It's been five years since Alan Wake was first announced, but yesterday evening the final version of the game showed up in our inbox. Although we still have plenty to play through before rendering a final verdict, we wanted to put pen to paper while first impressions were fresh.
In short, the game starts off with a bang.
Conventional wisdom says that if a game isn't fun in the first 15 minutes, most players won't bother to see if it gets better down the line. After all, who wants to work to get to the fun? With Alan Wake, that's not a concern as the game sucks you in as soon as you pick up the controller.
Things kick off with a very cinematic opening before dropping you right into the thick of things. Playing as the title character, you start out lost in the woods with a dark creature of your own creation chasing after you. Yes, it's only a dream, but the meta narrative of a writer who has the power to write his own fate is a solid plot device that extends well past the introductory dream.
After arriving in Bright Falls, Alan and his wife Alice check into their lakeside cabin and settle in for a quiet night. But a fight leads to Alan walking out, only for Alice to disappear and Alan to wake up a week later, behind the wheel of a car that's just been in a crash. Groggy, disoriented and with no way to find his missing wife, Alan sets out to find help.
From a story and pacing perspective, Episode 1 plays out beautifully. Characters and plot lines are laid out, conflict is introduced and the subtle line between nightmare and reality is expertly blurred. By the time you reach the cliffhanger ending 90 minutes later, the last thing you want to do is put down the controller.
In addition to providing good opportunities for story cliffhangers, the episode breaks also provide a natural point to take a breather from the narrative. When you come back for the next section of play, the game expertly provides a "last time" TV-style recap that highlights all of the key plot points.
So far, the gameplay is an even mix of combat and exploration. Unlike other horror games, there is very little in the way of gore in Alan Wake. Instead, the game scares you by letting your imagination run wild. As Hitchcock discovered long ago, what you don't see is often many times more frightening than what could ever be depicted on-screen.
Combat in Alan Wake features a two-pronged approach as all of the enemies are shielded by the dark. In order to cause any damage, you must first destroy the dark shield by focusing your flashlight beam on an enemy. Once the dark has been burned away by the light, the enemies are vulnerable to traditional weapons such as bullets and shotgun shells. A flare gun serves as an area of effect weapon, with its intense light destroying nearby enemies in one shot. Ammo is limited, but it's great to use in a pinch.
Alan's flashlight is also useful when exploring the level, as it can reveal hidden markers that lead to item caches. In the first episode, we were always well stocked on items and weapons, but that could easily change, depending on how the difficulty ramps up in later levels.
Aside from the standard items, Alan Wake also features collectibles for the completionists out there. There are 100 thermos bottles hidden in the game, and we're assuming that something good unlocks if you manage to collect them all. Manuscript pages are also hidden throughout each level, revealing more of the game's backstory. In a smart ploy to encourage replay, not all of the manuscript pages are available in the game's default difficulty level. You'll need to replay a second time if you want to collect them all.
Our only initial complaint with Alan Wake has to do with the visuals. They are quite good, putting out some of the most impressive imagery on the Xbox 360 yet. Unfortunately, when it comes to rendering people on-screen, they are almost too good. The lead characters are rendered with so much detail in the cinema scenes that they drift into the uncanny valley. It's an odd feeling, but one that only impacts things when there is a close-up.
Where things go from here is still a question mark, but it's one that we plan on answering in full next week. Be sure to check back on May 5th when we pass judgment on the entire Alan Wake experience.
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