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Never Dead: Eyes-on with ex-vapourware I Am Alive

Ubisoft’s oft delayed, on-again-off-again digital survival title is finally ready to emerge into the light of day. Stace Harman takes a look to find out if we welcome it or run for cover.

It’s unlikely that Ubisoft Shanghai’s upcoming tale of disaster survival benefitted from its debut as a rumoured first-person project headed up by Jade “Assassin’s Creed” Raymond. Nor has its protracted development history and subsequent re-housing from DarkWorks to Ubisoft’s Shanghai studio helped inspire confidence that everything has always gone according to plan.

It most certainly would have been better off if it had never suffered the perceived ignominy of originally being billed a “Triple A” title – whatever that means – only to have its shift to a digitally distributed title joked about before being finally confirmed in September of this year. As if the method of distribution is any way indicative of the potential quality of a title.

As Ubisoft Shanghai’s communication director Aurelien Palasse put it when I sat down with him last week after an eyes-on session with I Am Alive, “We see the digital format not as a limitation, but as an opportunity.”

This opportunity stems from the type of gamer that Ubi Shanghai believes is likely to download the fruits of its labour. Palasse acknowledges that whilst the initial decision to go digital was out of the development team’s control, shifting to a download format encourages a certain “natural selection” of its potential customer-base and pushes it further into core-gamer territory. The team has looked to capitalise on this by making a game that is “more realistic and more mature” in its bleak portrayal of survival than it might otherwise have been had it been a traditional packaged retail product.

I will survive
Still, let’s put all that aside for a moment and concentrate on what I Am Alive is now, not what it might have been. Ostensibly, I Am Alive is the story of an everyman attempting to find his way home in the hope of finding his family, after a natural disaster devastates North America - shredding concrete like paper and leaving buildings precariously and haphazardly lent against each other like dozing drunks. “Four hours to fly East, almost a year to walk home” intones the voiceover in the game’s opening scenes.

Quite whether this disaster, referred to in-game as The Event, has affected the rest of the globe or indeed whether it was entirely Mother Nature’s doing is not clear, these are things to be learned by interacting with fellow survivors from whom you can piece together a fragmented account of how the land was torn asunder.

Some of these survivors need help: perhaps something as basic as fresh water to drink or bandages to dress a wound, but with such things in short supply and necessary for your own survival Ubi Shanghai is hoping to introduce uncomplicated but tough choices into the gameplay.

Watch on YouTube

I Am Alive's "comeback" trailer, the first
new video in over a year.

“Sometimes it’s more difficult to help people and give up your resources,” Palasse suggests.

“We wanted to bring emotion to the game play by showing very clearly that you’re sacrificing your own resources to help people.”

At other times, those in need of help are threatened by dangers altogether more malevolent and capricious: the depraved gang satisfying its sexual needs by preying on the vulnerable or the desperate ragtag posse capturing and imprisoning lone survivors to feed a yet more basic instinct: the need for food.

In some cases a group can be cowed by taking out its most antagonistic member with a surprise machete strike, in others it’s possible to bluff with an empty pistol – sometimes necessary as ammo is desperately scarce.

Fools rush in
The most frequent threat to your wellbeing is not hostile homo-sapiens, however. Instead, the environment and your own stamina limitations will likely prove your undoing more often than mean men with machetes. I Am Alive employs a rechargeable stamina bar which is sapped by scaling obstacles and descending into the pall of thick, ever present dust at street level.

Once your stamina is depleted it’s still possible to continue your traversing the environment but this leads to you becoming fatigued, which in turn reduces your overall stamina capacity. The effects of fatigue can be negated by scarce consumables, whilst making use of limited climbing pitons allows you to establish makeshift rest points when climbing to enable your stamina to recharge. All of this brings resource management, exploration, planning and the gamble of risk versus reward to the forefront of your experience.

Watch on YouTube

Whereas his trailer is from E3 2010.
Spot the difference?

Perversely, dying is inevitable in I Am Alive as situations concerning hostile NPCs and the unyielding environment can turn very bad, very quickly, if you act recklessly. The Retry system, which acts as a type of autosave, means you can start from the last significant checkpoint but only if you have at least one Retry available, otherwise you start from the beginning of the level.

Playing on Normal grants three Retries per level, but play on Survivor and you have to earn every Retry by helping victims. It’s a canny system, further enforcing the need for stringent resource management and cautious planning during exploration, but Palasse reveals death can also educate you.

“You’re progressing by dying, by losing, because you’re thinking about your mistakes,” he explains. “Like life: your mistakes teach you more. I am Alive is the same way.”

All of this can be broken
Depending on the type of gamer you are, I Am Alive might be sounding like quite a tasty prospect around about now. Unfortunately, there are some less flavoursome words of caution to be sprinkled atop this dish.

From the few instances we were shown, your interaction with NPCs appears to very player-centric. Many of the NPCs that we saw do not seem to be survivors of a great disaster, simply struggling to get by. Instead, they appear more like a series of generic one-dimensional characters, scattered very deliberately around levels to be encountered for narrative details, resources or to break up the traversal of the environment.

I Am Alive exhibits more interesting concepts than it does instances of lacklustre execution.

Furthermore, some of the NPC animation and behaviour is incredibly wooden and unnatural, evidenced in a scene in which one armoured goon trudged slowly after the protagonist as he backed away to line up a headshot; you could almost see the coding algorithms at work in his rudimentary path-finding and complete lack of reaction to having a gun pointed at the one unprotected part of his body.

Then there’s the colour palette. Undoubtedly, with the destruction and upheaval of millions of tons of concrete, everything would indeed be covered in dust. Moving away from street level affords the occasional glint of sunlight off twisted steel girders and travelling underground is lit by torchlight and camp fires, but it’s fair to say that much of I Am Alive is shrouded in the oppressive grey that’s been shown in screen shots.

I Am Alive exhibits more interesting concepts than it does instances of lacklustre execution. Now, we can only wait and see whether a game focused on one man’s struggle against the environment and human depravity can survive its own legacy.

I Am Alive is due for release in the northern hemisphere’s winter period on XBLA and PSN; a more accurate release date is expected to be announced by Ubisoft in the coming weeks.

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