No publisher wants the phrase "polishing a turd" attached to their games as they cross the console divide, but Atari has at least been open about the need to spruce up Alone in the Dark before introducing it to anyone else. A new audience should represent new opportunities, but there's no denying that the well-publicised flaws in the 360 original mean that Edward Carnby's fifth outing arrives in Sonyville tainted by poor word of mouth and with much to prove.
Now in possession of a near-complete PS3 build of the game, and able to explore it away from the guiding hands of the development team, we can perhaps give you a clearer picture of which elements have been improved - and which are still looking a bit shabby.
Central to Alone in the Dark's overhaul is the most basic element of all - moving around. 360 players were saddled with a system so clumsy and awkward that it made simply navigating the environment an uphill struggle, even when you weren't actually struggling up a hill. A bizarre mixture of fixed camera angles, extreme close-ups and lurching viewpoints, it's no exaggeration to say that it was one of the worst combinations of camera and control in a major release this year.
Thankfully, it has been completely ditched for the PS3 and replaced with a more traditional over-the-shoulder third-person action viewpoint, with manual camera control. The need to press an additional button to make Edward run has also been tossed aside, with a far more sensible analogue system in place that changes his speed depending on how far you push the stick. Just like you'd expect, really, which is why so many found the original control scheme such a fumble.
Playing the PS3 version alongside the 360 (well, flipping between them with the remote control) the change is immediately apparent and overwhelmingly beneficial. It's still not the slickest control scheme in gaming as precision movements and jumps still feel a little hit and miss compared to the leading lights of the genre but you can, at least, see where you're going and control your movements in ways that make sense. It also seems that the controls in the first-person view have been tightened up. Turning feels much smoother and, while it won't be troubling the leading FPS games, it's now much easier to target the skittering monsters.
In fact, combat in general is much easier, with a noticeable drop in bludgeoning across the board. Fire is still the quickest way to dispatch enemies, but in situations where brute strength is the only way to fend them off while you search for a permanent solution it takes far fewer hits to knock them down. It's easier, yes, but mostly it makes combat less boring. Swinging away with a chair at an enemy soon stops being exciting, and the game now seems to realise that players would rather deal with foes and move on than be constantly hampered by mindless slugging matches. This is good.
Of course, walking around in the 360 version was a dream compared to the nightmare of the driving sections. These too have received a severe thrashing from the fix-it stick, and it's nice to report that the cars now handle like cars - or at least videogame cars - rather than breezeblocks in a swimming pool full of Marmite. On the Moon. They've also added checkpoints, so death no longer means having to do the whole...bloody...thing...again. And again. And again.
All told, it sounds like a game that should finally deliver on the promise of the original. Eden Studios certainly deserves a warm hug for being honest and responding to criticism with some fairly major changes, even if we have to follow it up with a slap for not getting these basic design decisions right in the first place. With that said, the game is still far from a shining beacon of the survival horror genre. The use of fire and physics to create clever real world puzzles remains impressive, as does the versatile inventory combo system, but the fondness for instant death hazards remains, while Edward can still be blocked and snagged by random scenery elements.
It's this part of a preview that's always hardest to write for a game like Alone in the Dark. You don't want to start getting too critical, because then it becomes a review, and things can always change in the final few months of a development crunch. At the same time, much of the game is already a known quantity and there's a limit to how deep the changes can go. The PS3 version is an obvious improvement over the 360 version - which is apparently still in line to get some of these fixes in a patch - but I can't really say I enjoyed my second run through Alone in the Dark that much more than the first, even with the improvements.
The driving controls may be improved, for example, but the driving sections themselves are still clumsily scripted while the physics means that random debris can still end your game through no fault of your own. The same holds true of some of the more frustrating on-foot challenges, such as the subterranean pool of corrosive muck that must be inched through while your torch keeps the ooze at bay, until suddenly it doesn't and you die and have to replay the whole section again.
There are just too many parts of the game that still feel clunky and unfair, and they don't seem to be the sort of things that can be redeemed without starting from scratch. It's shaping up to be a better game, then, but probably not an essential one.
Alone in the Dark is due out for PS3 in November.