Alone in the Dark Xbox 360, PS3, PC Review

Sixteen years ago, Infogrames released the original Alone in the Dark. Its fixed camera angles and pre-rendered backgrounds set the stage for 3D survival horror games for years to come. Despite the eye-wateringly blocky graphics it was a truly horrifying experience. Atari’s next-gen re-imagining of the Alone in the Dark franchise is also eye-watering and horrifying, but not in a good way.

In 1992, Alone in the Dark got off on the right foot, with a frantic opening that required quick reactions to save yourself from being immediately dismembered by monsters. In 2008, Alone in the Dark begins with painful blurred vision and an introduction to the ‘blink button’… After a linear beginning in which you are literally shoved in the back if you try to deviate from the path, you soon realise this game will be tough to love.

Alone in the Dark is the very definition of a mixed bag. It’s the equivalent of a bag of Revels, in which many of the sweets are some of the most delicious morsels of gameplay you’ve tasted in a while, but to get to those you unfortunately have to dig through the rest of the bag, which is consistently filled with testicle-flavoured crap.

It really is astonishing that one game can provoke such a range of emotions. One minute you’ll be in awe of a fantastic set-piece, the next you’ll be cursing the game and wishing a slow and torturous death for those who created it.

Alone uses the Havok physics engine that was put to great use in games such as Half-Life 2 and Oblivion, but the boys at Eden Games are particularly proud of the excellent fire effects they have created, and so they should be. When you’ve created the best fire ever to appear in a video game, it’s only natural you’d want to make it a prominent feature in the game, but to then make it the only thing that can kill the majority of enemies in the game is one step too far.

Much of the game will be spent searching for sources of fire, or flammable weapons with which to kill the demonically-mutated humans that you battle against. Sadly, there’s no real variety in the enemies you face, and combat soon becomes a chore. Find a flammable object; find a source of fire; chase enemy whilst swinging burning object. It’s all just far too frustrating and time-consuming. More often than not you’ll end up just throwing explosive bottles at everything that moves.

Eden Games have tried something new with their real-time inventory system, accessed by Carnby opening his jacket. Your inventory is limited to what you can carry in your jacket, and although this feels satisfyingly realistic at first it soon becomes tedious. The game isn’t paused while you are healing yourself or selecting, dropping or combining items in your inventory, and although enemies will often wait obediently for a short while before attacking you, rooting around in your underclothes still makes you pretty vulnerable.

Note to Atari – Don’t let story concepts (enemies can only be purified to death by fire) get in the way of enjoyable gameplay.

This isn’t helped by the horrible controls and some shockingly bad camerawork. Trying to manoeuvre Edward Carnby feels like you’re a crippled dwarf pushing a paraplegic burn-victim up a flight of stairs in a wheelchair. With no wheels.

Note to Atari – a ‘quick-180-turn’ button is not a suitable substitute for responsive controls.

The game also forces you to switch between third and first-person views quite often, which wouldn’t be so bad if the first-person controls weren’t also slow and annoying. Whilst aiming is passable, actually moving Carnby about whilst in first-person view is a struggle to say the least. Despite this you’ll find yourself often manually switching to first-person when indoors, just so that you can see where the hell you’re going.

Note to Atari – Generous auto-aim systems are no substitute for decent first person movement.

The much-touted ‘item combination’ system turns out to be extremely limited. At first it appears that the game encourages and rewards experimentation, but it won’t take long to discover that there are only a few useful composite items. Any attempt to be too innovative will also be unworkable – for example, at one point in the game I found myself with a shortage of explosive bottles, so I had the genius idea of piercing a car’s gas tank with a knife, dousing a bandage in petrol, taping the bandage to a baseball bat, then setting it alight with my lighter. BINGO! Flaming baseball bat, baby! Unfortunately the developers had not foreseen this kind of thought process, and using a bandage with petrol was apparently an invalid combination.

This kind of false freedom happens often, in what is actually a very linear game. It’s disheartening to think up a valid original solution to a problem, only for it not to work simply because you weren’t supposed to do that.

Note to Atari – Either give players more freedom, or don’t hype up your pathetic feature.

The other much talked about feature of this game is the ‘DVD-style’ chapter selection, allowing people to instantly jump to any part of the game. When first announced this seemed like a bold move, allowing all gamers to experience the whole game, regardless of skill level. Now that we have the game in our hands however, it becomes apparent that this was a cowardly decision born from the fact the developers knew their game had several frustrating sections. To add insult to injury, although you can skip gameplay, you can’t skip any cutscenes… The attempt of Alone to justify itself as being more a movie than a game isn’t a great idea, and doesn’t carry much weight.

Note to Atari – If you make a decent enough game, people won’t want to skip parts of it.

Speaking of frustrating sections, it’s somewhat confusing that players will be allowed to skip parts of the game but yet in a protracted, scripted, trial-and-error driving sequence there won’t be a single checkpoint. Strangely, despite Eden Games’ last title being the excellent Test Drive Unlimited, the driving controls are loose, the physics are unrealistic, and the driving sections have more bugs than the Amazon Rainforest. In fact, the only time I used the ‘scene-skipping’ function was after losing patience after having to repeatedly restart sections after getting stuck in a glitch.

Note to Atari – Quality testing is a good idea. Seriously.

So does this game really have any redeeming features? Well, the visuals are excellent, although the lack of any distinct aesthetic style means locations and enemies feel forgettable and generic. The voice acting is passable, but by the end of the game you’ll probably come to despise the characters. The music is almost certainly the best part of the game, featuring some excellent choral scores that really set the scene for the epic and atmospheric nature of the story.

And the story itself is quite compelling at times; the mystery of how amnesiac 1920’s gentleman Edward Carnby is alive and well in modern-day New York, and what exactly is controlling the powerful ‘fissure’ that’s tearing apart the city give you some incentive to keep playing. It’s a shame the ending is short and sour, and serves to undermine the point of the whole game.

Some astonishing set-pieces near the beginning of the game will leave you gasping for more of the same, but for some reason the gameplay gets duller as you progress, culminating in one of the most irritating and tedious ‘fetch quests’ I’ve ever played being forced upon you in the final chapter.

Note to Atari – Nobody sane enjoys repetitive and time-consuming backtracking. If it’s the only way you can extend the length of your game, just keep the damn thing short.

Alone in the Dark is enjoyable at times, mostly when the game steps back and allows you to figure out solutions on your own, rather than prodding you with overly obvious help text, or having an insipid NPC shout out suggestions. At the end of the day, the bad points massively outweigh the good ones, and when the credits roll you’ll be left with a feeling that it all could have been so much better. The game also has absolutely no replay value whatsoever, and is consequently terrible value for money.

Alone in the Dark on PS3 will feature some exclusive episodic content when it’s released later this year. Maybe this is a chance for Eden Games to right their wrongs and make a game that lives up to its potential.

For now though it’s probably best to leave well Alone..

4/10

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Version tested: Xbox 360, PS3, PC

Developer: Eden Games

Publisher: Atari

Genre: Survival Horror