Review: I Am Alive (Ubisoft – 2012)

I remember hearing about I Am Alive early in 2011, when it had already been delayed a few years, and development had been passed to Ubisoft from another company. I Am Alive continued to have a tumultuous development cycle full of delays and misinformation, until it was finally released on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in early 2012. There were promises of true survival gameplay in a post-apocalyptic world, in which you were forced to rely on quick thinking and conserving scarce resources to stay alive. The advertisements painted a picture of a desolate and decaying world ravaged by an apocalypse of a vague nature, in which a man would likely shoot you over a bottle of water sooner than say “hello”.

As a long-time fan of survival games, especially post-apocalyptic ones, I felt attracted to I Am Alive, but it somehow managed to slip by and avoid my purchase. Later in the year, it was released for PC, but it got lost amidst the big blockbusters of late 2012 and fell under my radar once again. However, when I Am Alive was featured in a Steam sale for only five dollars, I wasn’t going to pass it up a third time.

It’s a good thing I bought it when I did. Unfortunately, while there are some interesting ideas at play, few of them are particularly well-executed. Some elements, such as the atmosphere and level design, are very well-crafted, but the half-realized combat mechanics and cumbersome controls are significant black marks on this game’s already imperfect record.

This guy.

I Am Alive tells the story of a man, whose name is never mentioned, heading to the post-apocalyptic city of Haventon to find his wife and daughter. The world as we know it has been all but destroyed by an event, mysteriously named “The Event”, which includes outrageous earthquakes and perpetual dust storms. Regular people have turned barbaric and territorial. Survival of the fittest is in full effect. I won’t spoil much of the story, because it honestly is not that interesting and the game is very short, so there’s not a lot to spoil.

 

Much of the game is spent climbing around Haventon. The climbing is more Tomb Raider than Assassin’s Creed. In I Am Alive, you have a limited amount of stamina, which is drained by nearly every action: running, climbing, walking through dust storms, attacking, etc. Every situation is a puzzle, and it can lead to some tense moments. There are some stunning and memorable moments in this game, and they are all a result of the atmosphere and environmental design. Climbing sideways up through a toppled skyscraper was truly spectacular, and the mission that takes place at night gave me the creeps in the best way. The best part about the climbing is that it doesn’t take you out of the experience. Instead of looking for the way I was supposed to climb, I was looking for where I could.

The climbing sections are very well-crafted

If you run out of stamina during a climb, you can perform an “Extreme Effort”, in which you rapidly click the mouse to climb faster, though only a little bit faster. This saves you from falling but lowers your maximum stamina, making all future climbs more difficult until you recharge by eating or drinking. Some items like first-aid kits and fruit cups restore health. Others, such as water or inhalers, restore a bit of stamina and/or help return your maximum stamina to, well, its maximum. You will also find pitons you can deploy to give you a resting place along a climb to catch your breath before moving on.

 

These survival supplies are ostensibly scarce in Haventon. Ammunition for the pistol was actually quite rare in the beginning, but became rather common by the end of the game. Consumable items were plentiful enough, even on the hardest difficulty. There were times when I was forced to make choices regarding which items to use, but I was hoping for a moment where I would be stranded atop a tower or something, forced to climb down into the choking dust to scrounge for a bit of water to keep myself alive, but I never really ran out of supplies. By the end of the game I was just shooting everyone I came across, popping painkillers and chugging bottles of wine to heal between encounters.

 

The enemy AI is dodgy at best and completely absent at worst. In one spot, three hostile survivors were sitting in an office having a conversation. I shot one in the head with an arrow from afar. He died instantly. The other two stood up, one said “This is gonna hurt.”, and… nothing. They both just stood there, staring at each other. They didn’t look for me, or check on their recently headshotted friend, or scream for help, or even seem remotely surprised that the man sitting beside them had just taken an arrow to the skull.

Two guys fighting over a can of tuna or something

In addition to AI problems I had numerous technical issues, the worst of which was a terrible delay whenever I moved the mouse, making aiming very difficult. The game also ran poorly despite lacking many of the graphical bells and whistles of modern PC games. I experienced significant framerate drops in places, which were doubly inconvenient when I was already fighting against the controls. There were some arguably interesting but very poor control decisions made in the PC version. Why is the attack button the same as the run button? And the “aim gun” button the same as the “drop off a ledge” button? The controls are customizable but the buttons that perform multiple actions cannot be separated. I Am Alive was surely meant to be played with a controller, but even then the controls are confusing, and the game still remains a bad PC port of a console game.

 

The technical problems need not be endured for long, because the game ends suddenly, just when the action is getting good. I went through a lot of trouble to finish as many side missions as I could, yet I finished I Am Alive in just under four and a half hours. If I had not bothered with the side-quests and focused only on the story missions, it would have been even less. There is so much wasted potential in the story, and so many interesting ideas are never explored. The setting of I Am Alive is very interesting but its protagonist is not, and it is hard to care about any of the characters when you don’t care about yourself. With such an interesting post-apocalyptic setting and original atmosphere, I Am Alive could have been a full-priced big budget title, but it is very short, and what game exists is terribly unpolished.

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