At Ubisoft’s 2008 E3 press conference the first trailer for I Am Alive was shown off. Gamers everywhere were intrigued at a potential game in a post-apocolyptic setting that put a strong emphasis on realism. As time passed and no updates were given on the games development hope was lost that I Am Alive would ever see the light day. After many years, multiple developers, and a complete art change I Am Alive is set to finally bring its depressed world and tone to the masses. Promising a realistic take on the post-apocalyptic theme that falls in line more with “The Road” than the likes of “I Am Legend,” I Am Alive has big ambitions and many hurdles to overcome to deliver this experience. Ubisoft Shanghai stepped up to the task and attempted to deliver a downloadable only experience that would feel like a AAA title and leave players remembering the harsh reality that it ultimately delivers.
In I am Alive players play the role of Adam Collins, a man on a journey to reconnect with his wife and daughter after a devastating disaster which has transformed the landscape of the world he lives in. We learn early on that the disaster involved massive earthquakes and that aftershocks still continue in the current timeline of the game. Adam was away from his family on the east coast and has spent nearly a year walking across the devastated country to get back to them. The game opens right outside the city with his destination being the only logical place he knows to look for them and that’s his apartment. Much of the narration of the game is told through the LCD screen of a small camcorder and we are introduced to this right away. Adam constantly films his current situation hoping that someone will find the camera and let his story be told to his family or others. These narrative “cutscenes” essentially act as the loading screens and are found through much of the game acting as a bridge to each episode. The main story does not simply involve Adam’s journey to find his family but also revolves around him trying to help a small band of survivors that he finds when he enter the city. The majority of the game is set around him completing tasks that help them escape the terrible situation they are all in.
When you first gain control of Adam you quickly notice the harsh reality that he is living in. The environment is completely destroyed. Ubisoft Shanghai has done an amazing job of creating a backdrop that not only is awe-inspiring but that sets the mood for a game that is so utterly real. The gray color pallet that much of the city is created by adds to the realism of a world encased in dust and debris and quite simply creates a depressive mood that lasts for nearly the whole game. Unlike a game like Fallout 3 which has a very similar landscape and tone, there are no branches into humor or comedy. I Am Alive stays true to its intended tone and it lasts all the way to the end. In doing this the game really gives a sense that you are fighting for survival at every turn and allows for some rather interesting situations.
The game quickly introduces you to the mechanic that it is primarily built around, stamina. Your stamina level is everything in I Am Alive. Stamina allows you to run, climb and even survive in the dust ridden streets. Without it you will no longer be, well, alive. Much of the game is spent traversing the broken buildings and bridges of the world and stamina plays a major role here. As you climb your stamina slowly depletes. The game allows you to do some big leaps to certain ledges but doing so comes at the cost of a larger chunk of stamina. You will find early on that the traversal becomes a balance of getting to your destination quickly and doing so without losing all your stamina. When your stamina is fully depleted you will fall from whatever you are hanging on to and ultimately die. The game allows for some last second chances before death but this lowers your max stamina and too often it leads to your demise anyways. The developers cleverly made dead ends in certain traversal spots to make you stop and plan out your path before climbing. On the survivor difficulty this becomes more of an issue because the wrong path could mean a quick death.
To regain stamina the player has to either stand on a flat level surface or use one of the many resources found throughout the world. These range from bottles of water to soda cans and first aid kits. Each resource raises either stamina, max stamina, or health. You can use these while climbing or even use a piton. A piton is a strap that Adam attaches to a surface he’s climbing and it allows him to rest and regain his stamina. Each one can only be used once and with some of the traversal areas being rather long and having multiple paths, their use can become critical to your success. Resources are found throughout the world either in the open or hidden down certain paths. Adding to the realism, to be successful in I Am Alive you must find and use these resources sparingly. In a real life disaster of this magnitude every resource found must be cherished and only used when it is truly necessary.
You are not alone in the world of I Am Alive and will encounter many other survivors like yourself. Some of them ask for your help and others become hostile toward you because your presence could mean their survival could be in jeopardy. You have the option to help certain survivors by giving them some of your resources such as first aid kits or even bottles of wine for those looking for what may be their last drink. By helping them the game gives you another retry which is essentially the games life system. Every time you die you lose a retry and when they are all gone you must start back at the beginning of the episode you were in. On normal difficulty the game never became too difficult that my retries really mattered but on Survivor mode they are critical. The game also keeps track of how many people you have helped and scores you on them. This leads to an overall score at the end of the game that is tied to achievements as well as a worldwide and friend leaderboard. You can see if other players were as generous as you and compare your overall score to theirs.
Not everyone in I Am Alive requires help. Like I mentioned some are hostile and want to harm or even kill you. These characters are armed with machetes, guns, and even full swat gear. Adam starts the game equipped with a gun and quickly finds a machete. Aiming your gun at characters often lead to them reacting differently towards you either by cowering or shooting at you. Interestingly enough the game allows you to draw your weapon and aim down the site like other shooters but really doesn’t give you direct control over aiming. A drawn gun points at an intended target which can then be changed by flicking the right analog stick in the direction of the next target you want to hit. This allows you to quickly point your gun at approaching enemies as if you were in an intense real life moment. At one point the game does allow you to click the right analog stick and get a bit more precision over aiming to take out some heavily armored enemies but for the most part aiming is not crucial. You are not just armed with a gun and a machete. The game also provides you with a bow. The bow is just as lethal as the gun but it does not intimidate hostile characters. As soon as you draw the bow on them they will rush right at you. If you fire off your arrow you must collect it back from the corpse of the person you just killed because arrows are sparse throughout the world. I found myself overwhelmed in some situations and having to find ways to get my arrow back without ending up a corpse myself.
