Alone in the Dark
The Alone in the Dark series began life on PCs in 1992, and is widely credited with all but creating the ‘survival horror’ genre. However, over the years the market has not been kind to AitD, with the series never gaining the commercial success or critical acclaim the likes of Resident Evil or Silent Hill have enjoyed. After a failed attempt to revive the series with 2001 effort Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare, the series whimpered out and more or less disappeared from gaming’s collective conscience.
That is until Eden Studios – developers of V-Rally, and more recently ambitious-but-flawed racing game Test Drive Unlimited – decided to reinvent the franchise for the discerning and demanding 2008 gamer. While the game has obviously been designed for the Xbox 360 and ported to other platforms as development has progressed, it is unclear whether the numerous flaws, irritating controls and poor design decisions which plague the PS2 version are the fault of Eden, or Hydravision, who handled this port.
You step back into the shoes of series veteran Edward Carnby, although this is unknown at this point, due to the ol’ favourite plot device, amnesia. Things are looking pretty grim, as you are incapacitated, locked in a room with a frail old man and a small party of men who seem to be indifferently discussing your imminent execution. Moments later – as you are being led to your impending demise by an armed foe, blinking nausea away and trying to stay on your feet – fate plays its cards and you are separated from your captor, free to make your escape. Fleeing the building as it literally falls apart around you, you soon arrive at Central Park (the game takes place in and around New York’s famous landmark). Stepping out of the frying pan and in to the fire, some might say…
Alone in the Dark differs from many traditional survival horrors in that it incorporates several different styles of gameplay. For the most part you’ll be investigating the environments for a means to progress, but you’ll also spend significant time combating demonic foes and driving the various vehicles littered around the game. There are also several varied set-piece events, where you must rappel up or down the side of a collapsing building, shoot enemies from a moving vehicle, and so on. While there is sufficient variety here, in reality it would only create a cohesive and laudable whole if all the individual pieces are of satisfactory quality.
The general investigation and exploration is a minor evolution on what has gone before, in that you won’t be looking for keys or artefacts to progress, à la Resident Evil or Silent Hill. Rather, you’ll be using items like bins to break open jammed doors, burning wood to incinerate timber blocking your way, or conversely fire extinguishers to contain blazes. However, while these attempts to move away from the sometimes thematically ridiculous objectives are admirable, AitD proves to be so inconsistent with them that it immediately trips itself up. For example: why is it that you can burn some wooden objects but not others? How come some fires refuse to go out no matter how long you spray the extinguisher at them? And furthermore, why is it you can interact with and move some things like cars and closed doors, but not others? These are the sort of discrepancies which give the overall game a feel that for every step forward it tries to take, another step back is taken elsewhere.
The controls are overly complicated and often too unresponsive. You can play the game from first- or third-person viewpoint, although often you must use one in particular for specific circumstances (for example; shooting must be done in first-person and climbing in third-person). When you’re in first-person mode everything is usually fine – aiming and shooting is okay, and investigative searches are usually more productive like this due to the up-close viewpoint. However, things often go awry when you have to use the awful third-person camera. For starters the perspective feels too close to Carnby, with no way to alter the distance, although the camera thankfully backs off a little when engaging foes in melee combat. That said, when you pick up an object and wield it with the right analogue stick often he takes a couple of seconds to actually perform the action onscreen – which can be quite problematic when you’re trying to strike an approaching zombie with a pipe, for example. Further, when using an object near a wall Carnby has a tendency to lose his aim and spin around on the spot, which might look amusing, but again, is actually quite bothersome.
Coming from a developer with a history of racing games, it’s unexpected that the driving sections here are so terrible. Thankfully they are comparatively few and far between and generally mercifully brief, but the handling is poor and even the slightest little knock sends you skidding all over the place. In the sections where you must quickly drive away from enemies, practically any mistake will ruin your chances and necessitate a restart. Although the sections don’t last very long, they play out like an inferior level from Stuntman, where you must learn the exact route to take, a little bit more each time. This concentrated trial-and-error element isn’t much fun at all, and doesn’t feel like it has much place alongside the rest of the game.
While the combat itself is generally passable, the enemies are a little too generic and uninteresting to really captivate. There are the usual zombies (who can run), slightly tougher zombies, blade-toting monsters who can travel through fissures in the ground, bug-things, moth-things, blob-things, etc. There are no enemies who feel in the least bit frightening or original, which seems quite a major shortcoming for any horror title. Compounding these issues is the fact that often you can forego combat altogether and run past enemies – which, given the frequent shortage of ammo is often the best choice.
