"I AM ALIVE!" cried I Am Alive, re-emerging from obscurity at the end of September. "Oh, so you are!" we all replied, not without a tint of surprise in our voice. Against the odds, Ubisoft's survival title has escaped cancellation - although in the process it's had to be redesigned entirely from the ground up.
Ubisoft Shanghai argues that this drastic decision has allowed the developers to take more radical decisions with their design, and it's certainly evident that the game is prepared to try new ideas. I Am Alive casts you as a lonely explorer, wandering the foggy ruins of a city called Haverton. It's not exactly clear whether the disaster that destroyed civilisation was Biblical or man-made, but either way Haverton has been saturated with a thick fog that will kill anyone who remains inside it for too long. Still, it probably makes things easier in terms of draw distance; mankind's loss is Ubisoft's gain.
As a result of the gloom, not to mention the forlorn tone and grainy quality of the graphics, Silent Hill springs to mind as an immediate point of reference. There are strong elements of survival horror here, although for the most part (we're told) you'll be scouting and climbing your surroundings, rather that fighting the bandits who invariably spring up every time society collapses. Predictably, there's an Uncharted-lite feel to your clambering efforts, with Ubi's main push for innovation arriving in the form of a lengthy stamina bar that depletes as you clamber about.
You'll regain your strength as soon as you're standing on your own two feet again, but if you take too long on any given climb you'll risk falling to you death; when the bar is depleted, an emergency mechanic lets you save yourself with a last-gasp effort, but this will permanently take a chunk out of your stamina reserves - until you find something to eat, that is.
This last point highlights a potential clash of philosophies within I Am Alive's design. On the one hand it's striving to be a semi-realistic depiction of post-apocalyptic struggle, and yet it seems unable to let go of established gaming convention. You might be gasping for breath as you haul yourself up a ruined bridge, or choking as you stagger through the polluted gloom, but you can buy yourself more time by pausing, going into your inventory, and glugging a tin of cola.
There's evidence of similar friction in the game's approach to combat, which makes a similar effort to pursue pastures new. As a rule, enemies won't immediately attack you when you enter their turf. Instead they'll approach and call out menacing threats, causing the player to adopt a placatory, open-handed stance. Backing away will further delay the start of a fight, allowing you to manoeuvre into a strategic position before things turn really ugly. When a foe is right next to you, it's possible to launch a single-button surprise attack - stabbing a thug with his own knife, in one example. From the look of things, combat will rely heavily on careful strategy, as you'll invariably be outnumbered.
Guns add a further element of tactical trickery. A single bullet will instantly kill anyone who's not wearing armour, and as a result your opponents will react with fear to the presence of your pistol. The game adopts a first person-perspective for firearm use, but there's no obligation to pull the trigger: merely aiming at an enemy will result in them cowering and begging for their life, and under the right circumstances they'll surrender altogether. If you're out of ammo, you can still use the empty gun to bluff your way to safety, although it won't take long for people to see through your ruse.
Unfortunately, the game's characterisation seems to lie at odds with these thoughtful mechanics. "Chill, dude!" cries the hero, as a blade-wielding murderer descends upon him. When said dude refuses to chill, our man resorts to quips. "So much for foreplay!" he drawls, apparently unconcerned by his imminent appointment with death.
Elsewhere we find our protagonist in charge of a lost little girl. One minute he's calming the youngster with soothing words of reassurance; the next he's nimbly disarming and stabbing a pair of bad guys, apparently untroubled by the child clinging to his back. "Why is everybody so mean?" she asks, with unintentional hilarity.
On first impressions, I Am Alive looks decidedly uneven, but there's certainly ambition behind its unusual ideas. Whether the final game can be anything more than a curate's egg remains to be seen, but thanks to Ubisoft Shanghai's intervention, at least we'll get a chance to judge for ourselves.