Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare
The latest addition to the genre-defining Alone In The Dark trilogy shouldn't be written off as just another corporate sequel and neither should it be pigeonholed with scenestealing impersonators like Resident Evil and Nocturne. Antoine Villette, co-founder and managing director of new Paris-based developer Darkworks and his team of 45 artists, programmers and designers have the ultimate reputation to uphold and they're in no mood to bodge it.
The whole thing's a fascinating story: Infogrames, original developer of the Alone games, and who is now publishing Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare, commissioned Darkworks (the remains of what was once Adeline Software and Delphine Software International) to program the fourth episode after liking the style of some other stuff it was working on. So, Darkworks, without a single game to its name (yet rich in experience), now has the responsibility of bringing one of the most revolutionary series of the '90s, into the 21st century.
Pressure? Well, maybe just a bit. Resident Evil creator Capcom has made technical and gameplay advances in the horror action/ adventure field that have for most people - in the absence of any Alone In The Dark - games set it at the top of the tree. For Antoine and his small team, outdoing the 100-strong army of developers at Capcom won't be an easy task. Although, as the buoyant Frenchman says: "We just have to come up with better ideas than them."
As a small team, that is more than possible. One of Darkworks' strong points is creativity. Its numbers consist of brilliant veterans who have worked on classic titles such as Fade to Black, Flashback and Little Big Adventure. When these guys get together around a table with some coffee and croissants anything is possible.
The Mystery Unfolds
The plot of Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare goes along these lines: spook-basher Edward Carnby is called in to investigate a haunted house on a remote, gloomy island off the coast of Maine, USA. Known as Shadow Island it's not the kind of place you'd want to spend your summer holidays. However, for Ed and his lovely new assistant Aline, it's just another day in the office. Reports of strange supernatural happenings are music to their ears, so armed only with a torch and walkie-talkies they head into the mansion to discover more.
In all, the mansion takes up a mere 15 per cent of the game. Other areas to explore include underground caves, beaches, cliffs and even some kind of bizarre, alternate dimension. There are more than 120 locations in total. Amazingly, a team of artists painstakingly sketch each screen before passing it over to the graphics department boys and girls to recreate in digital format. If a screen doesn't meet the strict Darkworks atmosphere requirements it is cast aside like an old sock. We were shown a wad of creepy drawings that never made it, yet, as far as we could see, there was nothing wrong with them. The influences of HR Geiger, HP Lovecraft and Dark Horse comics are clearly evident. Needless to say, the artwork that reaches the finished version will be of the highest calibre.
At the start of the game the player chooses who they want to be -Edward or Aline. Each character goes on a completely different adventure across the island, and the character that isn't picked still goes off on their particular mission under the control of the computer AI. There are absolutely no plans for a multiplayer game, although it was hinted that the follow up to this one might contain such delights. As you play through the game you'll sometimes hear the other character shouting (or shooting) in the distance and occasionally they'll even bump into each other and exchange a few words before dashing off again on their macabre missions.
The gameplay and atmosphere have been designed to wreak maximum havoc with your emotions, and, as the title suggests, you'll find yourself alone and in the dark for the majority of the game, but it's not all bad. Your trusty torch is a wonderful thing. Not only can you use it to see where you are going, you can use it to frighten off or harm creatures. As lead developer, Emmanuel Boutin explains: "All the story and all the gameplay is based on the opposition of light and dark." As you probe around, shining the beam into various insalubrious crevices, it plays convincingly off walls, floors and ceilings and gradually dissipates into the distance along particularly long corridors or expansive areas. The effect has been achieved by attaching 3D meshes to the essentially 2D backgrounds. There is, in fact, a whole open-plan area of the office devoted to a team of coders who do nothing all day but attach wireframe maps to the backgrounds. It's a time-consuming job but somebody's got to do it.
Controlling the torch couldn't be easier. A handy 'freelook' mouse mode means you can point the damn thing wherever you want without changing the direction you're walking. This sets the scene for all sons of hean-racing possibilities. Edward can be running for his life down a corridor while shining the torch behind him to try and rid himself of a relentless foe that's hot on his heels. Obviously, this means Edward can't see what's in front of him. It's a case of prioritising the risk, and it makes for some truly frightening moments.
