IGN Review of Alone in the Dark
Quality survival horror games are woefully hard to come by on consoles these days, and it's easy to understand why. As hardware gets more powerful and gamers' expectations grow, building a big, beautiful world full of mind-bending puzzles, creepy creatures and compelling storylines is an increasingly Herculean task.
But it's a job Atari's Eden Games studio bravely took on with Alone in the Dark, an ambitious adventure game set in and around New York's Central Park. Alone in the Dark (only nominally connected to its genre-spawning predecessors) follows the tale of a paranormal investigator who wakes up in a burning building, unable to remember who he is and how he came to be surrounded by menacing thugs.
He soon learns that he is Edward Carnby, a foul-mouthed tough guy who's mixed up in some devilish doings. As he makes his way out of the crumbling skyscraper he meets up with the feisty Sara, and they flee into Central Park to uncover the mystery of Edward's background and the secret behind a stone with mysterious properties.
I love a good yarn, and I was hoping to find one in Alone in the Dark. Instead I was introduced to yet another amnesiac fighting demons and carrying around a spooky stone. It doesn't help that our hero is challenged in the dialogue department, having been endowed by the game's writers with a nasty blue streak. You can count on hearing the words f*** or s*** nearly every time our scarred-up hero opens his mouth, an attempt at gritty realism that comes off as adolescent and trite.
It's a shame that there's not more depth beneath the surface of Alone in the Dark, but it's not just the tired storyline that makes it a disappointment. There are many genuinely inventive ideas at play in Central Park, but few of them work as well as they should and most are failures. As a result, the game feels loosely cobbled together, and the experience ends up being full of inconsistencies, aggravations and contradictions.
It's been a point of pride with the developers of Alone in the Dark that they've implemented realistic fire effects in the game, and they have reason to boast. Flames lick the walls to stunning effect; objects catch fire and can be used against enemies; puzzles, especially near the end of the game, make use of fire's destructive properties; and flames can help light your way in dark corridors. At times, the flames behave so realistically that you forget they're an illusion. Now that's a feat.
The problem is, fire is the only way to kill enemies (inexplicably named "Humanz"), which is interesting at first but quickly becomes tedious. Although, there are many different methods you can use to dispatch your enemies – lobbing Molotov cocktails, blowing up cars, using makeshift blowtorches, touching monsters with burning furniture – your gun (you only have a single handgun throughout the entire game) is useless against them. Unless, that is, you pour flammable liquid on your ammunition to create "fire bullets." Even then, you can only kill monsters by hitting them directly in their "fissures," which are glowing fiery scars on their bodies. Most of the time, you'll find the access to explosive items severely limited, which means the most effective and consistent way to kill monsters in Alone in the Dark is to touch them with burning chairs. Yawn.
Unlike the Resident Evil series, which scatters storage chests around the game for quick access to your stockpiled items, Alone in the Dark restricts you to only a few slots in your jacket. And each side can only hold a certain category of items. Manipulating items in videogames can be cumbersome enough without having to delve into a jacket and poke around while monsters attack you in real-time. Combining items to make new ones, a central part of the game, is also frustrating. Want to combine a wick with a bottle? You can't select the bottle first – it has to be the wick. Good luck sorting out inconsistencies like these when "Ratz" and "Batz" are nipping at your heels. What was intended to add tension and challenge instead creates a situation in which you must constantly wander around the game combing glove compartments and trash cans for disposable weapons. And once in your arsenal, they're deployed inconsistently at best, both against enemies and the environment.
At the beginning of Alone in the Dark, we learn that our jacketed hero can smash in doors with objects found in the world. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. That's partly because the controls are awkward and partly because the collision detection and physics in Alone in the Dark don't work well. Sometimes doors bend and buckle on the first few hits. Other times, they don't budge, leaving you to just blow them up in frustration. But even that method is inconsistent. In the sewers beneath Central Park, I tried to get creative, taping a bottle of explosives to a steel door and stepping back to shoot it. Nothing happened. But when I lobbed the same bottle in the air and shot it in front of the door, it burst into pieces, opening the way before me. Alone in the Dark gives the impression that it rewards creative thinking with inventory items, but after being burned a few times, you'll want to stop playing with fire.
