Aftefall: InSanity is the end result of nearly a decade-long development process, that originally aimed to provide us, fans of the post-apocalypse, with an ambitious role-playing game set in an alternate 21st century. Most of us considered the game to be vapourware, on par with Duke Nukem Forever. However, as hell is now frozen, Afterfall: InSanity is slated for release in late November 2011 and to further the point, a demo has been recently released to the public. It isn't anywhere close to a roleplaying game: it's a survival horror in the vein of Dead Space. This preview is based on the demo version, released November 17th.
In InSanity, the player steps into the shoes of one Albert Tokaj, a psychiatrist stationed in an underground Shelter, codenamed Glory. One of a series of installations built as part of Poland's ambitious Project Afterfall, this secure, underground facility has been designed to provide safe haven for Poland's citizens. Following a devastating nuclear war in 2012, the Shelters were put to use and as the Republic and other countries were erased from the surface, life continues on underground. Fast forward twenty years: Tokaj, under the command of Col. Potocki, handles increasingly severe cases of Confinement Syndrome, a complex disorder that, among many other effects, causes depression and anxiety. The game begins when our protagonist is assigned to investigate a series of disturbances in the facility's lower levels. Rather quickly the player loses his armed escort (or rather, they lose him) and is left on his own to fend against the insane personnel trapped below ground and uncover the usual sinister government plot. Contrary to expectations, the writing is competent. It isn't exactly the apex of character design or plot craftsmanship, but it works well. As long as we ignore the fact that a psychiatrist is bashing open the heads of his former coworkers with an axe (although that might be because he himself is insane; it remains to be seen if the authors decided to use this potential plot thread) and the quite cheesy rationale for sending Tokaj off on what's possibly a suicide mission. The demo concludes the first portion before anything really interesting happens, but opens several plot threads and leaves the player curious, which is always a good sign. The second part of the demo skips eight chapters and opens in the tenth: City of Light, where Tokaj emerges into a devastated surface city in former Poland. Obviously, the narrative is disjointed due to the skip, but gives clues that something terrible happened belowground and all is not as it seems. As the player progresses through the short, but quite well crafted surface segment, more clues as to the plot are given and they too hook the player in. It has to be said, while somewhat dependent on classic plot devices of the action-adventure and horror genres, the story seems to be an interesting one, if only for the setting and its alternate history: post-apocalyptic Poland is not seen often in games or other media.
Now, graphics. The game is powered by a derivative of the Unreal Engine 3 and works well on modern computers. However, there are some major problems with intoxicate Interactive's implementation of this engine: as can be seen on some screenshots, due to the fact that the game doesn't support 1280x1024 resolution, artifacting can be a problem when running the game in a non-native resolution. There are other errors: the game can decide to stop working and display a randomly picked texture instead of the actual game (nothing an alt+tab can't fix, though), texture flickering happens from time to time and unexplained slowdowns have a tendency to happen. One good thing is that it never crashed to desktop during play, merely behaved inappropriately. This is particularly sad, because the game's art direction is quite good, as is the craftsmanship. It's hard to single out any particular reason, but the game doesn't feel like another American shooter. It feels like classic Eastern European science fiction, with a consistent, gritty postcommunist Poland feel to it. Of particular note are weapons, stylized after Polish-made weapons, particualrly the 5.56mm Aktyn and the Archer shotgun (based on real weapons produced by the real Archer Arms Factory in Radom). And then there's the devastated surface city, which simply looks and feels great.
As for the sound design, there's not much to say here: InSanity's audio is a decent job. Sound effects fit the environment and give the needed punch to weapons. However, there isn't anything particularly notable about them, neither positive nor negative. It's simply a good, well rounded job. Character voiceovers are a different matter. Actors deliver their lines well and avoid the usual pitfalls of either being too flat and monotone or trying too hard to sound serious. Lines are delivered well and actors fit their characters. Tokaj, the protagonist, might sound a little bored at times, but overall, his voice is done well and fits the game. This, of course, only concerns the English language version. It isn't clear right now if the Polish version (if there will be one) will match the current quality level of InSanity, which is quite good.
Last, the gameplay. This section comes in last because, quite frankly, InSanity plays and feel like Dead Space with its over-the-shoulder point of view. However, what sets Afterfall's first installment apart from the blockbuster sci-fi hit is the melee combat mode of the game and the inclusion of a FearLock gameplay device. Melee is done by holding the left mouse button and choosing the movement buttons to effect an attack. This simple system works well in practice, but the game doesn't communicate too well that an indispensable element of the game is dodging, done by double tapping movement buttons or tapping space and a movement button. Without dodging the melee is frustrating, but once the player figures out the system and times dodges with the enemy's attack, it becomes surprisingly playable. There are also a lot of melee weapons scattered around the place, from planks and pipes to fire axes and power hammers (which are apparently a combat engineering tool gone horribly wrong in Tokaj's hands), making for some variety. All of these are, however, trumped by firearms. There is a small number of ranged weapons available in the demo, a tranquilizer gun, a pistol, a shotgun and an assault rifle. All of these behave as expected and once the player builds up a supply of ammo, melee weapons become a thing of the past. Since no enemies with ranged weapons were present in the demo, it's hard to assess how the game handles ranged combat. However, from what's been made available, combat seems fun overall. It's varied by peaceful sequences where the player has to look for a keycard or hack a terminal (with a simple Simon Says game, where they have to figure out the correct sequence to gain access) or simply enjoy the view.
So, what's the bottom line? Afterfall: InSanity, despite a lot of ridicule it suffered in the past (though not unwarranted), seems to be a surprisingly competent game, in all aspects. It certainly isn't a budget title, or a poorly executed one. Problems lie more in the technical side of things and if the released game is better optimized and doesn't display odd behaviour, it might be a good purchase. If you like post-apocalyptic action games in the vein of Dead Space, of course.