Alan Wake Review
It’s been five long, where-the-hell-is-this-game years, but Alan Wake is finally here and it’s a total success. The main joy is the story–a deviously crafted psychological thriller with a relentless pace that keeps you hooked. It’s also a downright gorgeous Xbox 360 game. The game’s lighting effects steal the show, especially when you unload a flashbang or flare gun on a group of shadowy “Taken” in the dark forest. Moments like these treat you to triumphant fireworks displays, which just feel good. To be fair, the game definitely has a few problems–script awkwardness, graphical tears, oversized environments–but in the end Alan Wake is simply a hell of a lot of fun to play.
Alan Wake (Xbox 360 [Reviewed])
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Released: May 18, 2010
Alan Wake is a well-known novelist with a bad case of writer’s block. For some peace and quiet, he and his wife Alice retreat to the sleepy Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls. It’s a foggy, mysterious mountain town reminiscent of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks–an admitted influence of Remedy’s–or even X-Files, and it’ll draw you right in. It helps that it looks amazing. And it’s not exactly a small place. There’s dense forests, a lake, mountain roads, a dam, the coal mine, a downtown with the requisite “creepy diner,” all of which feels familiar and yet new and nicely crafted. The scale is kind of staggering at times, particularly when you get a sweeping view of the geography of the whole area. It seems like a place you would take your family for a getaway, or go hunting with your grandpa.
Alan’s peace and quiet doesn’t last long, though. When his wife disappears, he’s forced to grab a flashlight and search for her. During his search, he discovers scattered manuscript pages from a novel he allegedly wrote, but has no memory of. Weird, right? Even weirder, this novel appears to be coming to life, and trying to kill him. Shadowy beings called the “Taken” will attack Alan in the dark. Something should be said for how scary they look, and sound. If you have a decent sound system, crank it. The Taken emit these growling, angry utterances, which sound cool but will scare the crap out of you. The soundtrack is freaky, too. The Taken’s presence is often cued with a bone-chilling strings crescendo. It’s pretty frightening when they instantly surround you and start to slowly close in.
This all happens in very dark environments, and you’ll need your flashlight in more ways than one. First of all, it’s very functional and pretty. It’s possibly the best “video game flashlight” ever implemented, as weird as that sounds. It helps guide your exploration, and it paints trees, logs, etc. with real-time lighting effects. It has some heft to it, and is a pleasure to wield. Secondly, the flashlight functions like a “support weapon,” with ammunition in the form of batteries. Fighting the Taken is a two-part process. First, you’ll need to purge the Darkness in them. Shine your flashlight on a Taken, and it will cower. You can emit a super-charged beam by holding LT, which drains your batteries faster. Once the Taken’s shell of darkness is shattered, it can be shot and killed. The flashlight also acts like a laser sight for your gun, helping you aim with precision. Yes, you’ll learn to love the flashlight, and when Alan is without it you’ll feel naked.
Additional items help round out the combat system. If you’re overwhelmed by multiple Taken, bust out a flare and hold it high over your head. This looks powerful and will force the Taken to back off, giving you a little breathing room. It saved my ass more than once. The real fun, though, is with flashbang grenades, and the flare gun. Using these literally warmed my heart. The flare gun is particularly rewarding. Ammo for it is scarce, probably because it’s too awesome to use all the time. Aim carefully, fire at a group, and you may be treated to a slo-mo Jon Woo-style bullet time animation, with a beautiful explosion of light at the end.
Speaking of “bullet time,” Remedy has included a mechanic somewhat reminiscent of Max Payne’s famed bullet time effect. In a way, it oddly reminded me of Bayonetta. Dodge an enemy’s attack with LB right in the nick of time, and you’ll trigger a “cinematic dodge,” which slows down the action and gives you a chance to maneuver. It’s difficult to consistently pull off, but when you do it feels great.
This all works pretty well, but the combat system certainly has a few quirks about it. Switching between your throwable weapons with the down D-pad is a bit clunky. You may find yourself fumbling for your flares, but instead you’ve equipped the shotgun. Meanwhile, you’ve been shown the business end of an ax, and you’re dead. Also, enemies will often attack from the rear, off-screen. It definitely keeps you on your toes, whipping around with your flashlight and systematically weakening each Taken, but it can feel a bit cheap getting clobbered from behind all the time.
Alan will spend a lot of his time trekking through Bright Falls on foot, searching for his wife and heading towards the next objective. There is NO MAP in the game, period. At first this was uncomfortable, but it’s more immersive than anything. You’ll always have an objective marker, pointing you in the general direction of the next event. The forests and mountain roads in Bright Falls are lush and nicely crafted, but at times their scale kind of works against them. The environments are often pointlessly large. They invite exploration, but sometimes offer nothing but a dead end. You may find yourself asking “why did I walk across this whole farm, just to look at this fence?”
Luckily, this isn’t too big of a deal, since there are items and collectibles hidden throughout Bright Falls. In fact, Alan Wake is a completionists wet dream. Open up the “Statistics” screen from the menu to get an idea. There’s dozens of hidden coffee thermoses, TVs, radios, signs, etc., all of which are nice little reasons to strike off the beaten trail and look around. One master stroke with exploration is how you discover hidden caches of supplies with the flashlight. Shine it around, and you’ll spot crude directions scrawled on surfaces in light-sensitive paint, leading you off the main path to hidden chests of goodies. The invisible glowing paint is eye candy, and it feels good to find these. That is, when the environments don’t punish you with a pointless trek into a Taken ambush.
The thing that really drives Alan Wake, and makes all of these complaints not matter that much, is the story. It’s kind of a big, multilayered puzzle in the game. Clues are scattered everywhere, and revealed in a variety of formats. The manuscript pages Alan finds foreshadow events to come, and add backstory. Finding these is optional, but you risk not understanding everything. There’s even a set of manuscript pages that can only be found in the game’s Nightmare difficulty mode, which you unlock after one playthrough. The hidden TV and radio shows help tease out the game’s themes. Conversations with other characters often include snippets of vital information, which makes you hang on their words.
In terms of structure, the game is broken into 6 “episodes.” Each episode begins with a “previously, on Alan Wake” montage style recap, kind of like Lost–another admitted influence of Remedy’s. Even the songs at the end of episodes pack a meaningful punch with their lyrics if you listen. Basically, you have to unlock the game’s entire story by paying attention. The whole execution is addicting, and cleverly done.
Some of the story’s presentation lacks polish, though. The characters’ lips are often out of sync, which is a bit distracting. Another thing that got old was Alan Wake’s constant need to remind me of its influences. References to Stephen King and other writers are a little heavy-handed throughout. The game’s world is strong enough to stand on its own without constantly recalling its source material.
In the end, Alan Wake is a scary, bold, beautiful game that makes you think. The story is truly gripping, and actually propels the action forward, making it hard to quit. And not to spoil anything, but if Alan Wake sells well, we can definitely expect more from him in the future. Remedy built Alan Wake as “season 1″ of a much larger story arc–a somewhat risky move, but I think fans will come back for season 2. I know I will.
Addicting, clever story
Pointlessly large environments
Occasionally frustrating combat
Some cheesy lines
Lip sync issues