death are limited.
Although not necessarily the focus of the game, combat does also play a part in I Am Alive. Ubisoft Shanghai has introduced some pretty interesting ideas here too, such as the hierarchy to factions you'll come across on your journeys. Some factions are hostile while others are more friendly, and when you do come across a conflict there will often be a ring-leader with tougher armour/more lethal weapons. A key strategy is to take out this guy first as it can result in the remaining henchmen backing down and avoiding any further combat. Because ammo is also incredibly limited in I Am Alive's world – making bullets very valuable – you'll have to approach combat as frugally as possible, identifying the biggest threat in a group of attackers and taking them out first. Alternatively, stealth options are on-hand to circumnavigate enemies unseen or pick them off methodically with machete-aided stealth kills – you can even gamble when you've run out of ammo by pointing an empty gun at enemies in the hope that they'll think better of it and give you a wide berth.
I Am Alive really does have a lot of exciting and innovative ideas going on inside its post-apocalyptic setting. It seems to be exploiting the benefits of developing for XBLA and PSN particularly well, and is undoubtedly the most intriguing digi-download console game currently residing on the release schedule for early 2012.
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