How Carnby comes to find himself in 2007 has not been explained to us, nor will it be, as publishers Atari want to keep the story under wraps until the game is released in order not to spoil it for the player. And seeing it in action yields no real answers, as at first our man Carnby is suffering from severe amnesia, unsure of where - and when - he is. Hence, he has to adapt quickly to his new surroundings to survive, a process made difficult by the circumstances of his reawakening. By now you may be aware of the opening segment, where a bleary-eyed Carnby is led through a building by his mysterious captors. Then suddenly a strange creature burrows through the walls, the entire building collapses and Carnby ends up hanging by one arm around thirty feet above an eerie Central Park. And thus Alone In The Dark's first cliffhanger is a literal one.
Alone In The Dark thrives on these kinds of pay-offs to keep the player hooked. You may have heard that the structure is based on that of episodic TV shows such as Lost and 24. Each 'episode' lasts around forty minutes to an hour to complete, and come in five 'parts', all of which have some kind of pay-off that will hope to keep the player glued to the screen. It's a reaction to recent findings that as the average age of gamers goes up, the average free time they have to play goes down. Instead of groaning at the prospect of a plodding 60 hour quest for the Golden Pomegranate a la Zelda, Okami et al, players can relish the chance of playing an 'episode' of Alone In The Dark - with a beginning, a middle and a satisfying conclusion. And the plan is for this to be some kind of perpetuo-game - the boxed version acting as a kind of boxset, with additional episodes released regularly over Xbox Live. There's even an unused segment of the park set aside for future storylines. Intriguing - but just how intriguing depends on the cost.
The goal of each episode is merely to survive. Alone In the Dark hopes to tap into your own psyche, allowing enough freedom for each player to react differently, an experiment in whether you'd choose fight or flight under pressure. Cast your minds back to the first cabin of Resident Evil 4 (presuming you've played it), where you have to smash through the window to escape the angry mob outside. Good times, we know, but wouldn't they have been even better if there were other options? Well, there the new Alone In The Dark comes in. Eden Games aim to provide at least three solutions to each scenario. To aid you, Eden aim to make this the first ever fully interactive world, where you can use anything and everything on-screen in any manner that you would realistically use it. That's not a joke.
And that's the cue for us to be transported to a test room of a kind, packed full of random objects. Walk over an object and an onscreen prompt will appear, asking you nicely to pick it up with a press of the left trigger. Do that and you can swirl it around with the right-hand analogue stick, in a pleasingly intuitive way vaguely reminiscent of EA's The Godfather. Release the trigger and Carnby will release his grip, hurling the item forward if you've got sufficient momentum behind you. But! A press of the right trigger will activate a 'softer' option, allowing you to actually use the item in some way with the environment. So, for example, instead of using that lampshade as a battering ram, why not plug it in and use the light to search for clues - and with hidden objects all around the 'shop', sometimes the path best taken is the least violent one. Sorry...
Fun of the Scare
What we've seen of Alone In The Dark suggests that it has learned well from its competitors - the emphasis on keeping a cool head under pressure as seen in Resident Evil 4, the sense of alienation of Konami's Silent Hill, the unsettling visual effects as seen in Fatal Frame - all wrapped up with the freedom to roam the park as you wish. And, because of that, you've got yourself the recipe for the first of the next breed of survival action games. But, despite having more fresh ideas than you could wave a lampshade at, it's still the sense of the familiar that lingers longest in the player's mind.
Central Park, although several square kilometres wide, never feels empty, with even long trawls through the forest having the same eerie atmosphere as that opening pathway in Silent Hill 2. As Polloni points out: "Isn't it weird that there's a huge park in the middle of New York? A city as crowded as that. You can stand in the middle of this bustling city and not be able to see a single building. Doesn't it make you think that something sinister is going on?" Yeah, it does... now.