If you haven’t played any of the previous Alone in the Dark games chances are that your only exposure to the series has been the god awful Uwe Boll movie of the same name.
Alone in the Dark was originally released for PC in 1992 and is widely considered as the original survival horror game, it paved the way for games such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill.
Atari are now attempting to resurrect the classic with a next-generation title currently scheduled for a May release on the Xbox 360 and PC with a PS2, PS3 and Wii version showing up some time after.
"Since the beginning we anticipated it would be the higher tier of the next gen games so we’ve built the engine to handle the highest quality of rendering and physics"
Alone in the Dark will see players taking the role of Edward Carnby, fans of the series will recognise him as the protagonist of the previous games, while the previous installment were set in the 1920’s this game will bring Edward to modern day New York, specifically Central Park and for some reason, he hasn’t aged a bit.
The game starts off with Edward awaking in a room with two armed strangers, he has no memory of how he got there or who he is, the two men proceed to insult him for a while and then lead him to the roof to meet his maker but things become a little supernatural when something begins destroying the building, it is from this point that the player is taken on a roller coaster ride filled with self-discovery, the supernatural and a chilling conspiracies.
As Edward Carnby the player is tasked with figuring out who he is and why he is in the modern day, as well as this Edward must discover the secrets of Central Park.
The game takes place over the course of a single night, however the structure of the game is modeled on a TV show, the chapters are split up into episodes which are in turn broken down into checkpoints, each section was written to reflect conventions of a traditional TV Show and will usually end on a twist or a major event. Casual players can opt to play a single episode and then continue the game at their own pace, the danger in this approach would be forgetting what has been done and what hasn’t but this has also been also been addressed through an introductory sequence at the beginning of each play session, the game remembers what the player does and saves the data to the hard drive, when the save data is loaded up it shows a ‘previously on Alone in the Dark’ segment which shows the player what he or she did during the last play session.
In order to make the game an enjoyable experience Alone in the Dark will also contain a skip feature; should a player come to a point where, for some reason, they would rather not play the area they can opt to skip to the next checkpoint, when I asked producer Nora Paloni why they decided to put this feature in she said;
"We want to avoid situations where the player feels frustrated; Alone in the Dark is an experience and we want the player to enjoy the experience as much as possible so this allows the player to pass over anything that is causing frustration"
There are however penalties for skipping this, as well as losing out on some gamer points and important plot points there will also be an effect on how the ending plays out.
"Half-Life 2 was the first time we could really interact with the environment but there was still a barrier because of the gravity gun, we wanted the player to feel as though he or she is controlling and interacting with the environment, we’re pushing interaction in games further"
I was shown a number of different areas that will be featured in the final game these included; the sewers underneath New York, a museum reception hall area and a car park.
The game is very reminiscent of Resident Evil 4, this is mainly due to the over the shoulder camera view the game uses, although it is a third person game Atari have said that it is fully playable through the first person perspective and although the controls do require some fine tuning the first person perspective at this point doesn't seem out of place or gimmicky.
All the levels I was shown held up very well, graphically the game is very impressive, it is built using Atari’s Twilight Engine which is an improved version of the engine used in Test Drive Unlimited. Although it would be easy to talk at length about the textures the real star of the show is the lighting, Alone in the Dark is an extremely atmospheric game, in large part to the lighting effects the game has, in one single area there can be a number of different light sources all which cast shadows that accurately move in relation to the source.
One of the most impressive aspects of the game is the behaviour of fire, Atari have clearly taken the time to painstakingly render the fire, it looks amazing and behaves just like fire should. In the demo I grabbed hold of a chair and exposed it to an open flame, the fire eventually spread onto the chair which I then used as a torch, after a while the wood was reduced to ember and then eventually ash, in the final game if the burning item is held for too long the fire will burn Edwards hand, and since all the injuries Edward receives are realistically rendered onto his body you will have to get out the old first aid spray and take care of it.If Edward takes too much damage his performance will become significantly affected, he moves slower, his reaction times are cut and his vision becomes blurred, this is where the blink mechanic comes into play, yes you heard correctly – blink mechanic. To restore Edwards vision the player must press the right bumper button to make him close his eyes for a second or two, this clears up Edwards vision and lets you carry on unhindered, the more damage you have taken the more times you are required to blink, while it sounds a little strange it has a profound effect on the gameplay. In order to immerse the player into the game it never steps out of real time events, this means that while you have your eyes closed an enemy could creep up and have his way with you, this adds an immense amount of dramatic effect and will probably have players jumping from their seats.
