Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Console: Xbox 360, PC
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)
Hours played: 12
Progress: Completed game on Normal
Finnish developer Remedy, best known for the Max Payne games has blessed gamers with a thought-provoking suspenseful thriller, set in a beautifully crafted world. Drenched in darkness, you are the light. Moved forward by a well-written narrative we are taken into the world of author Alan Wake. An original, great-looking and sounding game, read on to see why this one should definitely be on your list of games to check out…
With an author for a main character, how could story not be a big part of the game? The titular character and his wife make a trip to the mountainous foresting community of Bright Falls where a remote, lake-front cabin promises relaxation and tranquility. Before long however, Wake’s wife disappears and reality begins to unravel as the author fades into and out of dreams where the world is slowly consumed by darkness and people are assailed by shadowy figures who represent the victims they took over. All the while the gamer is left wondering if it’s simply Wake hallucinating as he creates his own imaginary world in reaction to chronic writer’s block, or if there is indeed some truth to the insanity that is playing out in front of him.
The game is set-up somewhat as a TV show (it’s easy to draw comparisons to shows like Twin Peaks and the Twilight Zone), and is divided into 6 episodes, each starting with a summary of the previous episode’s developments and ending in cheesy pop music. As the player is making his way through the game, the proceedings are narrated in past tense by Wake, as if he’s recounting the tale from a book. Cleverly playing around with reality, the developers are constantly making the gamer guess about whether what’s happening is real, a dream or simply a story. Working on a new title after not having produced a hit novel in years, Wake is seemingly living out the story of his unfinished book “Departure”. As you make your way through the game you’ll find pages of the manuscript scattered throughout Bright Falls, often not in order, the pages give a glimpse of what the player can expect ahead, in a way adding to the anticipation of what’s to come.
Alan Wake’s story is a real treat, written as a surreal thriller, clearly inspired by Stephen King (who is credited as Wake’s inspiration at the start of the game) it plays out like a book with the main character narrating as the plot unfolds. The game world is interesting to explore and littered with likeable and noteworthy characters (just wait till you get a hold of Wake’s agent, Barry), it’s something we don’t get to see too often as it’s not a crude horror-, gore fest, but rather a suspenseful mystery, drenched in supernatural creepiness.
Since Alan Wake‘s atmosphere is largely created through dark and eerie environments you wouldn’t expect the graphics to particularly pop. The visuals however are truly stunning, with the dynamic lighting effects taking center stage. The way Wake’s flashlight illuminates the environment is beautiful and the resulting shadows that are cast are incredibly realistic. Shine your torch at a chain link fence for instance, and watch as the chain link pattern stretches out across the floor, change the angle at which you are facing the fence and the shadow bends to reflect the player’s movements. In-game facial detail is a bit lacking, though, and some of the faces found on characters in the game are just downright displeasing, coupled to that is wonky lip-syncing, which as far as I can tell mostly seems disjointed because the audio doesn’t quite match the timing of the lip movement.
The textures are sharp and highly detailed while the environments, though not terribly varied, are realistically modelled with lush forest foliage and life-like structures and objects. Adding to the eerie appearance of Bright Falls at night are the ambient effects like the multi-layered fog that covers much of your surroundings. As the darkness grows stronger the fog becomes more noticeable. The world Remedy created seems to be plucked right out of a North West mountain community with beautiful vistas and diverse vegetation you feel like you’re truly there… and when the darkness closes in you wish you weren’t.
Adding to the great presentation package are the haunting sound effects that bring home Alan Wake‘s creepy atmosphere. I was so impressed with the way a combination of the wind, ghostly howls, shrieks, creaking branches and groaning metal created a tense and immersive experience. Music is used sparingly and rarely are we treated to a full cinematic score, but almost always the gamer is accompanied by simple musical tones that enhance the eeriness of the environment. The game isn’t in-your-face scary or gory, but it’s without a doubt the stellar sound effects that keep you on the edge of your seat.
The voice acting is incredibly solid. Wake’s voice, which we hear a lot as he’s narrating the story while it unfolds, is great and works well as the main character. The supporting cast, from the town sheriff to the local waitress, are great with special reverence going out to Wake’s agent and friend, Barry. The author’s agent provides a welcome bit of comic relief as his character reminded me somewhat of a cross between a goofy Dany DeVito and Joe Pesci portrayal. A happy marriage of sound effects, music and voice acting, Alan Wake is certainly stacked in the audio department and your surround sound setup will thank you for it.
Alan Wake uses the familiar dual thumbstick control system (left thumbstick for looking, right one for movement) so I won’t go too much into the button set up, however there are some issues with the default control scheme that need to be highlighted. The dodge move is performed by pressing the left bumper button and moving the left thumbstick in any direction. This is a bit awkward to perform as using the index finger and thumb of the left hand at the same time doesn’t feel too intuitive. The left bumper button allows Alan Wake to run, so when you’re trying to flee from enemies the game will think you’re trying to dodge, which results in your character making weird ducking motions instead of getting the heck out of there. Wake’s movements are a bit stiff and jerky and although he has the ability to jump, it is only useful when leaping over small gaps. Your character will have the greatest difficulty making his way over environmental objects and will often just run into them instead of climbing on- or over… In spite of their rhyming names, Nathan Drake (from Uncharted 1 and 2-fame) Mr. Wake is most definitely not. The left trigger controls the flashlight beam while the right trigger fires your weapons, this actually works quite well and allows you to use both items fluidly. Overall the controls could be a little less clunky, but thankfully they don’t hamper gameplay to the point of total frustration.
