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Review – Alone in the Dark

posted on August 12th, 2008 by christian
Now Playing: Braid

Apparently, it is becoming the rule rather than the exception for games to be rushed to release, rather than given the time to properly simmer. There are a slew of factors causing this, such as soaring costs, tricky console hardware, and the fickle, tiny window of attention that the hype machine grants.

Of course, a rushed game can come in different flavors. In my last review, we saw how Army of Two lost most of its grand cooperative aspirations, but still managed to ship as a stable and competent action game. From a business perspective, this is acceptable as gamers will buy something derivative if it is polished well enough.

Another result is something like Alone in the Dark, where the grandiose ideas remain, but are held together by duct tape and the hope that bugs and glitches are not severe enough to cause the game to crash out from under the player’s feet. We here at videolamer appreciate new ideas enough that we try to give these games a fair chance, but Alone in the Dark reminds me of just how hard it is to assess a game that treads on the slippery slope between genius and basic playability. What I might be able to ignore may frustrate someone else, and vice versa. Ultimately I found the experience worthwhile, but I can see why I am in the minority.

Alone in the Dark may be a revival of the survival horror genre’s most classic franchise, but this is a problematic label in two ways. The term “survival horror” is becoming increasingly useless, as games journalists stamp it on just about anything. Thus we have the imbeciles at IGN labeling both this and Resident Evil 5 as survival horror, and using this as a lame excuse to compare them. Remind me again: What part of Leon Kennedy suplexing zombies in RE4 was intended to be scary?

Second, this game doesn’t aspire to be a part of said genre. The new Alone in the Dark is concerned with creating a cinematic and immersive adventure at all costs, using everything it needs to in order to achieve that goal. If it happens to be scary (it isn’t) or heavy on survival (it is), then so be it. Thus we have a genre bending experience that isn’t afraid to throw anything your way.

Sometimes the game focuses on puzzles, other times on platforming. Combat might be in third or first person. Sooner or later you will also encounter driving segments and free roaming quests around the game’s main setting of Central Park.

By cramming so many game types together, developers run the risk of any or all mechanics being half baked, and this ends up being the case in Alone in the Dark. Much of this stems from having to wrestle all of these play styles into one unified control scheme. The button layout for certain actions is seemingly random, such as jumping being done with X, while jumping off a rope is done with B. Melee combat has you awkwardly swing blunt objects at zombies and slowly drag their corpses to a fire for burning. First person aiming is slow and inaccurate thanks to finicky auto targeting. In fact, just about everything you do lacks the speed and smoothness that comes from careful testing and balancing.

In addition, both the combat controls and the various minigame-style tasks you must perform (such as hotwiring a car) seem custom tailored for a Wiimote, and while a Wii version does exist, that isn’t any consolation for 360 players like myself. Ultimately I was able to adjust well enough to the controls, thanks in part to the ability to switch freely between first and third person views, but those with less success or less tolerance for frustration should beware.

It isn’t just the controls that are undercooked. Driving is a pure crapshoot, as the physics engine will cause you to come to a complete stop at small hazards, or send you flying into the air after clearing a small hill.

The free roaming sections are hampered by the sheer size of the park, the placement of obstacles that block off major areas, and by the lack of consistent flow of health and weapons. At certain points it actually benefited me to use some items to complete a goal, and then die, since I would respawn with the goal completed and my inventory back to full. Something tells me this wasn’t the way we were intended to play.

You could also use the DVD style chapter selection to jump to any point in the game without beating previous locations. While some criticize a game that would have you skip its less desirable parts, it is an idea that could be used to greater effect in the future.

Alone in the Dark’s innovations mostly come from its attempt to be immersive and (somewhat) realistic. For example, your inventory consists of whatever items you can strap into the insides of your jacket, and you can combine these items MacGuyver style into Molotov Cocktails and such. Visually, it is a great way to represent inventory, but the item synthesis does not feel fully implemented, as Molotovs are about the only thing you need to make.

The same can be said of healing. Watching yourself bandage wounds and apply first aid spray is intriguing, but the immersion fades as soon as you realize that your injuries occur in the same exact locations every time. I appreciate great ideas, but I wish for once that they would lead to something more than smoke and mirrors.

With all this nastiness, what in the world compelled me to continue to play? Alone in the Dark’s saving grace is that it does an admirable job of tossing these different game styles together in a completely natural way. You do things because they are the obvious answer to the task and the area at hand, not because some chapter has been designated the obligatory “puzzle section.”

The game can look gorgeous (especially its fire effects), the settings are interesting, and the attempts at immersion are successful. If you can get past the controls and the bugs, you may find yourself actively choosing between perspectives in order to get the most cinematic perspective, and can soak in the sights and scripted sequences without fear of dying.

Getting to this point is difficult, as it requires some serious suspension of disbelief, in addition to both understanding and overcoming the controls. I realize this is something that some players will not (or even cannot) do, which makes it hard recommend this experience, considering all the hurdles. Alone in the Dark is yet another fountain of ideas that someone else is going to have to tap.

3 Comments

  1. Tony said on August 12, 2008:

    I completely agree. I have this game on rental right now, and I’ve been having a hard time playing through it in chunks larger than 45 minutes. That’s about the point where the controls and camera problems cause my character to unnecessarily die and my frustration meter hits the ceiling. It does look amazing, and it’s one of the few games in recent memory I’m playing through just to see the cinematics, but there are a few annoying short cuts that have really started to bug me. Like the damage modeling you spoke of: interesting idea, horrible follow through. When you see a third person view of your character and his wounds are pink splotches on the outside of his leather jacket, the realism starts to fade fast, and then it just looks cheesy. I’m not a big fan of games you have to struggle with to have fun, so I’m not sure how much longer it will last before I mail the sucker back. It’s so disappointing when you hit a part that’s presented perfectly, nailing the atmosphere and emotion that reminds you why games like this are fun to play …. and then the cinematic ends and you realize your character controls worse than a melted marionette with tourette’s.

  2. Christian said on August 12, 2008:

    Good points Tony. I found it interesting that your threshold of tolerance for the game is slightly less than an hour, which is around the time all but the last chapters require to finish. I found myself feeling the same way, and until the end I’d never play more than a chapter in a sitting. Great pacing, but not for the reasons they might intend.

  3. pat said on August 14, 2008:

    i like your comment on how a lot of developers aspirations end up being “smoke and mirrors.” the combination of my desire for games to get better and more sophisticated and the consistent overpromising makes this situation especially painful.

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