Thursday, 3 January 2013

I Am Alive

Post-Launch Review
I Am Alive
Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
Released: March 7 2012 (XBLA) / April 2012 (PSN) / September 6 2012 (PC)


One year after a devastating earthquake that destroyed most of the US, a survivor finally arrives back in the city of Haventon to search for his wife and daughter. He must climb and fight through the devastated, dust-choked city, encountering survivors and bandits along the way.

At Launch

Reviews were somewhat mixed. The XBox version averaged about 71%; PS3 averaged 69%; and PC was down at 66%. Opinion was divided to some extent on just about everything. Some critics enjoyed the survival gameplay, and others didn't. Some hated combat, but others enjoyed it. A large number of reviewers were disappointed by the ending, but most enjoyed the atmosphere.

Post Launch

A few minor bug fixes and basic support. Nothing fancy.

The Good

Fights are fast and deadly - in fact they're usually over in ten seconds or less. One pistol shot will down (if not kill) an enemy. You can take a couple of hits, but no more than two or three. Winning a fight depends on quickly figuring out which enemies have guns or are tough guys and eliminating them as quickly as possible, then eliminating or intimidating the rest. You can even play it stealth-style, to an extent.
The really cool bits are the details. Some characters will let you pass if you don't draw your pistol, and will turn hostile if you threaten them. Armed enemies will approach you if you don't draw or move, so you can get a surprise kill in before the fight actually starts. And you can threaten enemies with your gun even if you have no bullets, but if you hold too long without firing, they'll guess that you can't or won't actually shoot them.
You also get a bow later, which is interesting for its own reasons. You only get one arrow, but it's reusable. However, enemies aren't intimidated by the bow unless you have an arrow drawn and ready, and of course once you fire your arrow you're out of luck until you retrieve it.
Finally, one small but really nice detail I noticed: your character shakes slightly when holding a gun on someone.
Visuals & Art Direction
Everything is washed out and there's very little colour in the world. The dust hanging in the air washes things out even more and obscures stuff at a distance, making far away objects look fuzzy and blurred. But somehow it doesn't have the same feeling as the grey or brown you see in a lot of post-apocalyptic games. In my review of Fallout 3 I mentioned that I didn't like the environment because it felt boring and dead, but in I Am Alive I don't have that problem. It makes me think of a black and white movie rather than a dead world.
That said, the character models and especially animation aren't very good.
The stamina mechanic is pretty cool. It's physically draining to climb and jump and run, since you're just a regular guy (and not, say, a master assassin, cough cough Assassin's Creed). More interestingly, if you push yourself too hard, you can reduce your maximum stamina, meaning you have less available climbing or running time before tiring out. And in heavy dust, you constantly lose stamina, since it's hard to breathe. All this might seem limiting, but in fact it's more tactical than anything else. There are plenty of items that will replenish stamina and max stamina, as well as take a break when you normally can't. So it's resource management, exactly like you'd expect from a good survival game.
How do you make a survival game where death is meaningful, but isn't incredibly frustrating? I Am Alive has a solid approach. You get a limited number of retries, which will allow you to go back to the last checkpoint when you die. If you run out of retries, you have to start the entire level over again. You can earn more retries by helping survivors or (rarely) finding them in the world in the form of camcorders. The system encourages caution without being too restrictive, so that's pretty cool.
Helping Out
Throughout the city you'll encounter survivors who ask for specific items to save their lives, fulfill a dying wish, or just for a bit of happiness. Those items are often valuable resources that you could use yourself, but you can exchange them for extra retries. Sometimes, though, you'll have to spend bullets to help out, which are a much more valuable resource than, say, bottles of wine or cigarettes, so it's not always a clean-cut decision. What's neat is that each survivor will give you a bit of lore about what happened in the city during or since the earthquake.
I did think one of the help things was stupid, though. There's a guy who tells you that his mom is starving herself to death because she refuses to eat canned food and wants something fresh, so I should go get her a tomato. To save her life. Because she won't eat canned tomatoes. WHAT.

The Neutral

Story & Ending
The plot isn't what the game makes you think it is at first. You come to Haventon looking for your wife, but you're immediately off on an entirely unrelated quest to reunite a child with her mother. In fact, the character doesn't even seem to really want to help, and comes across as grudgingly obligated due to his morality. Whenever it turns out you need to do something more to help, your guy is all "sigh... I guess". In fact, all you ever really hear about your wife and daughter is that maybe they might still be in one of the shelters somewhere on the edge of town, and you get that information from random characters who are optional to even find. It's hard to be enthusiastic about the story when your character seems disinterested the whole time.
And the ending isn't very strong either. The game just kind of ends, and throws out a cliffhanger in the last 5 seconds.

Grappling Hook
The grapple allows you to swing across gaps. That's cool. But it's actually pretty pointless. It's used in the mission where you get it, and afterwards I've only had to use it once.

The Bad

Jerky Camera
Every so often the game just stops responding properly to mouse input and the camera goes all skippy. It feels as if I'm using my mouse on a bad surface and it isn't tracking, but that's definitely not the case - I know from much experience that the surface is fine, and besides, it's not a constant issue.
I've read on the internet that it's a problem with how the game loads world data and can't be fixed, which is a major disappointment.
Danger Music
When your stamina gets down to about 50%, the music gets all suspenseful. It was neat the first few times when I had no resources, but when I'm climbing around knowing that the stuff in my backpack can refill my stamina ten times over, it kind of kills the suspense and the music just gets annoying.
It's even worse when you're walking through the dust with a gas mask and you're actually completely safe for quite a while longer even if you're out of items.
Climbing Controls
Most of the time climbing works just fine, but sometimes when you try to change directions, you'll find yourself going the wrong way. This is really annoying when climbing depends on stamina, and you'll fall and die if you run out - you can waste a lot of stamina just trying to go the right way.
Too Many Fights
Wait a minute, I said earlier that the fights were good, so how could there be too many?
I love how the fights are structured. They're fast, deadly, and intense. But having too many of them starts to reduce the feeling of danger and turns combat into just making sure you kill everyone in the right order.
Worse, a segment in a hotel involves several fights with large numbers of guys, including ones with body armour who aren't intimidated by guns at all. If you run out of bullets, you literally cannot progress, because it's impossible to fight multiple guys with just your machete.

The Verdict

Recommendation: probably play it, but not on Steam.
I'm a little unsure how I feel about the game overall. It's got some strong, cool stuff - the dusty visuals are great, and a lot of the gameplay is genuinely intense and suspenseful. Combat has some clever ideas, especially bluffing and false (or real) surrenders, though it's overused in the final chapters. There are some control annoyances (of which the camera problem seems to be specific to the PC version). And the thing that bugs me the most is how the story claims to be about one man's journey to find his family, but really that's the backdrop for a story about one man's journey to find someone else's family.
The game is cheap, though, so it could still be worth your time. The camera problem I experienced apparently isn't present in the console versions, so if you're interested, I'd recommend playing it on XBox or PS3.


  1. Is the camera problem still a 'thing' if you use an Xbox 360 controller to play it on PC?

    1. I don't know. I have yet to pick up an adapter, so I haven't tried it.