Review: I Am Alive (PlayStation 3)
- Release Date (NA): March 4, 2012
- Publisher: Ubisoft
- Genres: Survival
Single playerLocal MultiplayerOnline MultiplayerCo-operative
What Has Happened Here?
A cataclysmic event has reshaped the Earth. Living in fear of endless earthquakes and lung choking dust clouds, human civilization has moved into secret survival camps. Those who choose to remain on the surface scrounge for supplies and hide in fear from cannibal street gangs.
A lone traveler named Adam has set out across the United States, and has been moving towards the fictional metropolis of Haventon for more than a year. His journey is in search of his wife Julie and his daughter Mary. Upon arriving in his home town we quickly notice the extensive level of destruction. Trucks hang precariously from torn steel bridges, water rushes through newly formed canyons, buildings have toppled, and the lowest level of the city is covered in a layer of thick brown toxic dust.
Adam battles his way back towards his apartment building, only to discover that his wife and daughter have made a run for it. It is from this point that the survival adventure truly begins and our on-going quest continues, to reunite a family and bring a little hope back into this ruined world.
Most of the player's time will be spent walking between various key locations. Walking happens in real time and genuinely conveys a realistic approach to post-apocalyptic character moment. The game prohibits other free roaming movement options, adding another level of limitation. You cannot simply jump when you please or climb when you desire. When it is time to climb there are usually objects to interact with, such as a glowing-white length of pipe or exposed rebar. Jumping works in much the same way, where it is limited to obvious gaps, and is not openly available as a way to transverse every abandoned vehicle or fallen structure.
Being told when and how to move seems rather upsetting at first. The game appears to be an open sandbox with multiple paths of forward progression, but then quickly corrals you into one path or another. However, after completing the game more than once it became apparent to me that the limited movement options were a feature and not a hindrance. Asking the user to suspend their disbelief as they play this game would have been difficult if the gamer was free to run, jump, and attack in any direction. It’s the lack of freedom that so profoundly conveys the emotions of this game, and that freedom is never challenged to a point that the game becomes difficult or upsetting to play. The limited movement choices actually show that the developers thought about not only the environment but the importance of controlling the pace of moving through it.
As with any life and death scenario there will be times when the player must kill to survive. Thankfully the loss of life is not always senseless as not every challenge needs to be addressed. Some characters will convey their appreciation for your quick departure, and as the player you can choose to slowly back away avoiding a loss of life and in turn a possible loss of precious healing resources. However, other characters will make it obvious that survival depends upon your ability to kill or be killed. Fights always progress using a similar pattern which never requires button mashing. The player will need to pay close attention to the attackers, their position, and their weapons. Killing the strongest attacker first can result in the rest of the mob simply giving up, or missing the guy with the gun can end in your untimely death. As interesting as a strategic battle system sounds, it has been implemented without dynamic appeal. More often than not the same 3-4 types of enemies will attack, making it extremely easy to know exactly what needs to be done. In fact, after 2-3 fights the entire remainder of these defense scenarios mimic those that came before. The engine does offer some relief through throat slitting stealth kills and the ability to kill opponents using the environment. For example, the very first fight is a training exercise in how to order the enemy at gun point towards a 30 foot drop. A quick tap of the prompted button allows us to kick his life away. As fun as these deaths are to complete they are difficult to set up. Ordering the enemy into place requires precise strategic positioning, and during the course of moving them around they may decide to rush your gun in the hope you are out of bullets. What started off as a potential for something different usually ends with more of the same, a wasted bullet and a waste of your time.
The fighting engine features a 1st person perspective for projectile weapons, of which the game has three. When aiming in the 1st person a flick of the right analog stick will move between targeted enemies. Sometimes the auto-targeting picks a character so far to the side the by the time you cycle to the most dangerous enemy you have been shot multiple times. When precision must be utilized, depressing R3 will result in free-aiming, which suffers from control issues. Aiming is relatively slow and is only useful for armored gang members who require a head or leg shot. Without this single type of enemy the entire free-aiming control scheme would remain useless.
When it comes time to scale the city, and there will be plenty of opportunities to climb and explore, the game becomes a 3rd person platforming experience. One button jumps, one button drops, and the d-pad controls movement. What works well here is the simplicity of movement. The main character moves fluidly and freely across climbable structures. The structures that can be interacted with are easily marked, often bright white or a deeper red. The only real issue was experienced when climbing from side-to-side across a second path for upwards moment. Picture an upside down "T" shaped connection, where we are climbing across the bar of the "T". The engine often gets confused and attempts to climb up the bar instead of across, even when an obvious right or left analog stick moment is held in place. This tiny bug becomes a big deal as the precious stamina bar wastes away to nothing, stamina being the most important bar on the heads-up-display. Running, fighting, climbing and walking in the choking dust cloud all reduce your stamina. Certain resources can replenish the bar and waiting in a resting zone will also do the same (eg: on a ledge above the dust or by using a piton to make a temporary resting zone). However, when climbing it is easy to make a wrong decision and the use of scarce replenishing resources is not always a wise choice. At times you will need to repeat various sections of climbing to avoid using your resources, something which could be avoided if the controls had been tweaked to perfection.
