Alan Wake Review
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Available on: Xbox 360 only
It has taken a while for Alan Wake to get to us (six years to be exact) and, it would be fair to say, there have been many changes to the game during that period. The original concept hinted at a “free-roaming” action game, that is no longer the case. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, as six years on Alan Wake still threatens to be a hugely engrossing game coupled with an interesting story. Did the genre change help Alan Wake or will we be having nightmares about this game for years to come? Read on for the full review.
STORY: The story revolves around the games titular character (surprise surprise), Alan Wake. Alan is an established thriller genre novelist who at the beginning of the story has been experiencing a severe case of writers block. To remedy this Alan and his wife set off to a remote idyllic town by the name of Bright Falls in an attempt to get his creative juices flowing again. After “greeting” the eerie locals and acquiring the key to “your” cabin, that so happens to be resting upon a haunted lake, Alan and his wife eventually settle in for the evening. The whole settling in thing doesn’t last for long though and after a rather freaky sequence (which I won’t reveal here for spoilers sake), Alan’s wife falls into (yes, you guessed it) the haunted lake. After jumping in after her the writer wakes up in his car in the middle of the open road unaware of what has happened. Let me tell you, the long and quite bizarre sequence of events that follow wouldn’t look out of place in a Stephen King novel/film. With a week missing from his life Alan sets out to save his wife whilst battling the “Taken”, the crazed inhabitants of Bright falls possessed by a “dark presence”, and solving the mysteries of the strange town.
The entire story is narrated by Mr Wake himself which is by no means a fresh approach to delivering a story, but it works for the most part. Come across something note worthy and Alan will comment about it in-game. What is interesting about the game is the TV show like delivery of its story. Each chapter of the game is split up into episodes and generally ends on a cliff hanger that gives the player incentive to play on. The feeling of being part of a series in the vein of Heroes or Lost is unmistakable and a nice touch.
The other way the developers gets across the story is through the collection of manuscripts to a book Alan Wake doesn’t remember writing. These are scattered throughout the game and have a habit of coming true. More often than not these manuscripts reveal extra details about parts of the story Alan hasn’t directly experienced himself.
As intended the story is probably the main element of Alan Wake that will keep most players interested. Whilst cliché in places it’s actually very well put together using tried and tested storytelling techniques. The episodic delivery only serves to heighten the experience while leaving the story open for DLC.
GRAPHICS: Graphically Alan Wake is a bit of a mixed bag. The first thing that should be praised is the lighting in the game. As you would expect of a game that is all about the contrasts between light and dark, the lighting is pretty damn good. It is probably the defining attribute that keeps the game looking “good” compared to the majority of modern day games as the character models are nothing to write home about. It is also not uncommon to come across the odd ugly texture while strolling around in the daylight.
Fortunately though, the bulk of the game takes place in the night where the lighting is able to mask some of the low resolution textures. Bright Falls itself is a beautifully crafted place teaming with beautiful landscapes and breathtaking vistas just begging to explored, it’s just a shame that is not entirely possible.
SOUND: Petri Alanko’s score feels right at home in Alan Wake’s universe never outplaying its part and providing just enough to compliment the strange happenings in Bright Falls.
Matthew Porretta does a decent job of narrating the story in his role as Mr Wake himself which is a good thing because our hero sure does like to talk…..A LOT! The remaining characters are also voiced expertly with special mention going to the inclusion of James McCaffrey, a name Max Payne fans should be familiar with.
GAMEPLAY: Alan Wake could be described as a third person action game masquerading as a survival horror. Whilst there are horror elements (the dark presence) you’ll be spending most of your time getting from one point to another and occasionally getting hacked down by crazed “pedestrians” masked in shadow (The Taken). These “pedestrians” serve as the bulk of the enemies in the game along with a couple of clichés thrown in here and there for good measure. It’s Alan’s job to get through the darkness armed with nothing but the light and a few weapons. Luckily for him the bad guys don’t seem to like light very much and this means he can use it as a weapon or a “safe haven”. Although the Taken seem to appear as if from out of nowhere to taunt you on your travels, Alan can take refuge under most sources of light. More often than not though this takes the form of a lamp post hooked up to a generator that you need to kick start via timely mashing on the ‘A’ button to coincide with the on-screen prompt.
This brings us on to the games combat and on the whole it is simplistic but very well executed. Alan’s main resource for fighting off the Taken is his trusty flashlight which he conveniently manages to lose from time to time. The general idea is to blast off the blanket of shadow that is protecting the Taken before you can actually harm them. You can boost the light from your flashlight using the left trigger but this quickly burns through the limited battery life of the appliance. There are extra batteries to be had scattered around each level but the idea is to choose your battles carefully and conserve battery life. The flashlight also serves as your aiming reticule when you’re using one of the three firearms in the game. Naturally after burning away the Taken’s protection you want to put a few holes in them. For this you have access to a revolver, shotgun and hunting rifle at varying points in the game. Due to the nature of the system you’re often juggling between flashlight and firearm as you try to fend off multiple axe wielding psychopaths at once. This becomes more of a challenge on the harder difficulty levels as it takes longer to remove the darkness protecting the Taken resulting in a dead flashlight more often than not. Luckily, Alan has a few other weapons at his disposal in the form of flashbangs and flares which destroy all Taken around you or keep them at bay, in that order.
Alan Wake is not all flashlights and axe wielding maniacs but you might want to get used to it because this is what you’ll be doing for the majority of the game. There is the odd car section that feels distinctly pointless and makes you wonder why the developers bothered as you drive down a linear path only to be forced to get out and walk to collect manuscript pages. The highlight for me would have to be the Twilight Zone inspired TV show, Night Springs. I quite literally sat down and watched the show on the TV’s placed around Bright Falls for the five or so minutes each episode lasted, the randomness of the show made it genuinely entertaining watch. Watching TV inside a game always sounds so silly (hey, blame GTA) but it works for pushing along some of the narrative. The problem with this though is it more often takes away from the tension of a particular scene. The fact that you can pretty much read the more jumpy moments in the game before they happen due to the manuscripts makes it kind of hard to feel frightened at any point in the game. The TV shows are accompanied by a radio show which lets you know what is going on in Bright Falls while you’re out fighting for your life, nothing too major but still interesting nonetheless.
LONGEVITY: The game is fairly short coming in at around 6 hours if you are planning to steam roller you way through without watching/listening to the TV or radio shows scattered around Bright Falls. The game tries to give you incentive to replay it by only allowing you to collect some of the manuscript pages in NIGHTMARE (hard) mode. Sadly, these pages don’t really add much to the story and aren’t really worth the replay (trust me I’ve tried). This means Alan Wake doesn’t really have any replay value unless you really love collecting thermoses. All is not bad though as you can expect a fair bit of DLC to come out for Alan Wake because let’s face it, it’s perfectly structured for it.
VERDICT: It was quite apparent the direction Remedy Entertainment chose to take with Alan Wake. The game is chock full of pop culture/movie references to the point it almost feels like the game is mocking itself at times. The emphasis is most definitely on its story and it manages to tell a decent one at times, while bringing some nice gameplay mechanics to the table. Wake’s journey is not without it’s troubles but those willing to look past them will be rewarded with an atmospheric adventure laced with some great set pieces and solid gameplay.