Friday, 4 May 2012

I Am Alive Review or: How I Spent my Post Apocalypse

If society were to end, what would I become? It’s a question which I have often debated in the deepest, darkest corners of the infernal hell prison otherwise better characterized as ‘my mind’. It is a fair question too, I desire to annihilate 99% of all Life of Earth merely because I’m offended by the smug insincerity of Kony2012 slacktivists, and the further bastardisation of Philp K. Dick’s legacy via the Total Recall remake; whilst simultaneously being too lazy to click the ignore option in the submenu on my Facebook wall. Living in the first world is super hard. So it isn’t entirely unconceivable that somebody far less humble than I (and with the required arsenal), such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would purge this world with his atomic tears simply because his dick was inducted into the pantheon of Great Old Ones. 

The reason I bring is up is because I’ve recently been playing a video game which I thought was rather good. The game in question is I Am Alive, and it captures the daily struggle and desperation of life in the post-apocalypse almost as accurately as Birmingham does. You are thrown into the shoes of Adam, a likeable everyman (if you can still consider him an everyman after he’s stabbed his thirtieth bandit). After a year of wandering the wastes of The United States he has finally arrived at his hometown of Haventon, in search of his wife and daughter. Adam may as well be from the 1950’s, even after his prolonged absence he still expects his wife to still be sat at home waiting for him. It didn’t make it into the final game but apparently in the script he also expected a warm meal on the table, a foot-rub and to not be asked about his day at work. 

The game play revolves around scaling the ruined buildings of Haventon and defending yourself against the inevitable scavengers/raiders. Combat can be tricky because instead of being free-flowing, it is rather a series of motions you are forced to go through like partaking in a well-choreographed dance with Louie Spence; the idea of which is far more terrifying than the majority of the apocalyptic imagery on display here – even the rape hotel level. Occasionally the game will roll out a ‘special’ enemy, who you’ll have to head shot with annoying precision, which can be problematic when the lesser enemies charge you the second you lower your gun, like it’s all a game of ‘What Time is it Mr Wolf?: Ghetto Edition’. Once you get the long bow you can retrieve the arrows, which helps with ammo conservation in the same way that the Konami Code helps with extra life conservation.

What makes truly makes the game interesting however, is the resource-management aspect, were in theory you have to decide whether to use the scarce supplies you for yourself or to heal/feed the other survivors. Note that I did say ‘in theory’, this is because to care enough about these poorly characterized survivors, who appear out of nowhere and latch themselves onto you like a charity street team, your last social encounter would have had to have been during Occupy Wallstreet. Often the only initial sign of them is their desperate cries for help echoing through the ruined city, so you’ll be forced to seek them out; wasting precious resources to get to them and then wasting even more resources in helping them. It’s like how in Mad Max law and order has broken down due to the lack of oil, yet most of the violence revolves around vehicles using what little petrol (derived from oil) there is left.

The other side to the resource-management is far more engaging – the climbing. To get virtually anywhere in I Am Alive’s world you’ll need to scale conveniently laid out building husks; and doing so will result in the depletion of the stamina bar. To recover any lost stamina you’ll either need to use your precious resources or reach a resting point in a timely fashion. It may not sound all that difficult, but on the game’s super hard Survival Mode I can guarantee Adam’s body will take more of a beating than a civil education worker in Charles Bronson’s (Michael Peterson) prison cell. Climbing is easily the highlight of the entire experience, and stands out as a tense test of stamina –like a Jason Russell masturbating in San Diego simulator.

I suspect the side-quests are just to help stretch out the main story, which stands out around four to five hours, but I was quite happy with the length to be truthful. By the end Adam has been put through all the typical rigmarole of the downfall of civilization story, and the last thirty minutes show signs the story is spreading thin; Adam is sent on another rescue mission and you are forced into a battle royale with a gang of a dozen scavengers in a former amusement park. In a game were the combat is supposed to feel like a desperate, yet necessary part of daily life, forcing you to kill more people than a MMORPG in a Korean LAN cafe does feel out of place.

Many detractors have levelled complaints at I Am Alive’s graphics, but for a download only title (one that takes place in the grimy apocalypse no less) it looks perfectly serviceable. Everything seems to have a dust/dirt filter that is very reminiscent of the noise screen of Silent Hill, and generally your draw distance will be limited by the thick clouds of dust. In order to survive, because the dust constantly drains your stamina, you’ll spend more time going up and down than a bi-polar sufferer in zero gravity. 

All in all I Am Alive is a flawed little gem, and probably the most realistic post-apocalyptic video game to date. Despite the fact gameplay flows in a fairly ridged pattern and is thus predictable, the open world hub area is fun to explore and does benefit from being unsure of what you’ll encounter round the next corner. The story or setting may not be original, but the main characters are compelling and I genuinely wanted Adam and Mei to survive. I only did a handful of the side quests as I never really felt any motivation to help the people I encountered; especially when their idea of survival boiled down to: “I need X but I’m too weak and vulnerable to leave this spot, and there are too many dangerous predators out there so I’ll just scream for help constantly.” Actually I think I’ve just arrived at the answer to the question from the opening paragraph; “If society were to end, what would I become?” I’d be exactly the same. Like a Victor Meldrew who survives by chewing on your nutsack.

Sinister bastard...