I Am Alive preview was our first look worth the wait?

Despite being downgraded to an XBLA/PSN download after having initially been announced as a full-scale AAA game, I Am Alive has managed to grab our interest again. Yesterday, we got our first look at the post-apocalyptic survival game, and saw four different areas that gave us a good picture of I Am Alive’s tense – and often bloody – gameplay.

Our hands-off demo, led and narrated by Creative Director StanisLas Mettra of Ubisoft Shanghai, begins at the start of the game, in a decimated city littered with rubble across cracked asphalt that had obviously seen some serious upheaval. Our unnamed protagonist is finally approaching the site of his old apartment after a year of traveling on foot trying to return home. You see, he was over a thousand miles away from home when a mysterious cataclysm occurred (we’re told the nature of the event is intentionally left unexplained), and it’s taken him a full year to make his way back. We do know that part of the disaster included an electromagnetic blast that disabled all communication, so he has no clue whether his wife and child are still in the area or even if they’re still alive, but he has no other route of action than to go home and search for clues.

Getting there is a bit of a problem though. An area map shows which way to go, but with all the collapsed buildings and debris everywhere, finding a walk-able path proves impossible. So, he climbs. Like a real person though, his strength and stamina is finite, so he must choose an efficient path (or at least one that allows for him to stand and rest when needed) or he risks plummeting to his death. As we watch him progress up the side of a building, grabbing handholds on exposed rebar, at one point his stamina goes into the red, causing the music to swell dramatically while a button prompt appears telling the player to mash on RT to push past his limit and make it to safety.

Above: The stamina bar isn’t shown here, but it depletes as you climb or hang

Before our protagonist reaches his goal, our demoer whisks us to a later stage in the game that shows off how open some of the levels are. We’re in another city, but this time the ground is covered in a thick layer of toxic dust that covers everything at ground level. Walking around in the dust depletes health and stamina, so he can only stay on the ground for brief periods before having to climb a building to get a breath of clean air.

This is where we first see resources come in to play. Since we’re in the middle of a post-apocalyptic, anarchistic wasteland, every scrap of food, water, supplies (and as we soon see, every weapon and bullet) is precious. If the protagonist gets stuck in the poisonous fog for too long, he can eat something to regain stamina/health, but it’s not a choice to be taken lightly. We also see him pick up a piton item that he can place on a climbing location (like into the side of a climbable pipe) that allows him to take a break at that spot to regain stamina. You can only use it once, but it sticks where you put it, so strategic placement is key.

Next we’re transported to a subway level where we get our first taste of combat. With a little girl strapped to the hero’s back (we didn’t get filled in on the story here, but it seems like he must be trying to transport her to safety), he carefully makes his way past a group of thugs looking for a fight, and tells the toddler to close her eyes. As four of them circle around, closing in menacingly, one guy seems subtly different from the other three – he’s cockier and seems to be the one in charge. As the protagonist approaches him, he quickly hits X to perform a surprise attack by slitting his throat with a knife, then turns his gun on the other three who quickly surrender.

In this way, it doesn’t seem like combat in the traditional sense, but rather a kind of strategic ballet where you have to choose how and when to act in order to survive. Pull the knife at the wrong moment, and you open yourself up to being overtaken by the gang’s superior numbers. We saw the scene described above play out unsuccessfully once, where there were thugs flanking the main character on either side so that after he took out one of them, he couldn’t hold the others at gunpoint all together. Conflict can be avoided sometimes too, and most enemies won’t attack at all if you don’t run and don’t have a weapon drawn.

After that, he takes out a few more bad guys and saves a group of prisoners who were being held by a group of cannibals, and the little girl, still strapped to the guy’s back, starts to question whether her caretaker isn’t a bad guy too, since he’s killed so many people. He reassures her, but she’s obviously disturbed by what she’s seen.

We press on to a new area that looks like some kind of house, where more gang members await. A similar situation plays out, where the main character buys some time talking to the hostiles with his hands raised in submission until he figures out which one in the leader, then waits for the right moment to strike. As he kills the last of the surrendered thugs (they’re bad to the core, so it’s unwise to leave survivors), our demo comes to a close.

After seeing the game in action, it’s easy to forget that this is an XBLA/PSN game, because it definitely doesn’t look like one. I Am Alive is scheduled to release sometime this winter, which we’re told could be anytime between December 2011 and February/March 2012. We’re eager to see more of that this world has in store for us, so look for more details here soon.

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