Curiously as the game goes on, the torch becomes less and less effective against monsters, which means there's only one thing for it. Guns. And lots of them. In fact the amount of weapons available and the amount of monsters waiting to be shot has lead to some more interesting development ideas.
Pascal Luban, lead game designer, has his work cut out in trying to make the combat work: "There are so many possible parameters. What happens for instance if we have too much ammunition, or if one kind of ammo is too powerful, or we have too many monsters? After a while it becomes impossible to manage. So the idea was to divide the route, which gives me an idea of where the player stands at any moment in the game in terms of ammunition. The result is a curve just like that."
Pascal illustrates a graph with two intertwining lines meandering across a wall chart. Again it shows the lengths Darkworks has gone to in order to make the gameplay feel right. With much waving of arms and pointing, the Gallic game designer continues: "We've tried to apply a very cinematic approach to the game, and as in good movies there's a rhythm to the action, it's goes up, then down, it goes up again and so on. So the idea is you have a succession of waves that are getting stronger and stronger."
Unlike Resident Evil the monsters in The New Nightmare are not simple zombies mindlessly plodding after you. There are dozens of enemies ranging from basic wolves and spiders to more extreme creations from the bowels of hell itself. The informative Pascal continues with his one-man show: "We've tried to give a specific personality to each monster. With some, you turn on the light in a room and they'll just slowly go away. With others if you flash them with your light they'll just go crazy and attack you. This is part of the learning experience the player will have to go through." Clearly, we are not dealing with a no-brainer horror action/adventure here. Other dastardly spooks even attempt to avoid your light completely by sensing your approach and stealthily moving around the screen to attack you from the side. The player needs to be on their toes and thinking for the entire game. Darkworks is hoping that this will install more emotion into the game. Fear, paranoia and isolation are the main emotional avenues the player will find themselves going down, and from what we've played so far, it's not too far off. Even shining your torch into a small cubbyhole under a set of stairs can set the heart racing.
Techno, Techno, Techno
Technically, The New Nightmare will be nothing ground-breaking, but it still contains the odd spark of techno-wizardry to act as confirmation that the series is now well and truly up with the times. Emmanuel explains: "We have about 400 frames of animation for the main characters; we have an interactive animation system for the fights and other effects for lightning and stuff like that. We built the engine from scratch and it is something quite new for Alone In The Dark."
Darkworks has also taken a long look at the other three games in the series to try and correct some elements that they felt were not quite right. One of these aspects is the interface. In keeping with the cinematic feel to the game, it has attempted to reduce the amount of time the player spends fiddling about in the inventory. Weapons and items can now be selected quickly and with e using the keyboard. Like Emmanuel says: "We don't want the player to have to keep going into the inventory, we want them to stay 'in the mood' as much as possible."
Ooh, those saucy French folk - always trying to get people in the mood. There are other handy interface adjustments, such as finding new objects. Emmanuel once again provides the explanation: "When you shine the light onto an object of interest it will sparkle a little. So you can decide whether or not to make the object shine depending on whether you want to make the game easier or harder. It is one more thing we can tweak until the difficulty is perfect." There are certainly hints of LucasArts' Grim Fandango interface here as it means that useable objects should be easy enough to find, providing you keep an eye on where you are looking. Obviously, discovering a use for these objects is an entirely different story. But that's the way Darkworks wants it, and it's keen to point out that The New Nightmare is actually an adventure game with action elements to it. It's about exploration : ABL more than anything. After all, when you first reach the mansion you don't have a clue what's going on. Only after encountering some of the speaking residents (of which there are ten) does the story really start taking shape. And as with all good adventures there are many twists and turns along the way.
The Sound Of Silence
One of the most important aspects of any horror yam is the use of sound. The New Nightmare won't disappoint. Antoine leads us into the sound studio to illustrate his point: "For the sound effects we went into graveyards, old houses and to the coast with a portable sound editor and recorded it all."
