Hands on: I Am Alive

By Paul Hunter

I Am Alive may just be the most realistic survival game ever made. When we think of survival video games, standouts such as Fallout, Left 4 Dead and Manhunt come to mind, and yet in many ways these showcase titles still feel like a game. I Am Alive's aura is much different, the game feels barren and isolated, each moment filling you with anxiety and trepidation. When the game lands on Xbox Live tomorrow my sense is that it will be polarizing -- some gamers will love it while others will loath it -- but without a doubt both groups will agree that there really isn't anything else like it.

Haventon, the fictional town in which I Am Alive is set, is an urban wasteland. A catastrophic global calamity, called the Event, has left the world in shambles, 90% of the population is dead and those who remain have radically changed. Survivors fill pockets of collapsed buildings for shelter, often living alone or in small packs. It's survival of the fittest, and all the rules of a civilized society have been abolished. People loot homes looking for nourishment, rob other survivors at gunpoint for munitions, doing whatever it takes to survive, even if that means killing the innocent.

Our protagonist, which for the sake of this article I will call the Man, had the misfortune of taking a 4-hour plane flight across America moments before the Event. It's taken him one full year to hike back to his hometown of Haventon, and now his quest to find his wife Julie, and daughter Mary, begins.

Starting the game, the Man has only the bare minimum for survival, a gun with no bullets and a climbing harness. That's it. Don't expect that to change for the next half hour as you learn the ropes of survival in Haventon. At first you learn the basics of climbing, ascending a collapsed bridge using a similar climbing style used in Uncharted. There is a very noticeable difference however, in I Am Alive every moment of climbing reduces your character's stamina. Accelerating your pace only serves to zap stamina quicker, and once the stamina bar reaches zero you lose your grip and tumble to your demise. Whereas Uncharted has long stretches of continuous wall climbing, I Am Alive is all about short, panicked scaling with the single goal of reaching a flat surface as quickly as possible.

Aiding you in traversing are supplies, such as a bottles of water or food cans, that can be used mid-climb and immediately rejuvenate your stamina. Imagine this, you're scaling the outside of a massive highrise building that is on the verge of collapsing, you swing between loose girders until you reach a pipe that connects you to five flights of window ledges that can be scaled, but you're out of stamina. A hunk of meat can be eaten to replenish a bit of stamina, however you're still climbing and your stamina is draining fast. Hanging on a ledge on the fourth flight, you're once again drained of your stamina, and when you check your inventory you're out of supplies. With no way to rejuvenate yourself, suddenly you enter "extreme effort" mode which requires you to frantically tap the right trigger button as your stamina permanently decreases, giving you mere seconds to ascend the final floor and crawl through a decayed hole in the wall. It's hectic moments like these that permeate I Am Alive, and there will be plenty of edge-of-your-seat do or die moments.

Combat in I Am Alive is even more interesting. As mentioned earlier, our hero starts out with only a pistol and no bullets. Despite not knowing how to fire a gun, he's learned a very clever act, extending his gun as if feigning to shoot. As it turns out, bullets are just as scarce for your enemies as it is for our Man, making ammunition the most coveted possession of all. This presents some interesting scenarios. By extending his unload gun, enemies may cower and submit, enabling you to advance closer for a surprise kill with your concealed machete (a sub-weapon found early in the game).

Conversely, enemies may call your bluff and mock you, continuing to advance and even extending a gun of their own. You can shout threats like "back off!" in attempt to further intimidate your foes, or at least making them believe you're a credible threat. If the scenario escalates, you've got to make choices fast. With a single bullet in your gun and four enemies, a typical battle goes like this: one member of the gang advances, perhaps to mug you, when suddenly you unleash a machete attack that slices his throat. A bullet found in his corpse is loaded in your gun, giving you two bullets total. You quickly survey the remaining three enemies and see one thug readying his gun so you take him out fast, but as you're doing so another thug is rushing you from behind. You turn, enter a test of might battle that results in you thrusting your machete into his abdomen, and then hear a gunshot behind you. You're shot. As it turns out, the last thug looted the dead body of his fellow gang member, stealing his bullet and inflicting you with a deadly wound. With your vision now bloody, you take aim with your last bullet and manage to shoot him in the head, taking him out. Every moment is calculated and intense, and in I Am Alive you'll thank the lucky stars when you survive a battle.

I Am Alive takes an interesting, and rarely explored approach to gaming. The conventions we're used to, such as auto-replenishing health, battle cover-system, and plentiful ammo are non-existent in this game. The maximum ammo I had collected in my possession at one time was three bullets -- that's it. In the scenario, I encountered two cannibals that had three human captives locked up, so playing the hero I quickly took them out. Then I was presented with a tough moral decision, the cell that contained them had a lock that could only be removed with a bullet shot, but if you shoot you're out of ammo. What would you do? I ended up freeing the captives, only be shot dead in my next enemy encounter since I had no bullets and my bluffing failed. Sometimes you just can't win.

You know, despite losing the battle that followed my heroic deed I was satisfied. Where I Am Alive succeeds is that its focus on realty requires realistic choices, and that's something video games rarely impose on you. Do you heal your own wounds with a med pack, or do you mend the broken leg of a helpless victim? Do you shoot the innocent old lady who's threatening you with a gun, or do you try to reason with her? In I Am Alive you'll encounter scenarios that will test your moral fiber, and depending how you react the outcomes can be wildly different. Perhaps the most unique and ambitious downloadable Xbox Live (and soon PSN) game yet, there's no denying that I Am Alive stands out in the survival genre, and for that matter video games as a whole.

[This article originally appeared on the Future Shop Tech Blog]