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Alone in the Dark (Wii) artwork

Alone in the Dark (Wii) review

"The new Alone in the Dark (AITD) is the most original videogame I have played for years. This makes it exciting to talk about, even if the title is not an unqualified success. It bears very little relation to the survival horror games it grew out of, or to previous AITD games, or in fact to anything else around now. AITD consists of a series of dynamic action set pieces which seek to play out as episodically as did the scenes in old laserdisc games like Dragon's Lair. The game throws away nearly..."

The new Alone in the Dark (AITD) is the most original videogame I have played for years. This makes it exciting to talk about, even if the title is not an unqualified success. It bears very little relation to the survival horror games it grew out of, or to previous AITD games, or in fact to anything else around now. AITD consists of a series of dynamic action set pieces which seek to play out as episodically as did the scenes in old laserdisc games like Dragon's Lair. The game throws away nearly every element which has become enshrined in contemporary action-adventures. There isn't a single boss fight capping off a level. You don't have to hoard items for later use or keep them between levels. Perhaps most boldly of all, you can opt to start playing from any level in the entire game from the moment you put the disc in the console. If a particular part of the game is driving you bonkers (and believe me, some of them will) you can just go to the menu and load a different one.

This is also a game of vitally programmed physics. In two focal areas, the physics of movement and gravity and the physics of fire, AITD behaves in an extremely realistic manner. Fires will slowly destroy architectural structures and can be put out with an extinguisher, but will spread again if not doused completely. You can also light one object and then start another fire with it. The physics apply to locked doors, too, of which none actually demand the finding of a corresponding key. Any door that must be opened can be bashed through with the nearest heavy object. All the game's puzzles are solved by just looking around, observing your environment and trying practical solutions involving handy objects.

You will also spend plenty of time climbing up or down ropes, scampering sideways on building facades or leaping off them onto nearby ledges. The 'rope program' appears as a major feature in the credits, and it's evident why, as this whole element of the game is executed with unprecedented detail. Nor is this is to imply that it is complicated to control or interact with; in fact the opposite. Player apprehension of the rope sequences is completely transparent because you don't have to observe any special logic or rules specific to AITD itself. If you've ever jumped, dropped something from a height or looked at a pendulum in real life, you will know what to expect when you take particular actions in this game.

If all this spelunking sounds not very traditionally AITD-ish, that's because it isn't. The game's opening level, which involves an escape from a burning, collapsing building, initially seems to have so little to do with the supernatural that even with my only slight expectations that this game would remind me of previous AITD games or subject matter, I was a bit baffled and maddened by it. What becomes apparent as the game develops is that your lot as Edward Carnby is to try to outrun, and eventually counter, a supernatural disaster whose epicentre is New York's Central Park. This disaster takes the form of plenty of exploding or collapsing scenery, as well as monsters. Thus the impetus for constant motion, not to mention a couple of nail-biting Grand Theft Auto-like car chase sequences.

The first level is also a particularly rough level. You can only really do one thing to save yourself or get to the next room or ledge at any point, and it can be unclear what that thing is or where you're going. The first person perspective is too shallow, allowing you to look up or down only a bit, and if you switch to the third person mode, the camera angle proves to be steeper than is likeable in terms of showing what lies directly ahead. These are issues which continue to nag throughout the game. You don't have to collect many items in AITD, but in cases where you do, by the time you're close enough to them that they're being haloed by an 'A' (indicating which button to press to grab them) the 'A' has probably dropped below your line of sight. I recall Resident Evil 4's great solution to such problems, which was to have little beams of light rise up from all fallen objects.

Further extending the emphasis on physics, your protagonist's hands and body are largely literalised to the Wii controls. The Wiimote is your right hand, the nunchuk your left. Wave them respectively to put things from those hands in and out of your inventory. Point to aim, twist both to see your inventory. That inventory is presented as a first person view looking down the length of your body, so that you can see all the items in your jacket pockets and select what you want. You can also inspect your wounds this way, spray them with first aid spray and stick bandages on them to stop bleeding. This is all incredibly novel stuff that makes you feel you are really in the character's body. Perhaps the most extreme inclusion in this regard, and one that ends up being grossly underused, is the ability to manually blink your eyes. You don't have to keep blinking just to stop your eyeballs from drying out or anything ridiculous like that, but you can blink to get smoke or monster spit out of your eyes, or to fob off the blearying effects of being drugged.