As a 3rd-person action game, Alan Wake utilizes an interesting game mechanic that asks the player to manage both a flashlight and its ammo (batteries), while at the same time handling an assortment of firearms and their respective ammunition. To “break” the darkness that has engulfed the enemies you face, which are mostly shadowy shells of former townspeople, you first need to shine light on them to weaken their defenses. Once that is accomplished you can pump the appropriate amount of lead in them courtesy of a revolver or different types of shotgun or rifle. The means with which you shine light on your enemies is part of the gameplay, most of the time you’ll have your flashlight (which comes in different strengths) at your side. You can intensify the flashlight’s beam (which costs batteries) with the left trigger button to more quickly weaken the enemies’ defenses. Of course the environment can often be utilized to shine light on your dark foes. Apart from street lights, which function as a safe heaven and enable the “auto save” function, there are exploding barrels, work lights and spot lights that can all be used to snuff out the darkness in a hurry. Aside from a flashlight and guns, Wake’s arsenal also consists of flash-bang grenades, which instantly destroy enemies within their radii, flares, useful for making enemies back up when you’re being crowded and the awesome flare gun, whose exploding flares can take out several enemies at the same time from a distance.
The variety of enemies isn’t great, you’re mostly confronted by the aforementioned shadowy figures as well as possessed flocks of birds and “poltergeist objects”, which are usually heavy and hurtful things that fling themselves at you with great vigor. While playing on “Normal” difficulty, with a bit of exploring, the player won’t be at a loss for ammo very often, which diminishes the feel of this being a ”survival horror” game a tad, but adds to the fun of experimenting with the different ways to eliminate your dark assailants. Although the combat is mostly enjoyable, the game cheapens itself a bit by often throwing enemies at you that unexpectedly attack you from behind. The developer wants the player to utilize the dodge mechanic here, which is clunky due to the need to press the left bumper and left thumbstick in a direction at the same time, and very particular in its timing. This often leads to an unfortunate axe in the back but thankfully not often enough to send your controller flying through the room.
Exploration of the environment is often encouraged and indeed necessitated in order to progress. Too often to count, the player is asked to find a switch or key to get around one roadblock or another. This mixes up the pacing a bit, which is necessary as, especially during the first half of the game, the action feels a bit repetitive. During the second half of the game the pacing picks up and we fight alongside companions and encounter bigger fights. A sliding marker at the top left part of the screen serves as a constant reminder of what direction to go in. This works fairly well, but it is often advantageous to do a bit of exploring as the developers have littered the environment with weapon caches and hidden collectibles, which are linked to several of the game’s achievements.
The gameplay is solid and driven by the excellent story, which is constantly present and taking the gamer to different time lines and locations, including Wake’s New York apartment, which seems so far removed from the dark nightmare that is Bright Falls. Exploration is constantly being rewarded with different collectibles and items, and going through this beautifully crafted world is a total joy, even if the controls can sometimes be a bit clunky and a cheap attack is often just around the corner.
Alan Wake is such a joy to play, the story is intelligently written and much more mature than most of the video game fodder we see day in and day out. The game world is detailed, well thought out and presented with the highest graphical and aural fidelity. The light and dark gameplay mechanics are a lot of fun and keep things interesting, while the episodic nature along with the premise of living out a novel add an original twist to the game. Having said that, as with most horror-inspired games, there’s little value in replaying it, as the story twists (along with the scares) are only good when experienced for the first time. Replaying the game at higher difficulties to find missed collectibles is of limited value and enjoyment. As such I would say that this is the perfect rental game. It doesn’t take too long to complete, clocking in at about 8 to 10 hours, and is easy to pick up and put down. Once the game is completed it’s done, and you can move on having brought a satisfying story to a conclusion (although the ending is a tad vague, I suppose in keeping with true thriller novels setting up for a sequel).
It’s hard to think of a recent game experience that’s as satisfying as Alan Wake without having to go to huge, laborious RPGs or open-world games that require a lot of time and engagement to enjoy. Like a good book Alan Wake is fun to play, easy to digest but incredibly immersive. The story, visuals and audio represent the perfect presentation package and it is only clunky controls, strange facial animation, and cheap back-attacks that hold it back a little. Anyone who enjoys a good action game or horror-inspired story should definitely check this one out. Due to its length and limited replayability it is the perfect rental, but true fans of horror/thriller games would do equally well to purchase it.
+ Intelligent and thought-provoking story
+ Eerie atmosphere creates a great sense of tension and anticipation
+ Stunning dynamic lighting effects play center stage here
+ Beautifully crafted environments with lush and realistic foliage
- In-game facial models don’t always look so good
+ Haunting sound effects work very well at setting the game’s atmosphere
+ Voice acting is top notch
+ Interesting flashlight/fire arms gameplay mechanic
+ Exploration is encouraged and rewarded
- Cheap back attacks and overly picky dodge mechanic are annoying
- Left bumper button/left thumbstick combo for dodge move is awkward
- Wake’s movements are a bit clunky and he’s not very responsive when trying to scale environmental objects
+ Original concept and execution
+ Lots to collect and explore
- The game is not a full blown horror title but rather thrives on thriller-esque elements and an eerie atmosphere
- Replayability is extremely limited because the story loses its surprises and novelty the second time around