Despite kick-starting the survival horror genre, and inspiring contemporary legends such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill, Alone In the Dark has failed to make its mark in the mainstream gaming market. While the original PC titles are classics to this very day, the series’ only attempt to break modern ground – the below average AITD: A New Nightmare, didn’t fare very well. The likes of Uwe Boll’s film adaptation – a release that I’d gladly stick white hot pins in my eyes to avoid ever seeing again – didn’t help matters either.
So, when Atari, a company whose recent history has been plagued with substandard releases and a weak back catalogue, announced a new entry in the AITD series, I was both hopeful that the AITD series would get a chance to shine, and more than a little cynical, fearing a shoddy and rushed release. Now that I’ve played the game, well, let’s just say I was surprised and dismayed in equal parts.
Starring the series’ enigmatic protagonist, Edward Carnby, this refreshing of the series centres around New York’s Central Park, and some of the many conspiracy theories that revolve around this surprisingly undeveloped, but incredibly valuable real estate that makes up the city’s iconic landmark.
At the beginning of the title, Edward awakes, bleary-eyed in a room, surrounded by rather dubious company, and to make matters worse, he doesn’t remember his own name, let alone why he’s there. He’s then dragged up to his feet and escorted by an armed man through the building, to be executed – well, I did say they were dubious. But, before the armed assailant can fulfil his task, a strange force appears and kills Edward’s captor, leaving him to fend for himself.
From this point on, it’s in-your-face survival, as you take control of Edward and make your way through the collapsing building, avoiding fire, debris and even making sure you’re not in sections of the building as they fall to the ground many stories below. Eventually though, without wanting to spoil the story, you’ll end up in the game’s main location of Central Park, and along the way you’ll uncover exactly what’s caused New York to become engulfed in a hellish world, and just what Edward has to do with it all.
Gameplay in AITD is pretty varied, and it’s up to the player to decide how they want to experience most of the proceedings. For the most part, you can choose to play the game in first or third person (although melee combat with weapons, and some interactions with the environment, such as climbing, force you into third person regardless of your choice). You’ll spend a good deal of the game exploring the detailed environments and working out how to proceed past a tricky situation using any items to hand (more on this later), and the rest of the time you’ll be fighting off attacks from a range of grizzly foes, such as possessed and mutated humans or strange, teeth-laden bat-like things, and you’ll also need to find and kill sources of the evil corruption, such as ‘roots of evil’. But, combat isn’t as straightforward as other games, mainly down to the item handling the title employs…
One of the main innovations to be found in AITD is the impressive inventory system. By this, I don’t mean navigation through items you’ve collected (which is, to be honest, awful), but rather the way in which you collect and actually use them. Most items in the game can be combined with others to form a totally different object. For example, first aid sprays can be used to heal any damage you take, but, equip a first aid spray and a lighter, and viola! Instant mini-flamethrower. Combine some sticky tape with a combustible bottle of liquid and you’ve got a sticky bomb, which can be shot and detonated. The same flammable liquid can be poured over bullets to create ‘fire bullets’, which, as your foes are only vulnerable to fire, is a good idea. The list goes on, and you do feel as though you can try pretty much anything, and working out a new combination not only helps in the game, but adds to the experience of being in control.
This object use isn’t limited to combining items either. I’ve lost count of how many times my progress in a survival horror game (or any other genre) has been hampered by a locked door, even when my character is armed to the teeth. This isn’t the case here, and Edward can simply shoot a hole in the door, or bash it open with a sledgehammer, fire extinguisher, or any other heavy object he has close to hand. Again, this really helps with the immersion, and you always feel free to try something new. I’ve already mentioned that most enemies in the game are only vulnerable to fire, and as a result, AITD has plenty of fire-based game mechanics. The most prevalent of these is the ability to hold any conductive item, such as a wooden chair or baseball bat, into some flames to set it on fire so you can then use is as a weapon to attack your foes. A single touch with such a weapon will dispatch them effortlessly. This burning of items is handled quite well too, and items burn down in a reasonably realistic manner. You can even smash some items into pieces, and then pick up the separate bits and use them on their own. At various points in the game, Edward can also find and use vehicles. And the first time you find a car, you discover another cool game mechanic. Before you can drive off, you first have to hotwire the car, which has you pulling the cables out of the steering wheel shaft and then manually touching the right wires together to start the car. This works well, and is a very clever addition. This kind of interaction is used elsewhere too, such as rewiring junction boxes to activate elevators and the like. Melee combat is handled by using the right control stick to move Edward’s arms around. So, to swing with a bat, you’d move his arms round to this left, then quickly push the stick to the right to swing. This works well enough, but doesn’t have the oomph you’d expect. Firearms are used in the first person, in the usual FPS manner. Graphically, AITD is great, most of the time. This does look next-gen, and environments are impressive on the whole, but there are times when the game dips a little, and some graphical glitches and pop-up do occur. Collision detection can be a little off too, and while fun, driving vehicles can be a hit and miss affair, with some dodgy physics on the go. The soundtrack is good too, although some of the voice acting (particularly that of Edward himself) is a little poor, and could use some work. So, not too many issues so far you may think. But, that’s until you get to one of the most important aspect of any game – the controls. It’s here where AITD takes a wrong turn, and more time in development and testing would have worked wonders. Basically, the controls are very, very glitchy, especially the inventory, which makes it difficult to select the item you wish to use. Controlling Edward can also be a chore.
While in first person, things aren’t so bad, but third person can be a mess, with camera issues causing major navigational woes. And, for some reason, the game never, ever, remembers your first person settings. So, if you get into a car in first person, it’ll switch you to third person while driving. You can then change to first person to select the cockpit view, but then, if you get out of the car, lo and behold, you’re back in third person again! This also happens after cut scenes and other random times, and is very irritating indeed. The other major problem I have with the game is actually down to some intentional design. The developers have structured the game like a DVD movie. This means that the game is split into chapters, complete with a TV style “last time on Alone in the Dark” trailer when you resume a game. This isn’t a problem though. The issue I have is that, presumably to cater to casual gamers, you can skip to any part of any chapter whenever you wish. So, if a chapter is too difficult, you can quickly bypass it and carry on. To me, this is simply ludicrous, and undermines the entire game. What’s the point of paying £40 for a game when you can skip right to the end? Crazy. I sincerely hope that this doesn’t catch on. Yes, you don’t have to use it, but the very inclusion of it is a bad idea. Isn’t this what cheats were invented for? Taken as a whole, AITD doesn’t really deserve some of the more harsh reviews it’s received, in my opinion, but it’s also far from the game the developers and Atari claimed it would be. If you can put up with the iffy controls along with graphics and physics glitches, you’ll find some genuinely impressive innovations and creative gameplay, along with some interesting storytelling. Just make sure you play the game through, and ignore the whole stupid DVD menu system.