There are only a few kinds of monsters in AITD, and the game is never about fighting off lots of them. Or perhaps even those few. You can avoid ninety percent of the bad guys by just running, the only exception being the whole level devoted to destroying a swarm of bats from the vantage point of a racing van. You're armed with a gun, and ammunition is generously distributed, but neither fact is especially important for fighting. In a pinch you can again use nearby heavy objects to just smack baddies away from you, though the most effective combat technique is to set them alight with the improvised aerosol flamethrower, consisting of alcoholic medical spray in your left hand and a cigarette lighter in your right.

All of the intense focus on physics and quite discrete areas of game design is grafted onto a much larger scheme which goes out of its way to be like a massively budgeted, wisecracking Hollywood action film. The results are extremely variable. At times, tension, excitement and a sense of snowballing pace are achieved. The choral soundtrack courtesy of Olivier Deriviere (of Obscure I and II fame) also delivers exquisite moments. Humour, on the other hand, is rarely achieved with any success at all. When I laughed, I was usually laughing at the dialogue rather than with it. The most ridiculous example was when the tag-along heroine took the opportunity offered by a quieter in-game moment to tell her entire life story. I was running around Central Park, pushing a car, dashing up and down the back of a tow truck and shooting at things, and still her voice was yapping away at me on the soundtrack for minutes on end.

Pacing is the core area in which this game cannot guarantee that it will play out as it would like to. Ideally it's meant to be all breakneck, all episodic, all fluid, all the time, but so many new situations are thrown at you in rapid succession, many only solveable in one way and often in demanding fashion, that there's no guarantee you will be able to maintain the pace of play that is necessary to hold aloft the mood of the Hollywood construction. To extend my earlier comparison, the old Dragon's Lairs ensured their pace was maintained by just killing you every ten seconds if you weren't doing the right thing, then throwing you right back into the same turmoil. AITD isn't as extreme as that, so some parts of it you'll breeze through, while others will bring you to a complete and thoughtful standstill as you work out what you're meant to do next or what the game even wants. The car chase levels are brilliantly designed, but they are also the hardest episodes by a mile, requiring many exacting replays if you want to complete them.

AITD is weird, crazy and lumpy, and it accelerates and decelerates as often as the wonky car you have to drive during the second car chase. Yet its willingness to throw away tons of established gaming tropes and singlemindedly pursue new or different ones absolutely won me over. When I started off in the first level's disintegrating building, I felt querulous about this being 'Alone in the Dark' at all. Even as someone who never liked this series much, I still had expectations concerning subject matter or spirit. By game's end I felt only bloody-minded admiration for the majority of what I had experienced. The clever physics, the observational puzzles, all that climbing and grabbing onto ropes and ledges, the mucking around with fires. The transparent relationship between the controls and the character's body. The unexpected de-emphasis on the monsters. The swift-feeling levels and my free access to any of them at any time.

I read a review that described this game as 'an insult to the legacy of Edward Carnby' or words to that effect. In terms of loyalty to the series' past, it probably is. But it's not just the previous AITD games which the developers have ignored, it is habitual game design in general, or just habits, period. Not all of AITD works and lots of the cool stuff is underused, but it is thrilling to experience its newness and difference, and inspiring to see game creators going out on a limb with something properly bold. It is also a highly replayable game due to its episodic nature and the fact that you can go easily to any level you like. Those parts of the experience which are far from consistently fluid on the first playthrough become more like their envisioned ideal when you return to them armed with the knowledge of how they work.

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Community review by bloomer (September 05, 2008)

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Lewis posted September 07, 2008:

Top marks for using the word 'spelunking'. What a fabulous yet underused term.

I think the problem with AITD is that, despite the bravery of pulling away from traditional game design mechanics, it doesn't actually consider all that well what it's doing instead. Many of the design decisions serve only to make the experience a weaker one than if they'd just stuck with a standard setup. Innovation's only good if it serves a purupose. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. If it is broke, actually fix it instead of smashing it up with a hammer.

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