Atari have given the game what they call ‘Real World Rules’, in the context of the game this means that everything in the world behaves just like it should, the subtle physics certainly help this goal.
"We didn’t want to be primarily one game, not just a driving or shooting game, we wanted the player to assume they could do everything a normal person in that situation could, there’s a lot of variety in the gameplay"
Instead of pitting the player against hordes of the undead the game adopts more of a situational approach, this means that while there are a number of gruesome monsters to go up against, more often than not you will find yourself trying to figure out how you can use the environment to help you proceed.
The items that Edward picks up in the game are all controlled using the right analogue stick, the movements of the analogue stick are accurately reciprocated by Edward in his movement of the item he is holding, it is therefore possible to subtly manipulate the environment using this control scheme. In the demo I found myself faced with a large pool of water which had been electrified thanks to a hanging cable, instead of doing the obvious and turning off the power you can grab hold of a large broom and use it to gently lift the exposed wire out of the water and hook it onto some nearby pipes.
As well as the puzzle solving applications, the analogue stick movements can also be used in combat, a quick movement of the analogue stick will result in an attack based motion, so a quick movement from left to right will make Edward swing his axe, chair or any other item from left to right.
In addition to all the potential weapons available in the environment Edward is also equipped with a standard pistol, from what I’ve seen this is as far as Edwards choice of firearms goes, the player is expected to create makeshift weapons using the items available in the environment which is appropriate since the enemies in the game require more than a bullet to kill, while a simple headshot would usually render a zombie useless in any other survival horror game in this game they will eventually recover and come after you, this means that supplementary actions must be taken to insure the dead stay that way, after killing some enemies the play you can douse them in a flammable substance, create a trail, and set them alight from a safe distance.
Careful attention has been paid to the enemy AI in the game, these monsters are far more formidable than you would expect since they can do almost everything Edward can, they are able to destroy wooden doors, break through windows and even smell you, if Edward is hurt he will bleed, the enemies can then smell the blood and will track you down using the scent.
Alone in the Dark has also given the ‘inventory screen’ a much needed facelift, in the interest of immersion the inventory is integrated into the gameplay, when you need something from the inventory Edward simply looks on the inside of his jacket, the camera transitions into a top down view of the inside of the jacket and you are free to select an items for both hands. In other survival horror games like Resident Evil the inventory screen can give you a short moment to catch your breath, if things are becoming a little overwhelming just bring up the inventory and take a breather; however in this game the inventory is accessed in real time, this means that Edward is vulnerable while he is admiring his impressive loot organizational skills. Edward is just a man and as such can only carry a certain amount of items; large and heavy items cannot be stored on the inside of his jacket so they cannot be carried about.This constant real-time aspect of the game even extends into the puzzle areas, the action will not pause while you attempt a puzzle, if the enemies in the area have not been taken care of before you initiate a puzzle they will attack you if they come across you.
The final part of the demo that I was shown took place in a crumbling new York, it felt a lot like the latest stuntman game, you have to navigate New York while it is being absolutely decimated by something, although it was entirely scripted it was still a spectacle, cars were frantically trying to escape, people were mindlessly (and somewhat futilely) running for cover, towering skyscrapers were crumbling, it was impressive. The aim of the area is to navigate the terrain as fast as possible and escape from the area before the ground crumbles beneath you, spend to long marveling at the scenery and you’ll plunge into the abyss.
Atari have decided to restrict the Xbox 360 ability to play music over the game, since the game is dependent on atmosphere allowing players to play their own music would somewhat compromise the experience of the game. The music in the game is extremely dynamic, it changes and adapts depending on the environment and the actions of the player, it was portrayed to us as an orchestra watching the events and playing their instruments to suit the mood, and actions of the game, the music changes when Edward picks up a weapon and then subtly changes again when he swings it, I asked Nora Paloni about the music and she had this to say;
"We don’t want the music in the game to just be in the background, we want it to play a larger part, we never want the player to leave a room and come back into that room with the same music playing"
Alone in the Dark is currently scheduled for a May release on Xbox 360 and PC, with a PS3, PS2 and Wii version also in the works. It is shaping up to be a great game and I can’t wait to get my grubby hands on the full game.