Each encounter with hostile characters becomes an interesting enigma of what to do. Each encounter can be handled in many different ways. You can point your empty gun at them and possibly intimidate them to lower their weapon which will then allow you to walk away or even knock them out with a swift punch. You can allow them to walk up to you and appear unarmed but quickly unsheathe your machete to deliver a deadly surprise attack or simply walk away. What you do in each encounter usually depends on what you have equipped and how many enemies there are. Some encounters may involve multiple enemies and you must decide how to handle it. There may be two men with machetes and two with guns. In this case it’s best to allow one with a gun to walk up to you, surprise attack him and then shoot the other with the gun. With your gun drawn the two machete wielding enemies will then back off but sometimes one of them will try to run for the gun of the second enemy you shot. If you have no bullets left this can quickly become a deadly situation. As you can see each encounter becomes a small puzzle in enemy and weapon management. I found myself having to make sure that I not only survive each encounter but that I also survived in the most efficient way and didn’t lose too many bullets or too much of my health.
Encounters with these characters often occur in buildings or in the subway system but they can also occur in the dust ridden streets. The dust itself becomes an enemy because as you are exposed to it your stamina slowly drops. When down on the streets the game darkens and obscures much of your view. You can only see a short distance in front of you which requires you to not only figure out where you are going but also to find a place where you can climb out of the dust to regain stamina. It’s interesting how just walking through an environment can become stressful and a fight for survival. Later in the game you are provided with a gas mask to lengthen the amount of time you can spend in the dust but this just means the game makes you travel longer in it without an escape from it. The game provides you with a map to know which way you are going but often what looks like the right path by following the street ends up being a dead end blocked by crashed buildings or large sinkholes. The game does not let you stray too far from the correct direction and will eventually tell you you are going the wrong way. This is appreciated but does take away from some of the immersion because it reminds you that you are indeed playing a game. Unfortunately the map is also only accessed by pressing start. I wish there was some sort or mini-map or small arrow indicator that at least pointed in the direction of your detonation. It is easy to become disoriented in the thick dust and I found it somewhat frustrating having to go in and out of the map menu too many times when I became lost.
So putting everything together does I Am Alive deliver on what was promised to be a survival game unlike any before? I would honestly say yes. The game does things that no other games have done before. It takes the typical third person action genre and adds it’s own unique twists. The idea of stamina in traversal is brilliant. Other games like Uncharted or even Ubisoft’s own Assassin’s Creed games allow you to traverse anything at anytime and when you stop and think about it is completely unrealistic. Either Nathan Drake and Ezio are superheroes or they have the strongest fingers in the known world. This mechanic was so impactful that when I was recently playing Uncharted: Golden Abyss I was rushing through some traversal spots and stressing for Drake fearing that he was going to fall if I did not move quick enough.The idea that Adam can only traverse for a set amount of time adds realism to a game that is already so chock full of it. The intimidation mechanic works great also. Being able to point an empty gun at enemies seems strange at first but quickly becomes the norm. From what I know this is the first game to ever do such a thing. Such a simple thing plays a major role in encounters with other survivors and quickly becomes your go-to method to dispatch them.
With all the praise it seems I’ve given the game up to this point there are still some downfalls that I experienced. Like I mentioned earlier, the map system just did not work for me. I had some moments where I felt I was just wandering amongst the dust frustrated where to go next watching my stamina quickly drop. Of course the argument could be made that this just adds to the realism but I think it could have just been rethought. The encounters with hostile enemies, though initially interesting and unlike anything I’d ever done, quickly becomes repetitive. After a few of them you instinctively know what to do in each situation and they just become a grind and unwanted. The game does wrap up shortly after I started having this feeling but I just wish there was more that the developers had done with them. I also was a little let down at the presence of invisible walls while climbing. This game felt a lot more like Enslaved in this sense that it looks like you are walking across a steel beam hundreds of feet above a broken city but in reality there is no threat of you falling because the game will not let you. You learn this within the first five minutes of playing and I think it just takes a little bit away from the realism. The character models themselves also could have looked a bit better. The game looks a bit dated and it’s probably because it’s been in development for so long. Kudos to Ubisoft Shanghai for finally getting the game out though.
When all the buildings had finally been traversed and the last enemy had met the sharp end of my arrow I Am Alive delivered an enjoyable experience that I will remember for a long time. As a $15 downloadable title the game is a steal. It probably could have been released as a $60 title although some may have complained at it’s length, 5 to 6 hours depending on your choice of difficulty. Instead Ubisoft made the title exclusively dowloadable and in my opinion it’s one of the best downloadable experiences out there. You feel the realism right from the get go and in certain moments will find yourself literally struggling to survive. The game does indeed get a bit repetitive but quickly wraps up before it over stays its welcome. Do yourself a favor and experience this title not only for its unique twists on an established genre, but like me hopefully you’ll be able to say “I Am Alive.”