Before there was Resident Evil, before there was Silent Hill, there was Alone In The Dark. It's easy to forget that now, of course - those two games have unquestionably made the genre what it is today, after all. It's still worth mentioning, though, that Alone In The Dark was there before either of them.
Before the STARS noticed anything amiss in Racoon City, before Alessa's ill-fated barbecue evening, there was private investigator Edward Carnby's desperate fight for his life through a sprawling, gothic Louisiana mansion. Before Mikami's B-movie zombie shlock or Yamaoka's spine-tingling chords, there was Infogrames' heavy dose of Lovecraftian mythos and horror.
Of course, being the first is no guarantee of future quality. Nobody could deny that ever since the original Alone In The Dark, the series has had a fairly major lull - 16 long years of lull, in fact, punctuated by a couple of disappointing sequels, a half-hearted revival attempt, and a bloody awful Uwe Boll movie. You could even argue that the pedigree of the first game means nothing to the 2008 revival of the series, since the original designers aren't actually working on it as far as we can gather.
Regardless, our interest is piqued, and not just by the game's impressive forebear. The trailers look fantastic. The tech demos look brilliant. The artwork and music we've seen are head-and-shoulders above just about anything that anyone else is doing in the survival-horror genre. You'll forgive us a frisson of excitement as we take the pad in our hands to play through the first two almost-finished chapters of Edward Carnby's latest exploits.
The game opens with a fairly short first-person perspective sequence in which you wake up bleary-eyed and watch and listen as your mysterious (and brutal) captors decide what to do with you and an elderly man similarly tied up on the opposite bed of the room. You're then grabbed by one of the men who drags you to the roof to execute you. You have partial control at this stage, but going the wrong way or even looking too closely at your captor will earn you a kick in the back or a pistol butt to the face.
It's all somewhat reminiscent of Call of Duty 4's incredibly powerful sequence in which you see through the eyes of the deposed president as he's driven to his execution. Alone in the Dark, however, ends its sequence rather differently. With a sudden shake, strange, fleshy cracks appear in the wall of the building, and suck your captor inside, screaming, as the whole tower block starts to crumble around you. Making your escape, you spot a nearby mirror over a sink, prompting a scene where your character examines his scarred face and wonders aloud who the hell he is.
Now, the whole amnesiac character device is hardly original, but Alone in the Dark still somehow manages to deliver it with a fairly effective narrative punch. That's a testament to a number of things - an excellent script full of understated, believable dialogue, some solid voice acting (although this seemed to get patchy later on, sadly - fingers crossed that the final product shows the same level of polish all the way through) and, perhaps most of all, stunning facial models and animation. Characters look real, world-worn and battle-scarred, with the wrinkles and blemishes giving them vastly more personality than the shiny plastic dolls we normally play with, even in next-gen games.
Besides, you won't get much time to snort to yourself about the clichd nature of amnesiac heroes. The game immediately pitches you into a scramble to escape the building as it collapses around you in fits and starts, torn apart from the inside by the fleshy, living cracks that you saw at the outset. Along the way, you'll learn how Carnby's various abilities work - this being, essentially, the most outrageously dramatic and narrative-heavy tutorial level we've ever seen.
From very early on, it's clear that the game's interactions are built primarily around its physics engine - more so, even, than those in Half-Life 2. Any object you pick up (and most objects can be picked up, shoved or pulled around) can be moved around with the right stick. Move it gently, and you'll simply hold it in that direction - perfect for lighting the end of a wooden chair in a fire in order to create an impromptu torch, or for using a length of piping to fish an electric wire from a puddle of water, for instance.
Move it more violently, though, and it becomes a weapon. Flick from side to side, and Carnby will slam the object sideways. Backwards and forwards, and he lifts it up and brings it crashing down in front of him. For now, you won't be using that much - Alone in the Dark doesn't introduce you to combat until surprisingly far into the first chapter, preferring to build up the tension by giving you ominous glimpses of the hideously scarred "possessed" humans you'll be fighting. Instead, you'll be using the same movements to navigate your environment.
