Unique ideas that push the limits of the budget experience
You just can't keep a good thing down. I Am Alive is a seemingly inconspicuous Xbox Live Arcade release that's had a secretly rocky past stretching all the way back to E3 2006. Yep, it's taken over half a decade for this plucky little title to finally come into my hands, and as someone who leaps on anything post-apocalyptia with joy (like some kind of rabid Slayer fanboy) I've been hotly anticipating it all these years. Does it live up to my expectations, or does it suck harder than a nuclear-powered Dyson?
The first thing to understand about I Am Alive is it's turbulent history. Announced at E3 2006, it started to look like a really promising survival/adventure game and there was even a cinematic trailer depicting a bunch of unwashed white-collar types scrapping over some water. Fittingly like said types, the game fell through the glass floor of developer support and into the dusty basement of development hell. Finally it reemerged as an XBLA release, heavily redesigned and worryingly quiet.
The bad news is that this isn't the open-world survival epic first promised. The good news is that itis a well-made, ambitious adventure game that does very little badly. Almost all of the game is split into two distinct tasks: climb stuff and meet people. The climbing stuff feels like the illegitimate child of Assassins Creed and Shadow Of The Colossus. Like Ass Creed, the game handles a lot of the climbing for you so you don't have to do much more than press a button and hold the stick in the direction you want Beardy McScrubber to go. The SOTC element comes in the form of a stamina meter that decreases at an alarming rate whenever you climb. Although it sounds a little backward, it actually makes the platforming sections remarkably tense and gives some of the incredibly high climbs a real sense of peril.
The combat, whilst at first a little unintuitive, is remarkably original and tense. In I Am Alive, ammo conservation is possibly the most important it's ever been in a game. I don't just mean Resi-style ammo counting, I mean that you're very unlikely to have more than one bullet at a time, and when enemies begin to come in threes and fours it almost becomes a puzzle game as you have to work out in the blink of an eye whether you can sneak by them or somehow figure out a way to intimidate them into surrender. You die faster than Stewart Lee doing his 9/11 bit in Brooklyn Comedy Cellar, too, so if you misjudge the situation you're likely to eat a machete.
Unfortunately, most of the games' problems stem from the limitations placed upon it by being relegated from a full game to a Live Arcade release. Graphically, it's simultaneously impressive and sickening. The game attempts to get around it's lack of visual power by making "dust" a key element of the game. Dust covers everything that isn't indoors like God has emptied his ashtray on the world and there's so much of the stuff the game almost looks as if it's in black and white at times. And whilst the sections set in sky-high office blocks and metal structures look impressive considering the restraints I Am Alive is forced to stick to, some of the inner-city sections and "dust storm" parts are sub-PS2 levels of ugly, with textures that only look half-rendered.
If you can overlook these slight niggles, this is a solid, original game that defies the odds and delivers a fresh new experience. The fact that the main letdowns are caused by the format shows that it really should have been given the chance of a full retail release. Perhaps if this one sells well enough (and it should, being more than worth the tenner it'll cost you) Ubisoft will be able to dig deep and find the money for a fully-fledged disc based sequel. Until then this will have to suffice.
Written by Ashley Chittock. Read more at http://ashleychittock.blogspot.co.uk