"PREVIOUSLY, IN ALONE IN THE DARK..." The deep movie trailer voice booms across the small, darkened cinema room, tucked away mere seconds from Hampstead tube station, North London. I hear laughter, the laughter of people who would have spat out their tea if they had been sipping some at the time. I feel slightly embarrassed. I came here knowing that the fifth Alone in the Dark game and the first in the multimillion-selling horror video game series since 2001's Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare, would show itself to be heavily influenced by modern day TV programmes - 24, Heroes, Lost and the like - but this? This just feels awkward.
But why should it? Video games have been borrowing from films for years. So why not television, too? Perhaps the crowd's reaction, and indeed my awkwardness to Alone in the Dark's episodic gameplay has more to do with developer Eden doing something different, something we're not used to seeing in a video game, than it being a mere gimmick.
Nour Polloni, the game's French producer, continues her on-stage presentation either blissfully unaware of the sniggering or with nary a care. We have just skipped straight to episode two of what Nour calls "season one" of Alone in the Dark, and, as a result, the game is filling us in. Snapshots of the first episode flash across the massive cinema screen. We see how in the first episode private detective Edward Carnby, who fans of the very first Alone in the Dark game from waaaay back in 1992 will remember well, woke up in a modern day apartment block with no idea of what's happened to him. We learn that Ed had somehow managed to travel forward in time from the 30s, the setting of the first game, and saw a number of shady characters declare him their light bringer, a role they demand an older, fellow captive facilitates.
We see how horrible monsters tore through the walls of the apartment block, tearing Ed's captors, and anyone else in their way, apart. We see the moment Ed looked into a mirror and saw his heavily scarred face for the first time. We see how Ed rappelled down an elevator shaft, swung from left to right, grabbed onto live electric power cables and moved from one intense action scene to another.
We see Alone in the Dark's fire, perhaps the greatest, most technically impressive virtual real-time simulation of fire ever seen in a video game, at play. Eden has applied flammability to the various materials in the game world. Fire propagates - it spreads, it breaks down wood, it reduces objects, eventually, to cinders, it casts real-time lighting. It harms but it also helps - a chair leg dipped in flame is both a torch and a fearsome weapon - Alone in the Dark's supernatural enemies - humans possessed by an unknown evil - disintegrate when attacked with fire. When the object is completely overwhelmed Ed will automatically cast the thing aside for fear of having his fingers singed. This is fire like we've never seen fire before.
We see how Ed opened his jacket to reveal his inventory - how he combined items to form more useful objects, like Molotov cocktails, and sprayed a first aid canister on an open wound in his arm. We see how Ed was blown out of the side of the art deco apartment block, revealing New York's Central Park in all its glory below. We see how he sidestepped along a tiny ledge to escape the horrifying monsters, how the environment constantly changed to present a new danger, a new thrill.
All this you, the player, can do, but don't have to do. In Alone in the Dark you'll be able to skip almost the entire game and see what you missed via "PREVIOUSLY, IN ALONE IN THE DARK" segments that proceed each new episode. That's right. The game has no difficulty levels and you don't have to play through the game to get to the end.
That's not entirely true. The very last episode stays locked until the player has completed an appropriate amount of the game, but, for all intents and purposes, you'll be able to skip through what troubles you, as if fast forwarding a DVD. Wrap your head around that video game fans.
The burning question is, of course, why? "We want everyone to be able to complete the game," says Nour. How novel.
With the game nearing its Xbox 360 release I'm still not sure about this. The game is a graphical tour de force, for sure. It combines many gameplay elements - from action to driving to sandbox. But will I be able to resist pressing fast forward when the going gets tough? Will the promise of Xbox LIVE achievements be enough to prevent me from turning straight to the last page of the book, or watching the final episode of the DVD box set? Like I said, I'm not sure.
This doesn't prevent Alone in the Dark from looking like a superb, high budget, single-player narrative-driven game, something new Infogrames president Phil Harrison has said has no place in publisher Atari's portfolio going forward. Its opening reminds me of BioShock's first half hour, that cinematic, claustrophobic, intense assault on the senses. But it is perhaps more interesting to note what it does not remind me of, and that's previous Alone in the Dark games.
Nour describes it as a "rebirth" to me after the presentation. And I agree with her. While there's still a great sense of survival the horror element that gave birth to the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series has been scaled back in favour of more action. It's designed to appeal to the fans as well as newcomers. "We want players who knew Alone in the Dark to say 'OK I see that I lived from the first Alone in the Dark', and those who don't know what Alone in the Dark is will say 'oh, this is what Alone in the Dark is about'."
Episode two kicks in. We see Ed boost Sarah Flores, one of Alone in the Dark's main characters, up and out of a lift, complete with cringe worthy dialogue - "Don't try and take advantage of the situation." "Don't flatter yourself." We see Ed take shots at small, scuttling demon bugs with a pistol from a first person perspective. We see him move an axe above his head, the position controlled with the thumbstick. We see a possessed body explode after Ed drags it into a pool of fire. We see a mini-game - where Ed moves together two exposed wires to complete a circuit with a spark.
But it's not until Ed escapes the apartment building and enters night time Central Park, Alone in the Dark's Liberty City, that we see the game show its spurs. Ed fashions a Molotov cocktail from within the confines of his coat, or the "lab" as Nour calls it. The map screen is a PDA with a GPS. Ed drives a car from one objective to another. He pierces the tank, leaving a trail of petrol along the path of his journey. He lights the end and watches the car bomb explode. In Alone in the Dark Central Park is the playground and fire is the name of the game.
This is what I'm most excited about - unravelling the mystery behind Central Park my way. I want to play with fire, I want to mess about with the game's undoubtedly impressive physics, I want to create bombs and poke possessed people with flaming chair legs. I want to push this game engine to its limit and see what it's got.
The presentation ends and Nour opens the floor to questions. No difficulty levels. Shooting is only in first-person. Manipulating objects is only in third-person. 20% of the game takes place in the art deco apartment block from the beginning of the game, the rest of the time players will be in Central Park. The game takes place over a single night. Ed's scar has some secret meaning. Central Park itself will have loads of hidden secrets for players to find. Nour can't confirm downloadable episodes but it seems certain to happen. The game will take about 15 hours not counting exploring the park, 30 hours if you do. You can create a circle of fire but it will only defend you until the fire burns out. There will be plenty of ammo about, but it will be logically placed. Enemies can't use objects or weapons. Enemies are possessed people - something has happened to them and they are tortured, angry people. They are all linked to one entity. They can see you through glass and can jump very far. They can even smell you if you leave a trail of blood. The story revolves around what happens when you die and the various religious theories that explain the afterlife. There is a water enemy type that's afraid of the light. There is a human antagonist who will be chasing you throughout the game. And breathe.
I leave the presentation puzzled. There is much to look forward to in Alone in the Dark, chiefly exploring Central Park and playing with fire. But then there are also causes of concern - the hammy dialogue and, crucially, the ability to skip massive chunks of the game. As I prepare for a quick post-presentation interview with Nour, which you can read right here, I decide that the potential positives outweigh the potential negatives.
Alone in the Dark is due out for Xbox 360, PC, Wii and PS2 on 20 June, with a PS3 version to follow.