He asks a grinning sound engineer to do his stuff. I le obliges by loading up Cubase and hitting a few keys to produce a series of blood-curdling screams, shrieks and groans: "There are about 450 different sound effects in the game and about 40 different ambient musical scores," shouts Antoine above the din. The engineer keeps the effects coming and then throws in a few eerie tunes. "We also have interactivity with the music, so if you are getting closer to a door and the music is getting louder and there are more instruments, you should be wary of going through."
Suddenly, there is silence again, at which point Antoine expresses the importance of silence in games, yet only at the right moment. The New Nightmare will feature plenty of this, but it will tend to be when something dreadful is about to happen. Again, it's all about creating the right emotion for any one particular point in the game. He emphasises the point by explaining how subtleties can also make or break a scene: "We have about 60 different sounds for footsteps, we don't know if we'll use all of them in die end, but for me it's totally unbelievable to have the same footsteps throughout the whole game. We try to have some on the road, on the stone, on the carpet, in the water, on the grass... You know, something believable." The final game should indeed contain a truly fantastic array of acoustic delights to inspire and ignite your fears.
Time For Bed
The New Nightmare is due for release this Christmas. As we know, it's got some tough competition to take on, not only from Resident Evil and Nocturne, but also from other pending releases such as Evil Dead and The Blair Witch Project.
However, judging by the unified vision that Darkworks has for this game and after witnessing the efforts it is going to in order to make it worthy of its auspicious ancestors, chances are that this above everything else is the one that will take hell into gaming heaven.
The fourth instalment of this massively influential horror action/adventure is almost upon us, and we should be bringing you an exclusive review in a couple of issues. Just in case you need reminding what it's all about, you play the role of either Edward Carnby - the hero of all the chapters in the series - or newcomer Aline Cedrac, a beautiful archaeologist. Most of the game takes place on Shadow Island, complete with haunted mansions, unspeakable monsters and effective camera angles. As usual, there are plenty of puzzles to solve among the gloomy carnage, all wrapped up in an exquisite-looking engine. But you can see that for yourself.
Anyone who isn't occasionally afraid of the dark isn't tough, they just lack imagination. I'll confess to hearing strange noises in the house late at night, seeing movements in the deepest shadows of the bedroom and actually feeling an evil presence lurking under the bed before leaping for the light-switch like a little girl.
The unnatural silence of the night breeds hundreds of creaks and groans that can just as easily belong to undcad butchers with maggot-ridden faces, brain-chomping zombies and other ghouls as they can to wooden furniture expanding and the engines of fridges starting up. They're more likely to be the former if you've just stayed up late watching The House By The Cemetery and Re-Animator, or playing System Shock 2 or Undying. And it's likely you'll need a night lamp after playing Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare.
True to its name, the game plays with light and its absence to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Not that darkness is the only way to scare people. Aliens Vs Predator might have over-relied on it together with shock tactics (although it must be said to great effectiveness) and Nocturne might have laid a duck blanket of dusk before sending forth its demons and werewolves, but computer games can also make your skin crawl without having to turn the brightness on your monitor all the way down. Resident Evil 2, System Shock 2 and Undying are all disturbing in their own particular ways without depriving you of perfectly lit rooms, and The New Nightmare has learned a few lessons from them too. As I discovered within minutes of loading up a highly polished Beta version of the game.
The Dark Is Out There
If you don't know the history behind one of the most venerable and influential series in computer games, head over to the History Of Darkness panel and get yourself acquainted with the adventures of Edward Camby. Darkworks, the developer of The New Nightmare, may be a relative newcomer to the scene, but it's quite clear that it has a strong sense of the importance of this title and has put every effort into making it something special (as the reported 1,300-plus pre-rendered backgrounds and the high number of cut-scenes will attest). The team has also brought the series bang up to date, with a touch of the X-Files creeping into the Island Of Dr Moreau plot. The story begins when Camby, a grungier version of Fox Mulder, finds out that his best-friend Charles Fiske has died in mysterious circumstances on Shadow Island, which lies off the coast of Maine - this area also happens to be the state where almost all of Stephen King's tales are set and consequently is absolutely overloaded with creepy phenomena and weird goings-on.
