I Am Alive emerged last year from the rubble of its own development ‘Event’ crying out its own name, a shadow of its former self but still very much alive. Initial developer Darkworks and publisher Ubisoft had been working hard on this ‘disaster survival’ adventure before the latter wiped the slate clean after a couple of years. The two parties ‘mutually decided’ to part ways and the re-development process was handed over to Ubisoft’s Shanghai division: what they’ve produced is only at its core the same project.
From a distance sure, I Am Alive can be easily mistaken for the same game that looked ever-so-special on the cover of GamesTM over three years ago. That first major coverage of the game following E3 2008 and that intriguing trailer from the conference laid the groundwork for what Ubisoft would later… well, you know. With influences great and small from films like I Am Legend, Cloverfield, and The Day After Tomorrow and shows like Jericho and Lost, that important core focus on survival instincts and post-disaster confusion/hysteria would be little that remained from what Alexis Goddard detailed in an interview way back when.
The horror elements that could/would/should be inevitably implemented off the back of this focus also thankfully survived but beyond the genres and vague structure, the game you can play now is not the game you’d have played if Ubisoft hadn’t gone through with their apocalyptically significant development shift.
I Am Alive is no longer set in the vast expanse of Chicago. You’re no longer a man looking for an ex-girlfriend, and you don’t have to band together with other survivors to get to where you need to be. Straight away, things are different: now set in a fictional town called Haventon you the supposed protagonist arrive here after a year of travelling, hoping to be reunited with your wife and daughter. Instead you’re introduced to a lawless town filled with vagrant, scared survivors and roves of murderous gangs. Cannibalism is implied; murder is most certainly not. You’ll meet friendly faces but these are rare and you’ll often be forced to think quick… or panic and waste your last bullet.
Outside of aiming down the sights you follow Adam around in a far more Uncharted-esque fashion (complete with sublime score that compliments each and every moment). The first-person aspect which you’d have probably found comparable to Mirror’s Edge has been scrapped in favour of a more environment-considering third-person adventure perspective: as you leap around and hang off beautifully detailed broken structures and desolate buildings you’ll get to witness and appreciate more. Although the camera controls are occasionally awkward, the ability to see your surroundings – particularly during high tension situations – proves to be a highly useful asset in your rather sparse arsenal.
Bullets are few and far between – arrows later on even more so – and while you acquire a machete very early on you can’t simply run around like Kratos – the ability to use your blade given to you only via button prompts. I Am Alive makes it a point to ensure that you always feel like you’re only surviving and not living through the ordeal: instinctive snap decisions can be instantly regrettable, every choice weighing heavy on the mind as you stare longingly at the single-figure bullet count and rifle through your near-empty inventory with remorse and fear.
Do you help those in need when the time comes? Ruthlessness seems like the logical choice – the approach taken initially was a ‘Disregard Everything, Acquire Survival’ kind of apocalypse survivor – but those saved can offer you ‘retries’ in return for you giving up one of the few items you have. You’ll spend a large chunk of your time trying to somewhat fruitlessly strike a balance between keeping items in case of emergency and hoarding retries in case of emergency. A few particularly tasking moments will let you know harshly whether you made the right choice or not; in Survivor mode – where items are even more sparse – the decision will be easier, the sole survivor a more favourable role than the saviour.
Outside of the numerous personal dilemmas faced, there is a problem with this survivor/saviour choice presented to you. Soon after taking control of an already haggard, world-weary but determined Adam and being shown the ropes, you’ll be tasked with escorting a little girl who reminds him/you a little of his daughter to her now surrogate father. I Am Alive becomes less about surviving than helping others survive and this conflicts with the game letting you decide how much of a lone wanderer you want to be.
The story just about gets away with making your heroic actions seem like stepping stones to finding your family. When being offered the help/avoid choice for so many people you encounter, it’s confusing to have this choice system framed by objectives that you can’t ignore. These little missions very slowly seem to be leading towards finding your own family but while unavoidably suffocating in dust storms, burning through precious resources and putting your life on the line time and time again in situations you’d otherwise consider avoiding, you have to wonder why the game looks to punish you at every opportunity.
“Where is this all heading?” is what you ask yourself many times over the four hours spent traversing the ruins of Haventon. When all of your previous actions come to a head… well, I won’t spoil it for you because the impact it had on me was something that I’d rather not ruin for you should you choose to experience this game yourself, which I highly recommend you do. All I will say about the climax is that it only serves to heighten the importance of choice. I Am Alive wants you to feel the weight of each action and perpetual desolation; the ending will overwhelmingly give you both.
I Am Alive is not what I expected. This isn’t the grandiose dynamic environment exploration survival-adventure we were all expecting and salivating over the prospect of. What we have is a somewhat scaled-down version of the original concept that tries to capture the post-apocalypse atmosphere all the more so: instead of experiencing the immediate aftermath through the eyes of just a man, we’re given a time-decayed wasteland world seen through the eyes of a man who has walked across it for the sake of his family. Whether we care for his plight or not we’re given the chance, if only in parts, to try to survive an apocalypse the way we see fit.
I Am Alive thankfully builds a dark, despairing atmosphere and the desperation the game wants you to feel it felt. More than anything else – be it the choices you make and the risks you choose to take – I Am Alive succeeds in producing that all-important three word apocalypse mentality: I Am Alive.