What happens when you mix Resident Evil 4-like gunplay, Twin Peaks’ setting, GTA-like driving sections, and a mishmash of Stephen King stories? Alan Wake was critically lauded on release for its pacing and storytelling. By Remedy, the studio responsible for Max Payne it suffered from a notoriously drawn out development cycle. Now it has a reduced price on Xbox Live for halloween – is it worth a purchase to late-comers or new 360 owners?
Story: Alan is a famous yet frustrated writer. Encouraged to come on holiday by his wife, Alice, he expects to take a break from worrying about his writers block. Alice has other ideas and hopes the quiet lakeside surroundings will inspire him to create. Obviously things go drastically wrong and Alan ends up fighting a dark force to rescue his wife and restore the rural town to its prior peaceful state.
Initially the story comes across as blunt, lacking any subtlety at all. The very first “monster” you meet explains a lot of things that would have been better left unexplained. It really seems like it’s treating the player like a fool to begin with. The very first words of dialogue in the game are “Stephen King”, and it makes various references to him and his work. At least they’re honest about their inspirations.
Alan talks over much of the game and generally speaking offers insights and a personal slant which helps develop the characters much better than “journal entries” or even most cutscenes would do. Unfortunately narration early in the game can be jarring and sometimes unintentionally funny in it’s persistent talking over and explaining tiny details. If you work through the first hours though the writing finds its footing and goes down its own, wonderfully realised path.
As you go through the game you find pages of Alan’s lost manuscript. Again, at first this seems clumsy and often not that brilliantly written. Stick with it and it starts getting both interesting and effective, and if you read them as you find the pages it can give a lot of insight into events that have already happened and in some cases what’s about to happen, giving you a way to be prepared, and building tension.
Characters in the game grow on you and by the end of the game you can’t help but appreciate both Alan and his agent Barry. Alan’s wife Alice isn’t so well developed, but the dialogue contains a surprising amount of humour, particularly later on and in the DLC episodes once all of the characters begin to acknowledge the ridiculousness of their situation. This is something that’s missing in most games and it’s refreshing to see at least some of the characters maintaining a sense of humour in dire straights.
As interactive story-telling I’d rank Wake very highly. It doesn’t have the subtlety or ambiguity of the best Silent Hills, but what it does have is clever and compelling. Separated into 1-2 hour chunks, the game is episodic in nature, even going as far to having “previously on Alan Wake” intros for each act. This comes off as hokey at first but it works well. Each episode ends with a cliff-hanger which offers a good place to take a break or stop playing and come back later. The pacing is unusual but nigh on perfect. The only real criticism I can muster after playing through the game and it’s two DLC episodes is the fact that the DLC contribute greatly to the story and a feeling of closure, so you’ll definitely want them too.
Graphics: Initially the atmosphere is striking, the play of shadows and weather effects almost unmatched even now. Modelling and architecture is of a great, believable level and the way the trees blow in the wind and other environmental effects contribute to a tangible and immersive setting. Technically the game seems well executed, always keeping a good frame-rate and never experiencing serious graphical artefacts. The only glitch you may notice is occasional severe screen tearing. Strangely this only seems to happen in well lit interiors where it doesn’t look like much is going on.
The balance between light and dark is central to the gameplay and story, and the treatment of torches, flares and other light related effects is beautiful, beams of light shining through tree cover and dissipating realistically in the foggy surroundings.
Alan Wake contains some of the best use of real-life video footage included in a game to date. It actually contributes to the story in enjoyable ways without feeling out of place.
It’s not all perfect on the graphical front though, some of the textures are seriously muddy and low-res, and while the character models themselves are of a very high quality, their facial animation is stilted and unintentionally creepy. It’s really not a deal breaker but it does feel like a strange oversight when so much love was put into the rest of the game. There are also a lot of cases of reused models, which although common to every game, here they stand out more than usual and it works against the organic feel of the exterior environments when you see the same battered old car again and again.
Gameplay: For better or worse this is a very “modern” action game. The gameplay shares more in common with Resident Evil 4 or even the Uncharted series than more traditional survival horror titles. It offers little in the way of exploration or real puzzle solving, instead pushing you down a closed linear path from one light-source to the next (they serve as auto-save points). This is obviously deliberate and helps maintain the pace, but don’t expect to really do anything of your own volition.
The above would be a serious problem if it wasn’t for the fact that the central combat mechanics are fun and robust. There is no hand-to-hand combat, just dodges and gunplay combined with pointing torches at enemies to weaken them. It works alarmingly well and is some of the best action gameplay in a horror title to date.
Driving sections occasionally occur and handle very well. Mowing down enemies is cathartic after they’ve caused you so many problems. It’s during these vehicle sections that you see most of the leftovers from when the game was to be an open world affair. Its a shame they missed that opportunity, and I hope more games try that approach eventually. Silent Hill Downpour perhaps? We’ll have to wait and see.
There are two significant problems though. Firstly, there is very little variety in enemy encounters. This is quite usual for survival horror titles but it’s more pronounced here. There are really only three or four enemy types and the encounters are more mixed up by environmental and inventory concerns. As well as that the camera during combat makes it very easy for enemies to creep up and hit you from behind. Fortunately…
Sound: Audio cues like enemy footsteps make staying alive and avoiding frustrations much simpler. If there was ever a good argument for surround-sound, Alan Wake is it. Between the weather and background detail it’s massively helped by a good audio setup.
Scattered throughout the game are radios that play the local talk show. This is clever as you meet most of the characters involved in the broadcasts during gameplay and their conversations add a lot of depth to the town. As well as this the game features some of the best use of both original and licenced music tracks at key points in the game, which greatly adds to the cinematic experience. The ambient background music is quite “by numbers” in comparison, but is perfectly competent.
Equally strange yet effective is the vocal work for the enemies. Their voice clips range from creepy to outright hilarious. I don’t think they were ever supposed to be funny but it’s hard not to laugh when an enemy with a buzzing chainsaw stamps up and shouts “Chainsaws are LOUD!” Or another one “Omega 3 fatty acids are good for your heart!” In an evil distorted voice. These samples help identify who the enemies were before the darkness took them, but more often than not don’t enhance the mood so much as lighten it. Perhaps thats just my sense of humour though.
Conclusion: Polished, well written, and well paced – Alan Wake comes highly recommended. Though spooky, it’s safe to say the game is not really scary in any way, unless you have a deep-seated fear of being hit by birds and normally inanimate objects. The game offers little replay value besides collecting all of the manuscript pages, but like a good movie or series you might replay it for the story alone.
The DLC is essential to getting the full experience from the game, and some of the most interesting level design happens in the downloadable episodes. If you buy the game new you get a download code for the first episode free, but you’ll have to pay for the second one. The downloadable version of Alan Wake presumably offers no free download code.
Notes: Played through all content on “normal” difficulty. Going to revisit the game on Hard once my backlog is depleted.
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