Fiske was a member of bureau 713, a government organisation that deals with investigations into paranormal activities, and had been on the island searching for three ancient tablets. As you soon discover on arriving there, something very eerie is going on, mostly involving genetic-manipulation experiments that have bred all sorts of demonic creatures. The Br game itself begins just outside the grounds of a huge mansion, where the first part of your adventure takes place and it plays heavily on the haunted-house formula that worked so well recently for Clive Barker's Undying. In true Resident Evil fashion you can choose to play as a female character as well. In this case, it's Aline Cedrac, a suitably busty archaeologist and adventuress - nothing like a certain Ms Croft then - with her own reasons for finding the ancient tablets.
After parachuting onto the island, each character realistically lands in a different area from the other, guaranteeing that playing as each one will be a different experience, instantly doubling the hours of gameplay. It's always nice to be given a choice. Whoever you play as you can keep close radio contact with the other, exchanging Mulder and Scully-style banter, and occasionally bumping into each other before deciding to head off in different directions to explore the island.
Grim Shock Monkey
Exploring is really what the game is all about. The mechanics are closer to an adventure game than many other supposed action/adventures and involve you investigating most of the mansion and its surroundings in search of clues and objects that let you get from one point to another. None of the puzzles are too taxing, and the inventory - where you can examine, combine or use items - is very easy to use and works much in the same way as Escape From Monkey Island or Grim Fandango. Like in Undying, you discover journals, diaries and newspaper cuuings along the way to Till you in on the details of the story. You still get to blast your way through a sizeable number of horrid beings, but The New Nightmare allows the tension to build up slowly before sending one your way. The psychological anxiety works in the same way it did in System Shock 2, where expectation is the actual source of the fear rather than the hordes of oncoming zombies from Resident Evil, for example.
Combat is deliciously simple and, once again, takes a leaf out of the Resident Evil/Nocturne school. You press one button to unholster your weapon and press the action key to fire. Targeting isn't manual, so most of your shots will find their target without a hitch. Although you start out with a trusty revolver, later weapons include laser rifles, grenade and rocket launchers and even a lightning gun. The Darkworks team has clearly been spending many a lunch hour playing Quake III.
Sadly, the first enemies you encounter are dogs, the true staple of the cruelty zoo that computer gaming can sometimes be. And the detail that has gone into their deaths is even more sadistic than the regular Tomb Raider slaughterhouse. Not only do the dogs whine with disturbing realism when shot, they can also become injured, whereupon you are regaled with the nauseating sight of the poor animal crawling along the floor, dragging its legs until you put it out of its misery. Darkworks is counting on you all being a bunch of vile and sick bastards, obviously (and if you just thought "Cool!" and gave out a slack-jawed cackle at the above description, you probably are). Maybe there's a level where you can drill holes into the heads of rhesus monkeys just for the hell of it. Thankfully, most of your bullets will be spent on monsters.
Every screen is pre-rendered in enormous and gorgeous detail and, while this does produce a noticeable delay between screens, at least you don't have to suffer the horrendous camera angles that Nocturne inflicted on us. The torch is still as impressive as the one in that game though, especially when it throws elaborate shadows behind objects and slowly illuminates the rococo decorations of the unlit mansion. It also adds to that Mulder touch as Camby runs through woods lancing the darkness ahead and being able to spot invaluable clues that would have been hard to find otherwise. Well, the game isn't called Alone In The Sun Reading A Good Book And Sipping Pina Coladas is it?
In the end, it all boils down to the darkness that envelops you and entices you on. In the background, there's a whole spectrum of spooky sounds to convince you there's something lurking ahead, from blood-curdling screams to owls hooting. Are you brave enough to turn the torch on and see what's hiding in the next room? And, more importantly, is it worth the risk? We'll let you know next month, when we'll have a world exclusive review and can tell you all about it.
