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Joystiq hands-on: Alone in the Dark (360)


With some trepidation, I walked into Atari's offices today to check out the newest (and quite possibly final) build of Alone in the Dark. With controller in hand, I started a fresh save file ... only to have three hours blur by and be bombarded with a never-ending series of cinematic, adrenaline-pumping sequences. I was totally unprepared for Eden Studios' bold reimagining of the franchise. This is not your father's Alone in the Dark.

A key point that the Atari representative reiterated throughout my play session was the influence of serialized television in the design of the game. The game is broken up into a series of "episodes," each ending on a cliffhanger. Players are able to select levels and sequences via a menu that resembles something you'd find on a DVD. Not only can players jump to any level they want, but they can skip to specific "chapters" within each episode, as well. Each episode ends with credits, and each new episode starts with a very cute "Previously on Alone in the Dark" recap. (Interestingly, all the episodes are unlocked when a player starts the game. This means if you get stuck at a certain point, you can simply skip to the next chapter and use the recap to see what you missed. The reasoning behind this? Eden wants everyone to finish this game, no matter how challenging the puzzles may get.)

These trivial changes to the presentation are amusing, but the TV inspiration runs much deeper. One season of a great television show has a clear beginning, middle and end. However, each episode usually focuses on one specific issue in an overarching story arc. Alone in the Dark fully embraces the serialized narrative, and uses it to create stunning set pieces in every chapter of every episode we've had an opportunity to play. Alone in the Dark isn't survival horror like we've seen in Silent Hill and Resident Evil. No, it's also about platforming. It's about puzzle solving, first person shooting ... and even driving. Alone in the Dark really is a great season of 24, albeit one with a supernatural twist.

Gallery: Alone in the Dark (2008) | 18 Photos

The story begins with your character, blurry-eyed, waking up to an angry group of men intent on killing you. Just like the main character, the player knows nothing about what's going on: Who are these people, what do they want ... and most importantly, who are you? There isn't much time for answers, though. They're taking you to the roof to execute you. That is, until the floors start cracking apart, eating people alive. The building (nay, the city) is falling apart and you have to get the hell out.

Escaping the building is no easy task, and it sets the premise for the entirety of the first "episode" of the game. Navigating the collapsing, burning hallways of the building reminded us a lot of Uncharted on PS3. The game's main protagonist, Edward Carnby, is as much an "everyday man" as Nathan Drake: Both will make incredible leaps of faith, but neither come with extraordinary powers to defy gravity. Edward, in the opening levels, will jump over burning pits of debris, rappel down a broken elevator shaft, and even precariously swing around the building exterior. In one incredible sequence, I tried climbing up a rope to the top of the roof, but every time I inched closer, the cable snapped a bit, plummeting me briefly. I nervously progressed forward, hoping not to make the rope snap completely.

"Pyromaniacs rejoice -- the fire in Alone in the Dark is a thing of beauty."

With the exception of the massive supernatural attack on New York City, everything about Alone in the Dark is meant to feel real. Edward feels like a real character in a real world, and he must abide by the physics that rule this virtual environment. The key star of the physics, however, is fire. Pyromaniacs rejoice -- the fire in Alone in the Dark is a thing of beauty. You can set a single piece of wood on fire and watch it slowly deteriorate into a smoldering pile of ash. Fire will stick to all flammable surfaces, trapping Edward in some truly perilous situations. But, fire isn't just a deadly environmental hazard -- it is both a weapon and a tool. When I approached a locked door, I could've simply smashed it open by using a nearby fire extinguisher. Instead, I picked up a wooden chair from the room, ran into an adjacent burning room, set it on fire and threw it at the locked door. It took some time, but the door became engulfed, slowly breaking apart into glowing embers.

The lack of HUD makes for an immersive experience, and the in-coat inventory system offers a sensible restriction to the player. All usable items are stored in Edward's jacket, and anything that can't fit will not be added to the inventory. Players can open their jacket at any time to equip, use and combine items -- but unlike Resident Evil 4, the game doesn't stop when you're perusing through your items. The world continues whilst you look in your coat, so don't expect to do extensive item work when you're surrounded by a horde of enemies.