At any one point you may die or choose to reset the experience for a second attempt at perfection. The game offers multiple retries which can be found and earned. Retry attempts manifest in the form of a video camera and are hidden in a few locations throughout the city. They can also be earned for each of the successfully completed side quests. If you pay attention to where you are going and plan accordingly, retries from death will be a rare experience. Instead you may find yourself using retries so that you can perfect a killing scenario. Playing them a few times to figure out the best order for dispatching your enemies is a great deal of fun.
Starting over by selecting to retry or after a death may be a bothersome experience. Check points are combined into major points of the story, which can result in a significant distance between them. As you attempt to figure out the best course of action you may need to spend minutes regaining lost ground. More checkpoints or an ability to save at anytime would have been a welcome addition.
Exploring and Gathering for More than Yourself
Walking into every corner of the city, climbing to every reachable ledge, and searching every possible nook will result in a cache of vital supplies. Survival depends on these supplies which include bottles of water, pain killers, canned food, rat meat, bullets, and more. More importantly these supplies will allow you to complete a limited number of very basic side quests which include helping your fellow human beings.
Keeping your humanity in the face of devastation will help you to retain a piece of your soul. It will also raise your final score and give you more bragging rights for the online leaderboards. To raise your score you will be asked to give up supplies or fill small requests from those in need. These side quests are very simple and usually require items that you can easily part with. While the side quests do not offer enough to effectively extend the game, they do manage to convincingly bring the city to life. They also serve as a means to explore the city, as to find more hidden items you inevitably uncover exactly where to go next.
Only Half a Map
While navigating the city our hero is aided by a map of the area. This map will automatically update when we reach a blockade or the edge of the playable area. The map accurately portrays our surroundings and aids the player in navigating through the threatening dust cloud. It also doubles as a compass. A dynamic arrow pointer shows us exactly where we are and in which direction we are facing.
The main issue with the map is that there is no way to place custom markers, forcing the gamer to memorize the location for each of the side quests. On a second play through it is much easier to recall where those in need are located. It is only during our first adventure that the lack of custom markers becomes an issue, yet they remain a missing feature that should have been implemented.
The Fine Details
Graphically, the game is a mix between an early generation PS3 game and a full blown modern engine. At times you will stand back in admiration as you look over the ruined city. Collapsed buildings, deserted vehicles, and dead bodies litter the surrounding area with fine details and textures that are extremely beautiful. The bright sun beams through the washed-out monochromatic color scheme, casting a realistic light source on the entire city. Details from readable news print to blood written signs help to bring the entire experience to life. Every corner of the city feels lived in and deserted at the same time. However, just when you are in awe of the graphics a character model reminiscent of early PS3 engine technology will start conversing with you or a simple object like a bush will appear pixilated upon closer examination. Thankfully these dated graphics do not hinder the overall experience of the game, as the vast majority of objects dwell in modern textures.
The Sounds of the City
The soundtrack for the game is an ever-present minimalistic musical backdrop accompanied by background noise comprised of the howling winds of change. The sounds are so simple that they work well to enhance the game's graphical presence. They also work extremely well to convey the sense of being alone in a dead and forgotten world. Sound clips such as gun fire, water drinking, cries for help and the beating of your heart when the life meter runs low, all fill a void and help to complete this experience.
When the stamina bar is low, aggressively building climatic drum music becomes an annoyance for which there is no cure. The “music” usually occurs when the climbing controls are acting up causing the stamina bar to run low. The stamina bar itself is rather large and placed on the top of the screen. It is impossible to ignore the low bar as it contains a pulsating graphic. It is also impossible to ignore the circular emergency warning graphic that appears around the character. The inclusion of an additional sound clip, that plays each and every time, was simply not required.
When exploring hostile territory the music may shift into another climatic sound clip. The odd thing about this clip is that it happens in spots that are far from scary, like walking past a certain wall. The clip can be triggered as many times as desired by walking past the same wall. Once again the developers are attempting to force an emotion but when no danger is present the effect is lost and the clip seems completely out-of-place.
