Sunday, September 07, 2008

Alone in the Dark (Xbox 360) Impressions

An exercise in patience and frustration. That's my big impression of Alone in the Dark (Xbox 360). I've been playing it on and off for about 3.5 weeks now, and I'm only just short of the game's half-way mark simply because almost every play session is fraught with dealing with frustrating design decisions.

I'm going to have to go and agree with most of the professional reviews that I've read: Alone in the Dark is a very ambitious game that brings some very innovative features to light, but gets bogged down over an identity crisis of not being able to decide on what genre it wants to be.

At it's core, I know Alone in the Dark is supposed to be a survival horror game, which of course dictates a slower pace than, say, a first person shooter, but it often forgets that. In fact, much of the exploration and puzzle solving sections of the game thus far have been enjoyable, but those sections are often interupted with combat that's completely unrefined and simply annoying as hell.

This is really amplified by the game's sluggish controls. They're not the worst I've ever seen, but they're certainly not the best either. The control's nuances are easier to forgive in exploration, but when it comes to combat, Alone in the Dark generally likes to toss aggressive enemies at you, and it simply becomes frustrating dealing with them.

Not that you seem to have any lack of ways to kill the Humanz and other nasties that come at you. One thing Alone in the Dark has is a great and complex inventory system in which you can collect and combine so many items to form new kinds of weapons. Press "Down" on the D-Pad, and you open up your jacket, revealing everything you've got on you, and you can mix and match items to create sticky booms, fire bullets, flame throwers, etc. The problem is that when you access your inventory, the game doesn't pause!

Because the Xbox 360 version uses the game's Controller (naturally), navigating and interacting with such an inventory can be very tedious and time consuming, and if Humanz are still attacking you, well, this system doesn't work so well. On a PC, where you could quickly drag and drop items, I could see the system working, but it just falls flat on a console controller.

I also found melee combat very annoying. You use the Right Thumbstick to swing your weapon and attack, and I personally hate using the Right Thumbstick for this. This is one of the big reasons I couldn't get into Too Human, and I consider it another bad decision for Alone in the Dark. What happens is when you're using a melee weapon, you don't have any decent camera control, which really proves irritating.

One thing I really like is the game's DVD style presentation, in which each Chapter is presented as an episode to a series, and you can actually skip back and forth to different sections as if you were watching a TV show. This is very cool, and really innovative, but what's sad is that you'll often use this feature simply to by-pass horribly designed sections of a level because you're too frustrated to try and complete it! This great, innovative feature is marred because it looks more like Eden Games knew they had a flawed creation here and instead of trying to fix it, simply added in a "skip" feature so you could rush through their own game!

And you'll certainly be skipping Alone in the Dark's horrible driving sequences. The vehicles handle very much like those of Grand Theft Auto IV's (which was not a good thing in my opinion), but they're actually worse on the physics side. While this could normally be forgiven, the major driving sequences I've experienced thus far do not allow any forgiveness on the player. Take a second too long or accidently get flipped around; no time to correct yourself as the streets collapse, or Vampirz fly you away, etc. Then you're bumped back right to the beginning of the same annoying sequence again and again! Which again is a real shame, as the first driving sequence, when you're racing a car to central park, has some exceptional scripted sequences of the streets being torn up and buildings collapsing. It was spectacular, and yet it was all ruined by the horrible gameplay design of the sequence.

The game seems to have some measure of a checkpoint system, which works okay in the regular gameplay moments, but it doesn't seem to be used at all in the driving sections, and I seriously wonder how something this frustrating could ever have gotten past QA.

Visually, the game looks good. Character models are not cutting edge, but they're certainly not horrible either. A little rubbery, but nicely detailed. The environments are nice though. A lot of work and detail has gone into recreating a devestated Central Park, and it certainly shows. Kudos to the Eden Games team for their environment layout. In fact, I must say that despite it's flaws Alone in the Dark has proven to be the scarriest game I've played to date on the Xbox 360. I have jumped at several moments throughout the game, and this is something all other titles have failed to do.

Story wise, the game seems alright thus far. I'm on the fourth "Episode," and it's nicely set up providing me with just enough tidbits to keep me interested just like a TV show. The dialogue and script writting, on the other hand, are really bad. Honestly, why does everyone swear so much? I mean, I'm no angel, I curse a blue-streak every day and typically when I open my mouth orphans cry, but all the characters in Alone in the Dark swear so excessively so often that it's simply laughable and quite honestly, not very believeable. I've actually find that more than anything is killing my attachment to the game's story.

So, at this point, nearly half-way through the game, what do I think? Well, Alone in the Dark is a game that gets some things right, but gets a whole lot more wrong. It could have been an excellent exploration game focused around dark mystery and puzzles, but Eden Games decided to through in some poorly paced combat and horendous driving sequences. It seems to be a game that does some things others have never done before, but these achievements are swallowed up and completely overshadowed by the mixed-and-matched design that covers almost every aspect of gameplay.

You explore a bit and then enter into some annoying combat. You explore some more, than get annoyed by driving around. You explore some more, then struggle with your inventory while trying not to die. I haven't finished the game yet, and at this rate, it'll take me a while to motivate myself to really even try.

If I do get through it, I'll do a full and proper review, but at this point, if you're thinking of Alone in the Dark, I'd recommend a rental at best.

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