The various items that can be used are all a lot of fun to use, especially when combined properly. For example, bullets can become explosive rounds when doused in a certain fluid. Players can make sticky bombs by combining tape and a volatile chemical. Players have the freedom to experiment with a number of various item combinations, which makes puzzle solving really engaging.

There are multiple solutions to many obstacles and puzzles in the game. For example, a locked door has an electronic keypad. By looking at the blood stains on the keys, players can input the right code to go. Alternatively, they can simply shoot the keypad and then hotwire the device to bypass security. Who knows? There might have been other ways to get past that sequence, depending on your inventory and imagination. If an item won't clear a path, the solution may present itself through physics. Everything has a sensible cause-and-effect in the game; don't expect any arbitrary Myst-like puzzles.

Simply traversing the stages is entertaining, thanks to the dramatic backdrops and clever environmental puzzles scattered throughout. But considering this is an apocalypse, Edward must face a growing number of zombie-like enemies, reanimated human puppets called "humanz." [Oh noez - Ed.] These horrifically scarred beings will relentlessly attack Edward, and can only be killed through the use of fire. Players can pick up a variety of objects in the environment: swords, frying pans, computer keyboards. But, these tools can only stall the undead enemies. Players can try to drag stunned bodies into fire, or use a weapon that's already covered in flames. Or, players can sacrifice their health aid spray, igniting it into a powerful flamethrower (when combined with the lighter).

Guns are also unsurprisingly helpful, especially when players learn how to create the best kind of ammunition in the game. The entire game can be played through either a first- or third-person perspective. I found myself switching between both modes, depending on the environment and the weapon I had in my possession. A simple press of the Y button changes things up.

Once I managed to escape the building, I learned of my ultimate destination: Central Park. A very accurately modeled New York City falls into a state of pandemonium, with streets being ripped in half, and buildings being torn apart. This segment, entitled "59th Street," is one of the most exhilarating moments I've experienced in this generation of games. In a taxi cab, I had to navigate through a crazed city street that looked like a scene from Cloverfield. Although there are no HUD elements directing me where to go, I never felt lost. When I finally got to Central Park, I thought to myself, "This is what driving through an earthquake is like." It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

After that, Edward learns that the events of this apocalyptic evening, for some reason, can only be stopped by him. He's given "the stone," a magical device that'll obviously be vital to solving this mystery. A major plot twist later, and we're free to roam Central Park any way we'd like.

"This is what driving in an earthquake is like." It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

Yes, there are objectives to complete. But, if a player so chooses, he or she can explore the entirety of Central Park. According to an Atari representative, this is an almost-perfect recreation of the park. Looking at the map and playing the game, I'd have to agree: the sense of scale is incredible. This is even truer to real life than Grand Theft Auto IV's "Middle Park." Speaking of GTA, there are vehicles within Central Park that players can hijack. Finding a vehicle can make traversing Central Park much easier: Not only is it much easier than going on foot, but there are a lot of "humanz" looking to become roadkill.

This is where the real Alone in the Dark experience begins, and players will begin unraveling the mystery of the evil that lurks beneath Central Park. From what I've seen so far, I'm excited to play through more episodes of Eden's adventure game. The cinematic presentation outdid all of my expectations, and the gameplay variety was startling. With solid (and sometimes fantastic) graphics, an incredible soundtrack performed by the Grammy Award-winning vocalists "Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices," and a truly intriguing premise, Eden Studios has made a convert of me. After three hours with the game, I can only hope that the momentum found in the game's opening moments continues in the full, final game.

Alone in the Dark will be available on Xbox 360 and PC on June 24th. A PS3 version is planned for November. Stay tuned for impressions of the Wii version of Alone in the Dark, developed by Hydravision Entertainment.

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