Reviews

Alan Wake Review

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Developer: Remedy Entertainment

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

Release Date: May 18th

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I’ll level with you, I’m no horror survival fan. Sure, I like unnecessarily scaring the crap out of myself with a suitably cheesy horror flick as much as the next guy, but when it comes to video games, I always found myself either not being able to concentrate on the game, for fear of wetting my pants, or feeling all too aware that the haunted town I’m lost in is simply a collection of textures and models. With this said, I thought I’d have to make an exception for Alan Wake partly because it dubs itself a ‘psychological action thriller’, and partly because of the shuddering thought that its pre-production dates back as far as 2001.

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Alan’s perilous story begins with a nightmare, perhaps not customary for video games, but hardly an original opening for the genre, nevertheless I’ll let this initial hiccup slide because tutorials are notoriously difficult to integrate and never run as seamlessly into the game and narrative as you’d like; unfortunately it comes with the territory. Anyway, Alan and his wife arrive in your standard Pacific North-West town; so as you’d imagine creepy shop owners, muttering old ladies and closet axe-murderers are commonplace. The town of Bright Falls, a name which by the way screams ‘fucked up things happen here’, is supposed to be a relaxing break for Alan, but unfortunately for him, his wife Alice thinks he ought to do some writing, bearing in mind he’s a writer who hasn’t written anything in two bloody years. However on the first night, Alice, is taken by some sort of dark force. As you can imagine, things start to go downhill from about here, so Alan must set out to find his wife, while making sure he makes the least logical decisions possible, along the way.

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Light and dark is the key theme of the game, in terms of the narrative and gameplay, and this blend makes for a very solid, and coherent experience. In order to kill his possessed hillbilly attackers, Alan must eradicate the darkness that controls them, usually with a torch, before he can fill them with lead to any great effect. Although this original mechanic may not sound life-changingly exciting, Remedy have tweaked and polished the movement of the torch, weapon sounds and animations, resulting in a genuinely great combat system. This, combined with a dodge move to avoid incoming pick-axes from your nearest demented construction worker and the drip fed, trademark slow motion that Remedy do so well, breathes new-life into the 3rd person shooter and horror genre. The fluidity of Alan’s movement, and the manner in which the torch revolves around so swiftly, without feeling fidgety, establishes a natural method of navigating Bright Fall’s dark woods and streets.

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In keeping with the light theme, flashbangs, which are usually met with a short sigh from a player foraging for frag grenades in any other game, are suddenly very much coveted; a panic/”fuck you” button, if you will. To go along with this, Alan’s tools of the trade include flares, hunting rifles and high-powered lamps amongst other things. The controls behind these luminescent armaments almost feel non-existent, and this is a compliment I assure you; making sure you’ve only to worry about the 7ft tall psychopaths chasing you, and not which buttons to press.

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Now that we’ve let ourselves stumble into this peculiar world, let’s take a look at some of the more familiar faces. Alan himself has some solid and confident voice work, and at least sounds like a commercial author, as he should do, yet somehow oozes an aura of momentary stupidity, evidenced by such great decisions as “let’s have piss-up inside a farmhouse comprehensively surrounded by chainsaw-wielding monsters” and “taking the abandoned mine route is probably safer than finding a car”. Nevertheless Alan has well fleshed-out personality, and an interesting and unusual back-story, with the very necessary qualification of: for a video game; a caveat that’s applicable for many of the game’s themes and sticky situations. Alan’s wife, Alice, is fairly uninspired, but a couple of scenes at least make an effort to try to convince you that your character is meant to be in love with her and just managed to convince me to not turn my heels and bravely run away from Bright Falls all together.

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There are a number of supporting characters, most of whom are fairly one dimensional, (after all the game is prominently about ‘Alan Wake’) but a few beacons of light lay ahead injecting some quirk and horror-based humour into Bright Falls shadowy hills. Responsible for the perhaps the most awesome set-piece in the game, the Anderson brothers are a couple of old rockers, who’s dementia has begun to set in, but exploring their farm reveals that they’re far from done with their rock’n roll past. Also lightening the mood, Barry, Alan’s New Yorker agent occasionally comes off as irritatingly cheesy in his efforts to make light of the situation, but in general seems believable in his relationship with Alan, and makes a nice contrast from the mostly miserable townsfolk. It did occur to me that Barry’s obnoxious one-liners somewhat lower the tone, yet despite a very dark story, there’s no reason that the game ought to take itself too seriously, at least not to an excessive degree. However, as I mentioned, the majority of the cast are fairly dull, which is a shame because a few had the potential to supplement the story, had they been explored in more depth.

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Fairly novel for a game was the decision to dice Alan Wake into six episodes. While each episode isn’t a confined series of events, it shoots for that TV series feel, complete with “Last time on…”. This is fine, and serves as a handy recap of Alan’s shenanigans, but bafflingly fails to provide the logical options of saving and pausing/quitting in between. It’s a feature that’ll irk some, who’ll see it as pointless, and appear as a mildly useful device for pacing the story to others, either way, it gives the game a bit character if nothing else.

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Equally bemusing is in fact Alan’s musings, as your character, i.e. you, will often talk to himself about the problems he’s facing or glaringly obvious things he notices, and although developers would claim this is justified by the context of Alan writing the story he’s in, too few of the comments are actually insightful enough to avoid becoming inane and unnecessary. I’m all for narration as a tool to advance the plot, but a running commentary just ends up seeming patronizing, especially when it all too promptly reminds you of your objective and how you might go about it, hardly keeping you in the dark (see what I did there?), which seems particularly counter-intuitive considering this is a game, that despite its developer-given genre title, is actively trying to make you shake in your leather-elbow-patched jacket.

