I Am Alive Review
Surprisingly, the long-awaited I Am Alive is a difficult game to accurately analyze. If you go search the available review scores, you’ll see a range of 4.5 to 9 and just about everything in between. After playing, I’ve concluded that the reason is as follows: if you care more about the technical elements, if the occasionally awkward control annoys you, and if the slight lapses of realism become too glaring, you’re going to hate it. But if you become immersed, as I did…well…
As you might expect, there’s a whole lot of grittiness involved in this production. After all, we’re looking at a post-apocalyptic setting, where a city is in rubble and chaos, and everything is dusty, dirty, or downright ugly. Perhaps fittingly, the ugliest things on the screen are often the humans; not because they’re grimy but because they clearly represent how far humanity can fall in a survival situation. Effectively, it proves we’re all animals underneath. The rest of the visual presentation is good, but there are some obvious visual miscues that can be comical.
The sound is key to your overall immersion and enjoyment. The ambient effects are well implemented, which means you’re frequently on edge during your urgent quest to locate your family. Much of the audio is subtle but that makes sense; nothing about this game is in your face, even though the shadow of death may lurk around every corner. To me, the vibe is a little like Silent Hill (only without the grotesque monsters). The music is also downplayed, but the soundtrack is still a decent accompaniment, and the voice acting is excellent.
You have to feel this game. You have to sense the main character’s urgency and in some cases, utter desperation. You have to appreciate the widespread desperation of humanity after a cataclysmic event; nothing is as it once was, and you will quickly learn that civility and other neighborly qualities have long since flown out the window. Resources are scarce and everything is uncertain. Uncertainty leads to rash actions and the possibility of rash – and often violent – actions makes everyone tense and suspicious.
Ubisoft does an admirable job of creating this difficult effect. You find a machete early on and eventually, you’ll get yourself a gun. But these items don’t guarantee survival, especially because the real enemy can be the environment itself. There’s a lot of climbing involved and as you are indeed human, your stamina will drop as you climb. Run out of breath and down you go…fall far enough, and it’s over. The good news is that if you’ve got some food or other recovery items with you, you can select them during a tough climb and replenish some stamina.
That sort of knocked things back a bit for me, just because I didn’t find it all that realistic. The other thing that almost took me out of the experience was the somewhat clunky controls, a touchy subject among critics and gamers alike. It’s not always reliable and responsive and that can be a problem in tricky situations. However, it’s hardly terrible and I think some people are being way too hard on the faults in this mechanic; they’re not bad enough to be frustrating, and they really didn’t hinder my enjoyment that much.
What I especially liked about this game is that Ubisoft really tried. I’m into commending effort these days, even if it falls a little shy on the technical side. What we have here is a world that is both compelling and frightening, as resources are always in short supply (you’ll never have more than a few bullets for your gun), and the strife and struggling is plain as day. Some people have given up and are just going to drown their sorrows, which is sad and depressing; others have teamed up to eliminate anybody in their path…more food and water for them. And that’s scary.
And through it all, you have a father simply trying to find his family. That alone is reason enough to keep pushing forward, and gives the story a more intimate feel. Your visibility is never very good so you’re always worried about what’s just up ahead, and the dynamic created with any individuals you come across is extremely effective. Sure, it’s not entirely 100% realistic, but it’s a step in the right direction, in my opinion. You can threaten people with your machete, raise your hands to get them to let down their guard, etc. In survival, there are constant gambles to take.
This is by far the most interesting part of the game, although it does break down at times. There’s some depth involved, as not everyone is easily intimidated, and those who aren’t can pose a serious problem. Furthermore, as you’re almost always low on ammo, you will likely be bluffing an awful lot, which adds even more tension to an already difficult situation. The gun can cause some weird issues with the AI (like if you put it away, people will rush you, apparently forgetting that you have it), but most confrontations are always intriguing.
I Am Alive is going to incite plenty of discussion. There’s a brutal, harsh overtone throughout that involves some explicit content and things of that nature, but it’s all essential. And as I said before, if you get all anal about the control, the lack of total realism, and some erratic AI, you’re going to be disappointed. But I think adventures like this are all about the experience; they’re about being involved in an almost impossible situation and overcoming significant virtual adversity. Honestly, despite its drawbacks, this is the direction I would hope games take in the future.
The Good: Fantastic, immersive atmosphere. Top-notch voice performances. Appropriately challenging. Encourages survival-related strategy. Various gameplay mechanics work well. Story is decent. Originality is a big plus.
The Bad: Graphics are a little muddy. Control can be wonky at times. Erratic AI. Occasionally frustrating.
The Ugly: “Man, I have nothing…it makes sense but still…”
4/5/2012 Ben Dutka