Alone in the Dark Catch-All
Well, I've waited about a day to get some playtime in, and the bulk of the discussion around here seems centered on Atari's sh*tty approach to negative reviews. Since it seems not too many other people have given this title a chance, I thought I'd weigh in and see if there was any discussion worth having.
First off, the reviews are pouring in and are mostly negative. The Metacritic score's been steadily dropping, but so far a combined 59 seems about right. This 1up.com review from Nick Suttner seems on balance with the first eight or so hours I've played it -- which, given my gameplay and fighting against some of the controls, amounts to about the first three-and-change "episodes" of the game.
So, to start with, the Bad:
- The controls are everything you've heard about -- frankly, they're janky, a little annoying, and basically awkward. This works fine in the game sequences where you're solving puzzles, but try to do anything quickly -- like, say, not get killed by a horde of bad guys -- and you're not winding up anywhere fast.
- No pause during inventory?!? Seriously? I understand that they're going for the heightened "survival horror" experience, but given that the inventory is controlled with the 360 thumbstick, and the sensitivity seems set on "barely breathe and you move it," just trying to hurriedly access, say, a rag takes a solid thirty-five seconds. Kind of infuriating.
- You can probably lump this under the controls, but anything involving driving a car can suck a duck -- the car controls in this game are far, far more egregious than the on-foot controls. What's unfortunate is how, on paper, the car sequences seem cool -- and, playing them, you can see how cool they would be, had the player been given half a damn chance. But it's an unforgiving physics at play -- a slight tap of anything it seems will send the car careening into a one-hundred-and-eighty degree tailspin. That may sound like hyperbole, but it certainly feels right. The second car-chase sequence gets points for giving you something resembling a waypoint system -- which made the first sequence unbearable; seriously, what should have taken twenty minutes, with replays accounted for, took close to an hour! -- but those points are quickly lost when the game encourages you to damage your car, and then when the car's about to explode, makes you die from flying creepy things within seconds of leaving the car.
While I'm busy bitching about the driving, too -- what sense does it make to give the player some cool jumps and cutscenes within the jumps and, when you complete them successfully, you don't get that cutscene as a checkpoint? Seriously?
- The game clips like a mofo.
- The third-person/first-person thing most reviewers mention is frustrating, but not quite to the degree which they say. That said, I'm sticking mostly to third-person, and the fixed camera angles can be dramatically appropriate and sound choices, but every once in awhile, to solve something, you simply want to swing that camera around without going first-person, and the game gets rather bitchy about that.
- The game lets you save from everywhere, but I can't tell how that helps, since it seems to always load from the last checkpoint. Haven't played with that too much -- instead, I've been playing pretty linearly -- but it seems kinda awkward.
Okay, now The Good:
- The "Television show" presentation is pretty neat -- just in general, getting the recap every time you hit continue is nice, and having each "episode" (read: level) end on a cliffhanger does, to the extent that you're sucked into the story, give you a reason not to set down the controller. Added to that, every time you hit the pause menu, it gives you a little timeline of your progress on that particular "episode," combined with the major checkpoints and how far apart they're distributed. It gives you a nice sense of distance, both in the level and, from the main screen, of the whole game.
- It looks pretty.
- Story and atmosphere are pretty top notch -- and the fixed camera stuff, while sometimes frustrating -- makes for some nice puzzle/climbing sequences which reminded me of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I haven't played too much from the genre, so while I imagine there's a lot here that's derivative/whathaveyou, I haven't found it too egregious to be beyond the pale. That said, one of the reviews -- I think it was Metacritic -- took the lead character to task for being a pottymouth, and while I don't necessarily agree, I do find it funny that, as far as I'm in, the game's making the link to the old-school Carnby, and yet every other word's the f-bomb. Dude from the Twenties is going to be free-wheeling in his language like that? ...okay...
- An addictive structure, to return to the "TV Presentation," means that I'm more inclined to play into the next level since the story hit on a cliffhanger at the end of the last one. Likewise, I'm also inclined, as a player, to walk away from the game only at the end of an "episode." I haven't yet utilized the DVD skip features -- I'm comforted by the fact that they're there, but so far it's striking me as tantamount to failure. It's kind of a nice psychological trick they're playing on me, since I know I can just move ahead past the current annoying part (which, mostly, has been the driving sequences), but I'm not going to let the game beat me, you know? It's strange. Either way, kudos to them on that.
- Some of the innovations do feel innovative. The blink mechanic is strange, but feels strangely intuitive, making me wonder why it hasn't been more prevalent; the jacket-inventory is an inspired design choice, even if navigating it is buggy -- giving you only what you can fit in your pockets is a pretty nifty notion; coupled with that, you handle health and wounds in a similar way, by viewing your wounds first hand and administering to them with the standard First Aid Spray (yawn), or bandaging them with gauze if they're serious enough (and under a seven minute countdown clock -- nifty); and the whole combining items thing, though I realize isn't wholly new, makes for some nice options, even though I haven't taken advantage of them all just yet.
- The Melee Controls seem best designed for puzzle solving -- which is bad for combat, but good for the puzzling, as they're excellent in that department.
Overall, I'm close to halfway through, and while I don't hate the game, this is definitely an experience that has made me want to throw the controller a few times. I also wouldn't go so far as to say that I love it, neither, but The Good, thus far, is keeping me going through the occasional frustrations of The Bad. It's probably a case -- and I used to review comics, so I understand the sensation -- that The Bad is bad enough that it stands out and overshadows everything else the game is doing well.
Final analysis: I give myself certain thresholds on games -- like, say, this seems fun, but not a game I'd spend $40, or $60 on, that sort of thing. For me, I've no problem that I bought it full price, but for this community, I'd say this is probably at the $20-$25 threshold. Which, from the looks of it, we're only six weeks away on the used market.