This past weekend was the beta test for people who’ve pre-ordered Alone in the Dark: Illumination, as well as for anyone lucky enough to be given a key for the purposes of previewing Atari’s sixth survival horror game in the Alone in the Dark series. Like me.
Unfortunately, the news for fans anxiously awaiting something great from the venerable Alone in the Dark franchise isn’t good: the beta showed off a slice of what the full game will bring when it comes out in the next few months, and as of this late beta stage, it’s, well, not great. At least, the bit that I saw isn’t.
With just one character to play and a handful of levels to wander through, what I saw didn’t leave me anxious for the full game.
Gone is the slow-paced, exploratory fright-fest that was the original Alone in the Dark; instead, what you get in this new game is Left 4 Dead-like shooting that throws a never-ending wave of enemies at you, with a bit of Alan Wake-esque use of light thrown in to justify the Illumination subtitle.
Light is good, basically, it makes the bad monster things vulnerable and you must shoot them when they’re all lit up and weak, but you must do it without being overwhelmed or getting caught in the immunity-bestowing dark.
Throughout each level, you must create light patches by hitting switches or turning on generators that power lights or solve some other puzzle whose completion involves making more light somehow, and while it can be harrowing looking for the next switch/generator/puzzle initially, that sense of tension doesn’t last and is soon replaced by annoyance.
That’s because your Hunter has limited stamina that drops to zero far too quickly, forcing him to run-walk-run-walk his way around the levels, often leading to him getting caught up in mobs of enemies if a wrong turn is taken. Because as fast as you kill them, the buggers respawn in a never-ending stream of annoyingness, and taking the wrong turn is quite easy.
At least initially. Once you’ve learned where things are, it’s a relatively simple matter of running there, doing what’s needed and moving on. Levelling the Hunter’s skills up is apparently possible, but having hit level 6 I couldn’t for the life of me fathom what I was getting better at.
I guess the idea is to go through the various interconnected levels, slowly uncovering the supposedly horrifying story of a desolate mining town under the influence of a force locals call The Darkness while dealing with the never-ending flood of creatures that are out for your blood.
What you actually get is a game with nice-looking but ultimately empty levels, stupid-looking enemies that clearly, someone’s three year old thought were scary, brain-dead AI and guns that sound like whiffle bats having a coughing fit. None of these signs bode well for the game’s future, but in fairness there is still time to address them.
Here’s an example of how stupid the AI is currently: on several occasions I barred access to my player character by closing a gate, only to see monsters bunch together on the other side like morons and mill about awkwardly like they were protesters who’d arrived at the rally too early. On other occasions, they’d actually try to break the door down, making their behaviour even worse for its inconsistency.
Perhaps even more annoying is that the game in its current form provides no feedback that you’ve actually hit the thing you’re shooting at, and the weapons you’ll use sound muted and dull. There’s no punch to the action, just a robotic move, press button/light fire/solve puzzle, shoot, move that just isn’t a whole lot of fun. The close, over-the-shoulder camera doesn’t help matters, either, obscuring more than it reveals.
From what I saw in my time with the beta, Illumination tries to create a tense atmosphere with its endlessly-spawning enemies, and admittedly it proved tough on occasion to juggle shooting them with switching on lights, managing ammo levels and performing some light puzzle-solving so it’s definitely trying.
But in the end all I felt was a sense of frustration brought on by the lacklustre new mechanics and the absence of any meaningful connection to the games of old. And the wall of text text that pops up at the start of every level to fill in the gaps in the story didn’t help much, either.
On the other hand, playing this with friends could make things a lot more interesting (AITD:I supports four-player co-op) as there are another three classes – Witch, Priest and Engineer – each with their own abilities – including some magical ones, apparently – that could be more fun to use than the Hunter’s guns. But even if that’s true, it undermines the game’s core premise entirely: that of being ALONE in the dark.
I suppose I can’t begrudge the devs for wanting to put a new spin on an old franchise, but still. Perhaps SEVERAL PEOPLE TOGETHER IN THE DARK didn’t have the right ring to it.
It’s not altogether impossible that the other three character classes are so much fun to play that the Hunter’s blandness will be forgotten when the game finally launches, which of course begs the question why they weren’t featured in the beta to drum up some enthusiasm for what currently appears to be a rather humdrum title.
I didn’t get to play with anyone because the beta was single-player only, and that may have soured my view of the game unfairly, but where things stand now I don’t think anyone would disagree that developer Pure FPS has a lot of work to do before this next Alone in the Dark hits store shelves. That is, if they want it to be anything more than a cynical cash-in that trades on the good will of fans of the franchise.
The currently-listed release date for the Alone in the Dark: Illumination is “Spring 2015” (European spring, that is), it’s PC-only and will be available via Steam. Going on what I saw in the beta this weekend, though, this is one game that could really use a long delay.