Alone in the Dark 4
Long before Resident Evil arrived on our computers and consoles came the chilling action/adventure Alone in the Dark. It raised a few eyebrows - and heckles - to say the least. The combination of action and adventure in one, seamless, movie-like horror experience was sheer genius to some. More significantly, it introduced a whole new genre to the world of PC gaming.
Rather disappointingly, its sequel arrived to zombie-like grunts and growls of derision. There was no improvement graphically and the gameplay suffered from too many contrived puzzles and aimless scampering through hedge mazes.
Thankfully, it wasn't too long before it returned to form. The third episode delivered stunning graphics, cunning puzzles and a very, very eerie atmosphere. Overall, the trilogy, despite the shortcomings of the second game, was considered a classic. However, that was five years ago, and that was the last we heard of paranormal investigator extraordinaire Edward Carnby.
Meanwhile, a new breed of horror-adventure has appeared, most notably Resident Evil 1 and 2. With the same graphical style as the AITD games, the only reason these games are edging towards classic status is because they're taking advantage of newer technology in the absence of any decent competition. The recent release of Nocturne has fuelled the fire slightly, but what we're really waiting for - what we've always waited for - is Alone In The Dark 4.
That wait is almost over. Charged with bringing the series up to 21st Century standards is the unenviable task of French developer Darkworks. They've been working on the project for over 18 months now and, while the going may be slow, the creative aspirations of these Gallic 'artistes' are beginning to make their mark. Okay, so a cursory glance over these pages will reveal the pretty, if rather standard backdrops of haunted houses, dark corridors and hideously mutated beasts...
All that is basic Alone In The Dark stuff, and we expect nothing less. What you cannot hope to appreciate by simply looking at a few simple stills is that unlike previous AITD games, the backgrounds are all realtime. Dynamic lighting is used to create authentic-looking shadows, and lightning even flashes across the sky to enhance the foreboding mood. If you've played the previous three games and remember the sort of frightening claustrophobic environments that were created without 3D acceleration, imagine the tension this new technology will bring.
There have also been significant changes to Camby himself. No longer is he a simple stony-faced, paranoid delusional, stumbling from one predetermined puzzle to the next. He's now our hero and storyteller rolled into one. Confused? Don't be. It's quite simple...
AITD4's plot unfolds depending on how you react to certain situations. This is not a case of simply kill or run, either. The programmers are actually in the process of implementing real emotional responses. Players can be brave, stupid, wary, scared and more besides. Every emotion exhibited causes a reaction somewhere in the game. This could be a simple case of braving the darkness of a room to find an exit on the other side, or something subtler, like monsters backing off after you've shown you're not scared of them.
The gameplay itself is as much about exploring Carnby's mind as it is about exploring the bizarre world you find yourself in. No surprises, then, that Darkworks list psychological entertainers like David Cronenberg and Stanley Kubrick among their influences. In true homage to films like Existenz and Videodrome, Darkworks hope to create: (In French accent) "a sense immersion experience".
The whole emotion concept is something that's never been done before. If it works, the results should be truly fascinating. Maybe there's scope for analogue joystick control, or force feedback. You could press right slowly to walk away from a situation in a calm manner, or whack the joystick really hard to run away panicking and screaming. Now that would be cool. On the other hand, if the interface has us clawing the keyboard, pressing 'W' for 'worried', 'S' for 'scared' and 'Shift B' for 'absolutely bricking it' the novelty factor could wear off quickly.
One other notable feature is that the highly emotional Edward has arrived in this spooked-out world armed only with a torch. At first, this may not seem like the best weapon to have, but it's still got its uses. The torch is a fundamental part of exploration and combat. With the help of some more dynamic jiggery-pokery, AITD4 will feature some of the scariest probing in the dark yet seen on a PC. And when it comes to combat, a quick flash of UV light at the mutated head of an undead assailant is more effective than any gun. Edward can also rely on his fists and feet, too; no amount of emotional turmoil can put a halt to that.
Publishers Infogrames will not let ATTD4 out of their sight until they're completely happy with it. They were the original developers, so as far as they're concerned, this baby has to be perfect.
But it has to be said that they're just as keen as the new developers to see the series advance into uncharted territory.
Good news indeed - a sympathetic publisher with first-hand experience of the trials and tribulations of programming an ATTD game. Let's just hope that mutual respect doesn't get in the way of the game's supposed October release.