Ubisoft's "realistic" survival adventure looks to post-disaster movies, not games, for inspiration.
If the end of the world turns out like games told us, we'll do fine. With the scavenging smarts of a Fallout vault escapee, the immunity to infection of a Left 4 Dead survivor, and the expert gunshootery of all the rest, we'll have the wasteland bandit-free and society back on its feet by Tuesday.
Except the actual post-apocalypse will be more like I Am Alive. Cities will be depressing rubble heaps, there'll be no food or water, let alone bullets, and the great bullet famine will hardly matter, because a gun is dodgy defence against your feral neighbours when you've never fired one before.
I Am Alive is pitched as the antithesis of gaming's post-apocalyptic power fantasy. "It's definitely the opposite of that," says Ubisoft Shanghai's Aurelien Palasse."Post-disaster [in games] is often unrealistic, and I Am Alive is realistic. I think it's different from all the other games we've seen: it's more mature, everything is real."
So the game lifts its setting and atmosphere from movies rather than other games: the film adaptation of misery travelogue The Road, with a dash of The Book of Eli, which is inferior but has machetes. "We are definitely closer to the movie inspirations than the video game inspirations," says Palasse, "because no games have done this before."
The protagonist of I Am Alive is less a one-man army and more the beleaguered dad from The Road. Before a set of cataclysmic earthquakes laid everything to waste, he'd never fired a gun. Now, after a year-long, cross-country trek, he's back in his home city, searching for his girlfriend and young daughter, carrying only a bulletless handgun and a climbing harness.
The city is an ashy mirage: a desaturated skyline, dust clouds, city blocks turned to shadowy wreckage. As the game begins, our hero faces it across a broken bridge, poised for a climbing tutorial. His one pre-apocalypse talent is climbing, hence the rope looped over his shoulder, but monkey-man Nathan Drake he is not. Stints of climbing are time-limited by a regenerating stamina bar which drains while you hang or clamber around. Further on, you get more mountaineering gadgets: a grappling hook and pitons to create temporary rest points on the long climb up a skyscraper.
The feel of manoeuvring along broken girders and up bridge supports wasn't slick as the equivalent clambering in, say, Uncharted, but at least our man is a cautious, sure-footed climber--you won't be carelessly steering him off edges or leaping into open space. The stamina gauge makes climbing sessions short and tense; when it's nearly empty, you can hammer the right trigger to have him overexert himself, but it damages your stamina reserves more permanently, and you have to later restore that lost stamina with food items.
Holding right trigger (on the Xbox 360 version) makes him jog, while tapping the trigger makes him sprint, with sprinting also limited by stamina. The upshot is an easily winded protagonist who might frustrate players who'd rather control a superhero, but is consistent with I Am Alive's idea of an everyman's post-disaster scenario.
Fights, like climbs, are short and tense. The protagonist is vulnerable and underpowered; with no bullets, you have to bluff your way through confrontations with violent survivors. You can keep unarmed survivors at gunpoint to ward them off (aiming the gun pops the view from third-person into first-person), or surrender and let them get close enough for you to attempt the grisly one-button "surprise kill" with your machete. When you do scavenge a single bullet, you must use it strategically: look for the mouthiest member of a gang, take him out, and the others will back down.
You also eventually pick up a bow and arrow. Though the protagonist's ability to headshot body-armoured thugs with undermines the impression of Joe Average's post-apocalyptic adventure, it at least lets you shoot more things, since you can retrieve the arrow from the split skull of a victim.
In keeping with I Am Alive's take on grim realism a la The Road, there's sinister stuff on the streets of the city. Early on, we see a feral mob pursue a young woman into the thick dust haze. In the sewers, there are a few terrified survivors locked up by cannibals (you can sacrifice your single bullet to bust the lock or you can walk on by). The cavernous, lethally dusty space below a monorail is littered with shrivelled corpses. Later, you find a leering gang trying to drag a little girl, Mei, out of her hiding spot; a portion of the game after that is spent protecting Mei--by giving her a piggyback through fights and climbs.
I Am Alive has 10 levels through which you explore the ruins of the city, climb, scavenge, and deal with other survivors. It isn't an open-world game, though levels aren't entirely linear. You mark the map with red scribbles as you encounter the obstacles that narrow your options down to a single path, but there are some areas off the beaten track in which you might find survivors who can shed light on what happened to his family. Though Palasse won't be drawn on the campaign's length in hours, he calls it "longer than a lot of triple-A [campaigns] now on the market".
Checkpoint retries are almost as scarce as bullets (after you've spent the few you have, you must restart the level), as are first aid kits; at one point, we couldn't save a woman's injured son because we'd already used on ourselves the single kit we'd seen in an hour of play. It was a pleasingly harrowing moment of helplessness in what could be a routine fetch quest in another game. For a post-apocalyptic experience that has you scraping by instead of conquering all, we're looking forward to I Am Alive, available for download on the PS3 and Xbox 360 before too long.