It was E3 2008 when Ubisoft released the teaser for I Am Alive. That little video generated a ton of buzz and then the game just kind of vanished. People started to assume the title drifted off into vaporware land but thankfully that's not the case as I Am Alive is, well, alive.
Ubisoft finally showed off what developer Ubisoft Shanghai has been up to since they took over the production of the game and I'm happy to say that I'm really impressed with what I got to see.
I Am Alive (PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade [Previewed])
Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
Release: Winter 2011
I Am Alive begins with players watching a tape of the nameless protagonist, as he recounts the past year of his journey to get back to his hometown of Haventon and find his family. It was a year ago when "The Event" occurred, which destroyed all forms of technology, rocked the planet with earthquakes and finally enveloped the world with a toxic-like fog.
Once the video ends, we find ourselves right on the outskirts of Haventon. The bridge to the city, like most everything else, is in shambles due to all of the earthquakes so you'll see yourself doing a lot of climbing and exploration in order to make your way forward.
The big twist to the climbing, and really anything you do, is that all your actions are tied to a stamina bar. At the top center of the screen is a long bar, the first half of which is white and the second half is red. Jumping, running, climbing -- any action other than walking basically -- will drain your bar. The stamina meter does refill once you're standing or walking.
The challenge comes into play when you find yourself doing something like climbing for too long. As you're climbing the bridge back into town, you'll run into dead ends which eats into your time. Once the stamina bar is completely drained, you have to repeatedly press a button in order to press on and hope you can make it to a platform and rest before you fall to your death. Once you've past the stamina threshold, your stamina bar won't refill all the way. Instead, you'll have to use items like water or health kits to get your stamina filled back.
Next, Stan Mettra, Creative Director on I Am Alive, took us into the city where the poisonous fog that I mention earlier is filling the streets of Haventon. The fog drains your stamina and will eventually kill you if you stay in too long. The only way to escape it is by climbing up buildings to get above the fog.
Once on top of buildings, you'll find other survivors and they play a big part in your experience. Everyone is scared for their lives, and most people you encounter will react to your presence by verbally threatening and waving a weapon at you. If you're close to hostile characters, your character will put up his hands attempting to show he means no harm. You have to make sure you don't do anything to scare people like this, as running or even holding a weapon of your own will cause them to attack.
Of course, if you don't want to deal with these overly hostile people, you can just kill them. You have to think about how you proceed in the world though. Is using that one valuable bullet on a guy who's really scared worth it? In this case, no, but Stan went ahead and shot him anyway. There's no morality system in play, so doing something like killing an innocent won't have a negative effect, other than wasting that bullet.
Another type of person you'll run into are folks in need of help. We ran into one girl who was handcuffed to a chair and was begging you to free her. You know that bullet we wasted? We could have used it to free the girl. Instead, we moved on as there was nothing we could do.
Helping people will have rewards around it, such as getting valuable items to help you on your quest or getting someone's perspective on The Event. The Event knocked out all technology, killing mass communication instantly and literally leaving everyone in the dark as to what was going on. People will give you their perspective as to what they witnessed during The Event, allowing you to piece the story together and get a better understanding of it all.
Stan then took us to a later level which sees the main hero carrying a little girl on his back now. You're looking for the girl's mom and the search takes you underground to the subway station. People are holding out down here as well, including some really mean characters. Entering one room sees a gang of four guys immediately surround the main character and threaten his life, even with the little girl on his back. The main leader of the pack is pushing you over and over again trying to show that he's a tough guy and eventually he will strike at you with his weapon.
Whenever you're face to face with a threatening character, an option for a quick kill comes up. One of the guys in the group has a gun, so Stan backed up into him and then performed a quick kill by slicing his throat open. The three other guys immediately rushed your character but pulling out your gun and aiming it at the group makes them all stop dead in their tracks. They're now at your mercy, and you can either dispose of them or let them be. Stan goes ahead and first kicks a guy into a firepit, thus burning him alive. Then he takes a shot at another guy. The last guy is understandably terrified and on his knees, so Stan simply knocks him out with a punch to the back of his head. Oh, and let's not forget that there's a kid on your back the whole time here.
Aiming your gun pulls the camera into a first person view, both to help you aim and, to me at least, make the scene more impactful. Another cool thing in regard to the gun is that you can still flaunt it even without bullets. People will get suspicious and even attack if you're holding the gun too long without firing. There's a melee weapon system as well, but I didn't get a real sense of it beyond the quick kill mentioned earlier.
It's obviously hard to gauge just how hard I Am Alive will be since there wasn't any hands-on, but it definitely seems like the game will be really challenging. You really have to think about how you'll handle each situation, as one false move can kill you. What's really interesting is there's actually a continue system much like arcade games of yesteryear.
There are Retries that you can get during your quest which can be used to spawn you back to the last place you died. If you don't have any Retries though, you will have to start the level all over again. Ubisoft Shanghai dabbled with the idea of making players restart the entire game if they had no more Retries. Stan told us that "Demon's Souls would have been a joke" in comparison had they gone that route.
Lastly, I want to touch on the wonderful art direction. Most of the outside area I saw had a black and white visual ascetic going on, almost like a grainy television channel. There is color, but it's mostly overwhelmed by the dark theme. The underground section, funny enough, had more color than outside but that was largely thanks to a fireplace in the middle of a room casting a red and orange glow.
My time with I Am Alive was only about 15 minutes, nowhere near enough time to truly take everything in. What I did get to see was really intriguing and I love the unique approach that's being taken with the exploration, combat and the narrative. Let's just hope that approach doesn't get overplayed or dull as you progress through the story, which I was told will be pretty comparable to the average length of a AAA title.