Graphically, AitD is passable, although it seems more than a little drab when compared to some of the more visually capable games on the PS2. The draw distance is one of its best aspects – you can often see buildings in the far distance, and an early balcony allows you to admire much of Central Park and the city skyline beyond, which is a nice touch. However, that doesn’t take anything away from the fact the graphics look like at best a middling PS2 title, with poor character models, sparse environs and unimpressive special effects, all of which is exasperated by mediocre and archaic animations. On the contrary the soundtrack is one area where it is hard to fault the game. With a genuinely good orchestral score and a rousing choir always to hand, the music is probably the game’s best aspect.
The plot is the usual horror story hokum, although on a significantly grander scale than most. It’s not bad at all, referencing the occult, Old Nick, summoning ceremonies, and so on. There’s obviously a fair bit of depth and back-story here, so it’s a bit of a shame Eden hasn’t really gone in to detail, bar a few messages you can read on your PDA, and it doesn’t help that you can’t interact with any of the game’s NPCs outside of cutscenes. Loading and saving are fast and hassle-free, with the former never interrupting your mid-game progress and latter happening automatically, pleasingly. The save points could be a little closer together – after dying it often feels like you have to re-play a bit more than would be ideal, however this is a very minor gripe as on the whole the technical performance is very good. The voiceovers and script, on the other hand, are less successful. The voice actors do a moderate job – although they have an inclination to shout and get excited when it doesn’t seem appropriate – but the script is utterly awful. Littered with profanities, lacking any pause for thought and addressing the game’s issues and plotting only on the most basic of levels, it is bad enough to make Resident Evil look like Lovecraft.
Flaws are evident throughout, which really shouldn’t occur in a production of this level. Often enemies will vacantly stand still, neglecting to attack you even if you’re shooting them. Over the course of the game I encountered clips I couldn’t pick up, Molotov cocktails which disappeared once thrown, invisible barriers in the middle of a road and I was even pushed through a closed door by a foe, before finding I couldn’t get back through and they could still injure me (necessitating a re-load). It’s also strange how shooting a zombie in the arm or leg four times kills them just as quickly as putting four rounds in their head.
Much has been made of AitD’s episodic DVD interface-style structure. It’s a good idea, really – allowing you to skip to any part of the game if you become stuck, or just want to see the final stages. Before each new chapter loads you get a brief ‘Previously’ summary, although they are simply action collages, sadly with no plot abridgement, which feels like a bit of a waste. I feel perhaps there could have been subtler ways to allow the player to progress – perhaps offering one chapter ahead only, or allowing you the option to skip if you die five times in a row, or something similar. As it stands, it’s unlikely many would seriously want to skip straight to the end, as gamers will need to spend time getting used to the monsters, controls and particulars of the game.
The level design is relatively varied, incorporating Central Park, sewers, a ruined museum, subways, other derelict buildings, and so on. Areas are obstinately linear and there is very little opportunity for discretionary exploration, which is a shame and significantly detracts from any potential replay value. However, when the way forward is uncertain Carnby can close his eyes and objects he can interact with glow, which often points toward what needs to be done next, even if the actual task required is unclear. This is also used against foes that have specific weak points, although given the requisite button is R3, it’s very awkward to hold down the button and try to look around. It’s a useful idea, although in ways it perhaps alludes to Eden’s own admission of confusing objectives.
The game also suffers a distinct lack of signposting. Several puzzles early on prove tricky not because they are actually difficult or clever, but because you don’t actually know what you need to do. For example, at an early stage you are climbing along a ledge outside a building which partially collapses, leaving you hanging. The remaining portion of the ledge looks big enough to climb up on, but no matter what you try, he won’t do it. After several frustrating minutes you head back a little distance and the camera shifts to a new angle showing a new ledge you can climb up (which wasn’t available before). Had there been some sort of prompt – on screen, or even a brief voiceover – this inconsistent and irritating transition could have gone much more smoothly.
Alone in the Dark is an ambitious and in ways progressive survival horror game, whose ambition is hampered by its own numerous flaws. Whether these problems are a result of porting a current-gen title to a last-gen console remains to be seen, but the PS2 edition is very clearly a stripped down version of the impressive 360 game Atari have been displaying. For every positive aspect there are persistent failings with the basic structure of the game, and because of this it makes it hard to recommend Alone in the Dark to anyone except the most forgiving of gamers.