Help for the Dumb
The game includes a manual of sorts that efficiently describes each of the controls, buttons, and movement combinations. The developers also included in-game popup windows that coach the player in various gaming aspects. The problem with the help windows is that they pop up more than 1 time or not at all. There were times when I was 4 hours into the game and the same popup about my stamina was presented for my reading pleasure. I really did not need to read it the first time and I definitely do not need to read it for the 20th time. Another instance occurred when climbing across a deep chasm, I became confused on how to jump across handholds. I died a few times and eventually started to head back, assuming I had gone the wrong way. It was at this point that the help popup instructed me that holding X and then pointing in the direction I wanted to go would allow me to jump across handholds. This was vital and required information for which the game decided was not important enough to tell me until after my 3rd death.
Kill the Bugs
Most games are not without their bugs, and this one is not any different. Thankfully the bugs which were experienced were not very serious. One common issue was an appearance of a purple color on various graphics. At one point an entire side of a structure was a shimmering purple, after climbing back down the normal texture reappeared. The same purple made an appearance on the handle of a shopping cart and followed the main character along for the better part of 2 minutes, jumping from small object to bigger structures.
During one descent from above the death cloud, the main character climbed past the ground level and became stuck in the floor texture. There was no way to jump out as the jump is not always available. The only solution was to reset the game and to try again from the most recent checkpoint.The controls do not always engage when the button is pressed. There are instances when the option to shoot a padlock presents itself. To do this properly you must press the aim button (L1) and allow the engine to automatically target the padlock. On occasion the targeting system will not find the lock and manually aiming will result in the firing of a bullet that will never hit its mark. Another instance of control issues happens when running towards the very edge of a jumpable area, the jump button may fail to engage. Instead of jumping the engine will anticipate that the player wanted to fall, and the character will reach over the edge and proceed to dangle.
A Love and Hate Relationship
The game truly nailed the experience of surviving after a cataclysmic event. The world feels very alive thanks to huge amount of graphical details. Survival feels extremely real while tracking down depleting supplies and avoiding dangerous encounters. Exploration is continuously fun as you never know what you may find around the next corner. The game is well paced and provides required gear and weapons at just the right points. The simple musical score made up of noises, sounds, and sparse notes aids the game and never overpowers any one area. However, for how inviting the world feels it suffers from game engine issues which are a hindrance to the complete experience. Climbing controls may anticipate instead of react, 1st person aiming is slow and clunky, and one or two graphical details are obviously early-gen. These issues are few and most can be overcome after getting use to the engine quirks, yet after 3 years of development these issues really should not exist.
The implementation of the stamina bar is by far the most refreshing gaming aspect, yet it is something that gamers will either love or hate. It forces the player to plan their movements and additionally raises the level of difficulty. It further makes the main character seem human, as simple tasks like running tire him out. For some gamers, when the bar is depleted the mechanics of it can cause frustration. At times it will deplete much too quickly when climbing, especially after performing a required jump from handhold-to-handhold. While it can be replenished, constantly using stamina replenishing resources may mean the forcible skipping of a side quest.
With the few engine and game element issues aside it is easy to love the experience of I Am Alive. It actively meshes multiple genres into one complete package and pulls it off with excitement. The story and the way it is presented is enough to deserve a play through. At just $15 via PSN, it is an affordable purchase that most will not regret.
+ Multiple genres in one game
+ Excellent graphical details
+ Many areas to explore
+ Side quests
+ Constant level of difficulty
+ Affordable price point
- Repetitive fighting scenarios
- Some control issues
- Annoying anticipation-raising music
- Rarely present, yet minor graphical bugs
The game feels exactly as it should. The developers planned carefully and pulled off an amazing experience. From beginning to end it feels like a barren empty world full of hope and life. Graphics and sound merge with objectives and genres to make for a unique experience that works well. Menus and options are well themed and easily accessible. Overall it is a perfect package.
Walking from place-to-place is perfectly implemented and feels effectively thought-out. The camera is never a hindrance and is easily adjustable for better viewing angles. Controls could have used a bit of polish, as they sometimes anticipate instead of react. The 1st person shooting is interesting but not entirely well implemented. The stamina bar is clever and creates a fun challenge, yet can get in the way of simple tasks, needlessly prolonging the game.
The game has two difficulty modes and the difference between them is the amount of supplies. A first time through will take about 8-10 hours, while a second play through will take under 5 hours. As there is no online play and enemies are always located in the same spot, the game has little back-to-back replay value. It really is a 50/50 shot on if you would play it more than once. You either loved the entire experience and want to enjoy it again, or you enjoyed the experience but do not need to repeat it.
out of 10
(not an average)
The game successfully merges multiple genres into a fun and unique experience. The developers completely nailed the post-apocalyptic feeling, right down to the fine graphical details, limited real life movement and lack of sounds. A few control issues can cause some areas to be frustrating when they should be fun. The game does not offer any real replay value, except for trophy hunters. Overall it is a fun experience and one worth enjoying a few times.