Edward Carnby hops into a car. The woman demoing the game to us explains that everything in the car works. We sort of tune out a bit. Is this really relevant? It's nice that you can look in the glovebox for a gun. It's nice that you can operate the wipers. But is it that important? It's not like games haven't done this before. You could play the harmonica on the Plok title screen. Stupid PLOK RIP-OFF.
Okay, that bit's new - you can turn on the radio. Also, your ability to drive is limited by whether or not you have the keys. That makes sense. Although presumably they're just hidden above the driver-side sun visor. Actually, is it called a sun visor? Surely that's not what it's called. I can't remember. It's day three of E3 and I can't remember what the thing in the car that stops the sun blinding you is called. Although I have remembered that I'm wrong about Plok.
Ooh, that's a bit interesting. You can hot-wire the car. And Carnby's not just pressing a button - he's actually holding the wires and using the analogue sticks to move them together. BEEEEEEEEEEEP! And he got the wrong ones. "That noise could attract enemies around the car," helpful-Alone-in-the-Dark-demo-lady says.
Still in the car, we're shown how Carnby can move from seat to seat. He can climb into the back as well as the passenger seat. He has full movement around the car, and the ability to explore every bit of it. And this'll be an issue if he's ever in the car when he's not driving, in the case of a pursuit, for example. That's quite clever, I suppose.
He gets out of the car now. We're going to be shown the inventory, apparently. Carnby halts, goes from third- to first-person views and looks down his body. He pulls open each side of his trenchcoat, and we see grenades, clips, and a couple of weapons stuffed in pockets. Your inventory is your body. You're not limited in what you can carry; you're limited by what you can carry.
Alright, so that was all a bit of a feint. By the time we saw this bit, we were already quite impressed with Alone in the Dark. But you probably aren't. You might have seen some screenshots, perhaps a short trailer, or even read our previous bits on it, but it wasn't until E3 that it started looking like more than a well-intentioned, handsomely gruesome attempt to drag survival-horror kicking, screaming and quite possibly transubstantiating into the next-generation. It does now.
Some background: Alone in the Dark stars the 1929 version of Edward Carnby. Which is something the game will explain. It takes place in New York's Central Park, against a backdrop of supernatural issues - something's come back from the dead, basically. It's split into 30-40 minute TV episode chunks, allowing you to the experience the game in sensibly sized bites, complete with recaps at the start of each, so that you don't end up getting confused when you wander back to finish it off three weeks later and you can't remember any of the plot. It's due out next year on Xbox 360, PC and "as you might have heard yesterday" PlayStation 3.
The demos we're shown come on three fronts. The first is a tech demo showing off the lighting. We've seen it before, at Atari's gig in Lyon last November. Decent cinematography is a big theme, we're told, again. The game can render a "practically unlimited number of lights", including dynamic ones, and uses depth of field and refocusing effects as an adjunct to the gameplay, not just for kicks. We may have seen it before but it's still impressive - from the convincing scars on Carnby's weathered face to the John-Carpenter's-whatever hanging from the ceiling looking convincingly inside-out.
There's a lot of cringeworthy rhetoric flying around the room - the game wants to "literally break the rules of survival horror" we're told, as rooms break up around Carnby - so it's best to ignore that. The best examples of why Alone in the Dark looks good are twofold: the opening level we're shown, and a puzzle concept demo.
The latter section sees Carnby tearing through Central Park in a yellow cab, swerving around broken down cars and smashed up park benches. A short distance past them the road crumbles and he's deposited in a trench of sunken asphalt about 40 feet across, along with another burnt out car and a tow-truck with a knackered saloon on the back. Getting out, Carnby goes over to the other car, and discovers a gun.
The player switches into a target-view, and picks out a couple of red bolts on the back of the tow-truck - each of a subtly different tone to mark them out - and fires. Clink. Clink. The trailer drops, and the car on the back rolls off. Ignoring it, Carnby heads back to the taxi, hops back in, and stares through the windscreen. The rear of the tow-truck lines up nicely, and a quick burst of speed propels him onto its back and up onto the road again. This is certainly nothing like Plok, unless you count the time I threw all my limbs over a hill and couldn't get them back, forcing me to bounce around like a spring-loaded amputee until I reset the game. Reset.
The opening level of the game begins in darkness. Voices swarm around. "Wake him up. I want him to see my face before he dies." Your eyes open and are immediately filled with bright, blinding light. It doesn't just disappear either. Your eyes aren't on rails. You have to blink using the controls to try and clear them. You're some sort of prisoner, it seems, to a pair of gun-toting gits in an apartment. You're lead out through the halls, which serves as a calibration ritual. "Go left." "Not fast enough - don't you want to live a bit longer?!" It comes off quite well - and we've seen a hundred of these. And then, obviously, things start to go a bit wrong.
As you struggle to sort out your eyesight, a dark fissure opens up on the wall next to you, like a snake of distortion racing across the surface. As you're shunted forward, you spin round to see your executioner taken down by a menacing blur - your dodgy eyes failing to get a good look. It's obviously a gimmick, but it doesn't feel contrived; it's consistent with what's happening. As you make your attempted escape you come up against a tide of flames sweeping through the apartment, and the floor beneath you shreds like the wall earlier, engulfing you up to the waist. Something rocks the building and you're spat out again, at which point it becomes clear why: the room's falling apart. And not in that rubbish, low-res "we're doing this with the leftover triangles from an anti-geometry march" kind of way you're used to; it comes apart in jagged lumps, splintering as it goes. It's disorientating. A dark shape - another room - crashes down over the top of you, as you miraculously survive through blind luck and an open doorframe.
You have control of everything. Even as things are flying past you and the camera's behaving a bit more dramatically, opting into slow motion, you keep control. As the floor beneath you gives way at one end and you're propelled out of the side of the building into the evening air over the city, you retain control - only losing it as Carnby reaches to grab a gargoyle hanging from one side of the building, leaving the camera to pull away and show the whole of Central Park, underneath a blanket of unnatural cloud, as an "Alone in the Dark" logo materialises on the screen.
A good opening section is a beacon. It doesn't always add up to a good game overall, and of course a good game doesn't always begin very well, but the best opening sections - Halo, Half-Life, Resident Evil 4, etc. - can stand alone. AITD's looks like it might, and the other bits we've seen bode well. The series itself might not have best record, of late - and Uwe Boll certainly didn't help - but the latest game stood out during a show of false beginnings, and surprised everyone who took a look at it. Could be one to watch, in other words - providing you can keep your eyes open long enough to see it.
Alone in the Dark is due out on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC next year. As in, 2007, archive-abusers. And aliens from the future. Hi there! Resurrect me please! I was great!
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