In Carnby's hands, for instance, a fire extinguisher doesn't just get rid of flames (although it does that very effectively, and you'll be using these quite a bit). It can also be swung like a battering ram to smash wooden doors (or even to bend metal doors until they pop out of their frames), something the game shows you early on as you try to rescue a man trapped in a burning room with a jammed door. As you proceed through the floors, the building continues to disintegrate - with entire floors coming crashing down, forcing you to smash your way through, or rappel down sheer drops on lengths of electrical cable.
As it might sound, the whole thing is tightly scripted, and it's undeniably linear. We can easily forgive it that, however, because the whole thing is so astonishingly cinematic. The team seems to have perfected the art of using cut-away camera angles and occasional slow motion with excellent judgement, highlighting cool or high-tension moments without making the player feel that control is constantly being wrested from them.
By the time you escape the building, two other key elements of the game will have manifested themselves - combat and driving. Although you do have a gun (accessed through the excellent and intuitive inventory system, which just sees Carnby opening his coat and looking in the various pockets), it's actually more useful for solving puzzles and setting off explosions than for directly shooting creatures. Instead, you'll want to find the sturdiest item in the area (we rather liked fire axes, but those bottom-weighted poles used for holding up velvet ropes did nicely too) and swing it viciously at your foe.
Needless to say, this isn't exactly military combat. Carnby is a brawler, not a ninja or a soldier, and he's up against foes vastly more powerful than him - this is survival-horror, after all, not action-adventure. Combat is heart-in-mouth stuff, and while there are some beautiful moments where you turn the tables by using items like bottles of petrol (the possessed don't like being sprinkled with fuel and set on fire, oh no), much of the combat time will be spent with your heart in your mouth and the sensation that you're up against something vastly more powerful. Just how survival-horror should be, really.
Driving is a rather more fluid experience, as you'd expect from a development studio whose last outing was Test Drive Unlimited. Although you start off in the confines of a dark and nasty underground car park, you'll escape the collapsing building (having picked up a couple of companions on the way, a young woman and the elderly man from the introduction, who seems to be the only person with a clue what's going on) and launch into a driving sequence which, we suspect, will be remembered as a high point of the game.
Again, it's resolutely linear - there's one path to follow, and you need to follow it bloody quickly - but it's not just the building you were in that's collapsing. The whole of Manhattan is affected, and as a result, you'll find yourself hurtling headlong through the streets as the city falls apart around you.
Skyscrapers crumble, huge buildings fall directly onto the road in front of you, the street drops away into the subways below, enormous cracks open up that need to be jumped - and in the background, a thrilling piece of choral music ramps up the tempo with each corner you turn. There may not be much replay value in this section of the game, but by the time you reach your ultimate destination, a crash-landing in Central Park and the end of the second chapter, your pulse will be pounding.
Alone In The Dark sets its cards out fairly clearly on the table by this point. It gives you immense freedom in terms of what you can do with the physics and the items in the world, and later on, we're assured, it also gives you a free-roaming world covering the entirety of Central Park (for those who haven't been to New York, take it from us - that's a big bloody park). However, its key events are heavily scripted, and the whole experience is a linear narrative at heart.
That's not necessarily a bad thing at all. The story Alone In The Dark spins is intriguing, kicking off with truly epic set pieces and gradually weaving multi-layered mysteries around what's happening in New York and what has happened to Carnby's character himself (bear in mind that last time we saw him, he was a private detective in 1925 - this game is set in 2008, and he certainly doesn't look over a century old).
On the strength of these opening chapters, Alone In The Dark is shaping up to be one of the most compelling single-player experiences of the year. Strong narrative, gorgeous graphics and hugely flexible gameplay, constrained by highly scripted progression, put us in mind of last year's BioShock, and the comparison is not undeserved. Any fan of action-adventure or survival-horror should be mulling a pre-order for this one as its release date approaches. Meanwhile, we'll be keeping our fingers crossed that the full game can live up to what we've seen so far.
Alone in the Dark is due out on Xbox 360, PC, PS2 and Wii on 20th June, with a PS3 release to follow later in the year. Catch up with the latest trailers here.