Strange how games keep coming back to the same images and themes in their tireless efforts to scare us. Haunted houses, with dark rooms where shadows move in the corner of one's eye and grunting corpses scrape the wooden floors with their gammy legs; dark woods, intermittently lit by the lighting of a deafening thunderstorm and alive with the sound of creaking branches and overexcited owls. It's hardly original stuff, but it's been put to great effect in games such as Undying, the Resident Evil series and Nocturne (not to mention Realms 01 The Haunting or the original Alone In The Dark}. Why do we never get some real sources of fear? How about a game where you have to walk through Brixton late at night, dodging babbling weirdos whose hands are permanently attached to cans of Skol? Or one where you have endure a twelve hour flight while the plane is convulsed by uninterrupted turbulence even the crew acknowledge as severe and with the whole entertainment system down? And if you're looking for something really terrifying, what about a wrinkly old lady trying to force-feed you salty porridge in an Orkney Island Bed & Breakfast? I've lived through them all, and I can tell you they're every bit as scary as zombie ridden mansions. Deplorably. Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare sticks closely to conventions and starts you off in some dark woods during a thunderstorm before sending you to an old house packed with monsters for the rest of the game.
The first thing all you Alone In The Dark old-hands should know is that The New Nightmare is set in the modern day rather than a turn of the century quaint era. No explanation is offered as to why Edward Carnby is younger and has grown a grunge hairstyle despite being about a hundred years older, but since this is aimed at the console market perhaps the thinking is that no one will notice. We'll come back to the console orientation of the game later (see the PayStation panel). Events are triggered when Carnby receives a message saying that his good friend Fiske has been found dead on Shadow Island (you'd never imagine it could be a bad place with a name like that, would you?) and he sets out to investigate. With him is Aline Cedrac, an archaeologist sent to find the ancient tablets that Fiske was looking for. What they uncover on Shadow Island can only be described as a cross between The Island ot Dr Moreau - a mad scientist's experiments have created a breed of horrible monsters - and The X-Files -the whole thing is part of a government conspiracy yadda-yadda-yadda. . On their flight to the island, Carnby and Aline are forced to parachute from the plane and in turn become separated. Carnby starts out in the woods and has to make his way to Aline, who is trapped in the mansion. You can choose which character to play as and, rather than playing the same game, you get to experience the adventure trom a completely different perspective.
Although witli Aline the game concentrates much more on intensive puzzle-solving and pure adventure - she doesn't even start out with a weapon -Carnby's side of the game also emphasises exploration over action. Rather than the tides of zombies from Resident Evil, Alone In The Dark opts for a quieter approach. You can spend large sections ot the game running around from room to room, examining objects and piecing together the mystery of what's really going on without facing any enemies. This is supposed to enhance the horror of the monsters when they do actually appear although, as we'll see later, that doesn't always work out. The bulk of the game goes on inside the mansion and, like the one in Undying, this is one huge building, with seemingly hundreds of rooms and about three times more doors. You are provided with a simplistic map of your immediate area, but getting lost is still a big problem. You often end up somewhere you've already been, nostrils flaring in exasperation. As with most titles, you are herded through by finding appropriate keys to doors that open up new areas, but The New Nightmare allows you a certain amount of freedom to wander off into other wings of the mansion and return to previously explored rooms to make sure you haven't missed anything. There are the usual array of health kits and ammo packs along with keys of all sizes, documents that give you background information and the occasional object used to solve puzzles. As befits a game designed to be played in a front room with a gamepad, these are never too taxing and are usually quite logical. One clue goes to all the trouble of writing itself backwards, but that's about as far as the hard thinking goes.
Take a quick peek at the screenshots. Nice, aren't they? This is one area where The New Nightmare really excels. The much talked about pre-rendered backgrounds fill each screen with sumptuous detail and the character animations are very good. Developer Darkworks obviously spent a lot of time making sure the animations felt smooth and realistic and didn't clash too much with the backgrounds, and they have succeeded. The feature that stands out most though is the way the engine handles the lighting effects, which are almost on a par with those in the superb Nocturne engine. Your torch is the single most important item in your inventory. It helps show off the engine, find vital clues and allows you to see where the hell you are. Most of the house is plunged In darkness and switching on your torch always opens a delightful world of paintings, elaborate carpets and dozens of ornaments.