Combine this restrictiveness and inconsistency with cumbersome, unintuitive controls and you have a real problem on your hands. Alone in the Dark uses an odd mix of third and first-person views – the former is tank-like, and the latter is less than smooth. And they're both made more frustrating by the fact that the game forces you to swap between them. Melee combat can only be handled in third-person, but you can only fire your weapon in first-person. Being shoved back and forth between the two while solving puzzles and fighting creatures with Zs at the ends of their names is enough to drive a bloke crazy.
But even without the perspective problem, the combat system would remain more annoyance than entertainment. Pick up a melee weapon like a shovel or axe and you'll use the right analog stick to swing it. It's a nice idea that ends up feeling clumsy and imprecise. Dispatching evil monsters should be rewarding, but the melee controls in Alone in the Dark offer only frustration. Carnby moves around Central Park like a hung-over convalescent, awkwardly swinging burning baseball bats as if he has two broken arms. He can't even climb a set of stairs without lifting the item he's carrying into the air to avoid getting stuck.
Moving Carnby around Central Park is a frustrating experience, but putting him behind the wheel is equally bad. The cars in Alone in the Dark are not weighted correctly, and as a result they handle strangely and are not fun to drive, which is surprising considering the last game from Eden was Test Drive Unlimited (which is prominently advertised atop every taxi in the game). It should be a blast to jack a ride and rip through Central Park. Unfortunately there are only three basic car models – taxi, cop car and something that looks like a 1985 Mercury Cougar – and they all feel like cardboard boxes. There are three main driving challenges in Alone in the Dark, spaced at the beginning, middle and end of the game. All are cheap trial-and-error affairs full of scripted events which force you to reload the challenge over and over and over again until you've memorized the software routine. Even if the cars handled like a dream, these levels would be a drag.
Perhaps anticipating that gamers would want to skip large portions of the game, Alone in the Dark includes a clever DVD-like menu system that allows you to fast-forward, right up to the beginning of the last level if you like. Doing so brings up a slick recap segment similar to what you might see on an episodic TV drama. While there's nothing particularly episodic about the story structure of Alone in the Dark, it's a cool addition that lets you bypass some of the more troublesome parts of the game. And it's a good thing, too, because there are segments of Alone in the Dark that are so completely unintuitive and frustrating -- including a particularly cheap turn of events near the end of the game – that you'll be lobbing your controller in exasperation.
Some puzzles in Alone in the Dark are reasonably well-designed, but many are either unintuitive, buggy or both. There's one level in which Carnby has to reach a ledge in an underground storehouse with the help of a forklift. This one had several IGN editors gathered around scratching their heads. Once we figured out how to use the lift, we put it in place and prepared to fight the inevitable spawned monster, who is blessed with the uncanny ability to bitch-slap items out of your hands. Once we dispatched it by tapping it with a red-hot kitchen chair, we went back to finish the puzzle, only to find it broken. The forklift was parked inches too close to a wall and we couldn't re-enter it. After trying in vain to jump inside, Carnby was mysteriously crushed to death by the game.
In case you're a glutton for punishment, I won't give away the ending of Alone in the Dark. But I will say that it feels like a slap in the face. After trudging through Central Park for hours on end, clumsily swinging flaming furniture at boring monsters, I was presented with what felt like nothing more than a game-lengthening gimmick. As the story, silly as it was, built to a climax, all efforts at sensible pacing were suddenly thrown out the window in favor of more unsatisfying combat and general drudgery. And at the end of it all, I was treated to one of the more ridiculous endings I've seen in a good long while, complete with my new favorite videogame quote. And not in a good way.
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