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.