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Regardless of these presentation issues, the plot is well paced, dropping you in and out of the action with the felicitous arrivals of friends for breathers, allowing the story to unfold as you progress and refraining from overindulgent cutscenes or drawn-out traveling. However, even though Alan Wake’s gameplay is tightly knit into the story and vice versa, they don’t share the same qualities, specifically in terms of pace, as you are pitted against a number of different shapes and sizes of foes (including inhumanly tall specimens) and later on, possessed construction paraphernalia, but the combat, despite being extremely satisfying, never really evolves. I was even just hoping for some new weapons or a new perspective, such as being able to drive-by my luminescently-challenged attackers, but nothing, aside from some short driving sections left over from the game’s initially planned open world experience. Even more frustrating was the complete lack of any meaningful progression when it comes to equipment. Like any good survivor I saved up my flashbangs and flares for my moment of need (which incidentally never came on account of the game being a tad too easy) only to find that the end of the chapter removes all of my savvy procurements. Yet another incomprehensible game design decision.

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While Bright Fall’s various environments are lovingly created, and terrifyingly realistic in their aesthetic, many of them seem to be all too familiar after playing for a couple of hours. By episode 4 I felt like I was in the 50th logging-industrial-mill-station-warehouse-generic-empty-large-machinery-filled-substation type building, and although there are a couple of more unique locations, it would have been just dandy to get a little more variety. Alan Wake needn’t have been an open world game; sure, I’d certainly enjoy playing a game that was geared towards that experience, but increased linearity affords the game more control over, and thus more input, on the narrative. Nonetheless a little more exploration and perhaps conversation with local residents, during daylight hours, may have deepened the story, and built a more rounded story, given that ‘psychological’ is in the title as well as ‘action’.

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Alan Wake’s visuals are a sight to behold; or not, as the case may be, because there’s a whole lot of dark, but all this darkness is articulated beautifully in the game’s graphics, along with the mists and fog which make even the most innocent of shapes warp into terrifying monsters. Accordingly, the graphics that deal with light are also fantastic; making the pools of light that recharge your health and ward off your enemies, look most heartening, even though they may be engulfed in blackness. And the way the darkness is burnt off the possessed with your torch looks brilliantly brutal, helping to make the combat what it is.

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The animations that bring all these visuals to life mimic human movement (specifically a human that is running for his deer life), swayings of trees and russlings of bushes commendably, but in contrast facial animations feel almost non-existent, along with lip-syncing on par with foreign shampoo adverts. It truly amazes me that after so many years of development, with buckets of effort evidently poured into lighting, combat and writing that they could possibly fail to imitate any sort of realistic expressions for characters, a detail that is surely required of any good story. I’d like to say that it doesn’t detract from the experience, but almost unavoidably it does.

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To extend the playtime to around 15 hours, give or take, Remedy tosses in a number of subsidiary collectables and tasks including a series of “Night Springs” TV shows, found throughout the game, Twilight Zone-esque mysteries which are perfectly apt for Alan Wake’s setting, contributing to the mysterious atmosphere and giving your shivering buttocks a short respite. But again Remedy find a tiny way to diminish the experience not allowing you to zoom in on the TV set, meaning you have to find and awkward camera angle over your shoulder to watch. A similarly trivial problem befalls another of Alan Wake’s distinctive features. As you blunder through Bright Falls you’ll discover manuscript pages from the book you’ve written, that you’re in, meaning you get a sneak preview of what’s to come ahead. An interesting dynamic, most would agree, but to hear Alan read it out, you have to stay on the menu page, not permitting you to listen as you progress, which is surprising considering how partial he is to twittering on as you play otherwise.

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Accompanying these little features are some horribly incongruous inputs such as a wealth of thermos flask collectables (I can only assume Alan’s inexplicable decisions are down to the exceptional amounts of caffeine running through his veins) which appear to have no bearing on anything else and some real world commercials deviously place where you’d expect to catch another episode of the brilliant little Night Springs. It’s these small but significant details that break the immersion and trivialize the atmosphere.

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Having stumbled around in the dark with Alan Wake, however, I can safely say this is a very good game, and just misses the boat on becoming great, because of a number of dopey mistakes. Perhaps poor Remedy themselves were fumbling through the woods too long and having lost sight of obvious features and details on the periphery; because the core mechanics are all there and finessed down to a T. It is a genuine shame that it hasn’t quite lived up to its mammoth potential, given its development period, because the basic gameplay is great fun with a number of puzzles and boss like sequences littered throughout and Alan’s story is gripping and absorbing making those of many other games look pitiful.

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It has to be said that there are clear and unashamed similarities with series like Twin Peaks, and the books of Stephen King, but the games industry is hardly saturated with titles using this genre and we must admire Remedy for giving something like this a go. It’s a fairly unique experience, even if it isn’t a perfect one, and nobody would deny that it doesn’t create a chilling and exciting atmosphere that both looks superb and plays well. But unfortunately unlike the narrative, the gameplay just doesn’t mirror the crescendo of good books, which avoids repetitiveness. Fans of horror games or even those just searching for a good story will be absolutely satisfied, but perhaps not blown away and as such, Alan Wake is good Xbox 360 exclusive that makes great use of its graphics and well fleshed out plotline and back-story, but falls short due to an absence of obvious features and an unfortunate inertia surrounding its basic gameplay.

June 13th, 2010
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