Best of all though, you don't even have to pay a high price for all this intricate detail. Moving from one location to the next is almost seamless, even on lower end machines (P2 400), which is hugely impressive when you consider how detailed the backgrounds are. And with this kind of free-flowing gameplay, it's easy to become absorbed in exploring the manor and solving puzzles. You even stop caring about the occasionally dodgy camera angles - so often the bane of survival horror titles. Nocturne was heavily criticised for its unforgiving and artificial angles, but they enhanced the idea of a world gone askew, as they do here. That's not to say that there aren't times when they're more of a hindrance than anything else. Sometimes you'll find yourself walking down a corridor with the camera behind you, only to be attacked from the front, so you can't see a damn thing, forcing you to have to shoot blindly while looking at Carnby's (or, if you're particularly lucky, Aline's) backside.
As I've already mentioned, Carnby starts the game in some dark woods in the middle of a storm, where the scary atmosphere is supposed to be created by the sound of thunder and some risible owls hooting as if in competition with each other. The minimalist soundtrack (consisting of only four notes) does a better job but soon begins to grate. Later, the music turns into a grindingly slow industrial soundtrack. The rhythms of heavy machinery are more likely to give you a headache than the creeps. But the main problem is that the exploratory nature of the game relies too much on the theory that when the monsters do finally appear you'll be so used to their absence they'll scare you to death. Unfortunately the monsters are not very scary at all, consisting mostly of long-legged creatures in the shape of large crustaceans, which would have been more effective had they come in waves. Even the obligatory zombies, despite being beautifully animated, aren't really frightening.
When the undead in Resident Evil grabbed hold of you, you could almost feel their rotting teeth sinking into your scalp, tearing flesh, bone and brain. The sound of their distant grunting alone was enough to make you quiver. Here there is no sense of real danger when one of them grabs you. You never feel immersed enough to care what's happening to your character. Perhaps more time should have been spent making Carnby into a likeable figure instead of the twat he comes across as, or making the attacks on your character look more distressingly violent or even coming up with some better creatures. However, there are plenty of moments of genuine tension and, while you never quite jump out of your seat, your heart will skip a small beat. An inoffensive bed might burst into giant tentacles as your browse its nearby chest of drawers or a facehugger (lifted straight from Half-Life) might jump at you out of nowhere. But there is rarely a sustained feeling of fright.
Despite the inevitable comparisons with Resident Evil, Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare manages to stand by itself as a gothic adventure game that will appeal to those with a preference for a slower and more thoughtful pace. It may not be truly scary and it does have a number of flaws, but few other titles allow you to explore and solve puzzles with as much style and attention to detail. The option to play both sides of the story is an innovative way to expand the gameplay while adding a layer of depth rarely seen in action/adventures. It may not be the masterpiece we were all hoping for but it certainly beats sitting in a room with no lights on with no one to talk to.
You Are Not Alone
Which character should you choose, and does it really matter?
Before you begin the game proper you're presented with the choice of Edward Camby or Aline before a deep and cavernous voice tells you that this is, "Alone In The Dartk" In a complete rip-off of the beginning of Resident Evil. Rather than an aesthetic choice, the game is completely different depending on which character you choose. Cleverly, Aline and Camby keep in contact with each other via radio so you always get to know what the other one has found out It means that when you play as the other character you know all the important points of the plot already, but it does give you a sense of seeing the story from different sides. The dialogue is slightly different on each side, so you get a sense of individual perspective too. You could argue that this is just a way of stretching out what would otherwise be a shorter game, but the exercise works rather well. In fact, the plot is more interesting if you play as Aline since she has a personal history with a direct involvement in the story. Her quest Is not only for the ancient tablets but for her father and her own past.
Download Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode