To call Alan Wake a "game" is to do it a disservice. While technically correct, Alan Wake is more than just another video game. Much like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Alan Wake is a carefully crafted narrative experience. Yes, there is action and combat, but they aren't the focus. Remedy's goal with Alan Wake was to craft a carefully balanced world that looks normal on the surface, yet hides a dark side within. To this end, the team has succeeded brilliantly, and the resulting roller-coaster ride is well worth the investment.
The primary draw behind Alan Wake is undoubtedly the story. Pulling inspiration from a wide variety of authors and producers (we noted references to David Cronenberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft and David Lynch, to name a few) as well as TV shows and movies (Fringe, In the Mouth of Madness, Twin Peaks, The X-Files), Alan Wake is a solid psychological thriller that could easily have been made into a book or a TV series had it not ended up in the hands of a game developer.
Alan's adventure starts out innocently enough, with him and his wife taking a well-deserved vacation in the small town of Bright Falls. Everything is not as it seems in this idyllic little town, as a dark force is at work here and needs Alan to do its bidding. Over the course of six episodes, which are plotted and structured like six individual episodes of a TV series (complete with credits and "previously on" sequences), our hero ends up questioning everything, right down to his sanity. When the supernatural bleeds into reality, all bets are off.
As the story plays out on-screen, it is also revealed to the characters in-game by way of a parallel meta-narrative. You see, Alan has actually written the story already — he just doesn't remember writing it. The manuscript pages are scattered throughout the world, and they're one of the collectibles that Alan can pick up along the way. What's written on the pages always comes true, though the order in which you find the pages isn't always chronological. As a result, the manuscript pages provide an innovative way to flesh out the story. They can give you immediate warning of a danger, offer up backstory, or provide a warning of things to come. However, finding a manuscript page that reveals how a character dies while you're at the start of an hour-long trek to visit said character can take some of the wind out of your sails.
Using an interwoven meta-narrative like this isn't the easiest task to pull off, but the scriptwriters at Remedy managed to do it.
By following the pacing of a TV series, the gameplay is offered up in six easily digested chunks. On average, it'll take players about two hours to get through each episode, so there is no massive time investment. Finishing an episode brings closure to a smaller part of the story, while still providing a cliffhanger "hook" to ensure that you want to come back for the next. Other games have tried the episodic approach before, but Alan Wake is one of the few to really nail the pacing.
Despite the game's twisting story line, the combat mechanics are much more straightforward. During the day, everything is harmless, but at night, "The Taken" come out to hunt Alan. You'll find a hefty supply of pistols, rifles and shotguns throughout the game, but they're mostly ineffective against The Taken until they've first been disarmed by the light. To do this, you must shine a flashlight (or other light source) on an enemy until it disintegrates or its dark shield drops. Once the shield is down, old-fashioned lead bullets finish the job.
Going one-on-one with a Taken is a fairly simple affair, but the game quickly ramps things up so you're facing groups of dark enemies. Because they're often faster and stronger than you, running away is rarely an option. You either need to fight them or outwit them. Since defeated enemies don't offer any rewards, it's more intelligent to save your ammo and items for the unavoidable fights.
Environmental damage is a great way to eliminate The Taken while conserving ammo and battery power. On the normal difficultly level, ammo and batteries are easily found, but bump that up, and Alan will be scavenging quite a bit more. Environmental objects at your disposal range from temporary floodlights to exposed electrical wiring and even include the good ol' video game cliché of exploding barrels. If you happen to be close to a streetlight, ducking into its protective glow offers temporary sanctuary from the attacking Taken and will heal him, so this can be pretty useful during hectic battles.
Weapons available to Alan include multiple guns, flares, flashbangs and different types of flashlights. All of the guns handle similarly; the stronger weapons just pack a bigger punch.
On its own, the combat within Alan Wake isn't anything revolutionary, but when merged with the environment, the experience is jacked up to 11. Just like in Hitchcock movies of old, what you don't see is often more unnerving than what you do see. That convention holds throughout the whole of Alan Wake. When The Taken are attacking, there is always an undulating fog surrounding the immediate area. The camera pans back for a second so you're never caught by surprise, but there is always a sense of tension and underlying dread as you wander through the dark. As the beam from your flashlight flicks to and fro, every odd shadow could presumably be a Taken — at least that's what our overactive imagination kept telling us as we played.
Alan Wake also features a few driving sequences, but there doesn't seem to be any reason for them to be in the game except to extend the playtime. If Alan finds a car with the interior lights on, he can hop in and drive. The usual driving controls are employed, and the cars control really well: The right trigger accelerates, the left trigger brakes or reverses, and the A button allows you to boost your headlights. Driving into The Taken knocks them over or kills them, but they cause very little damage to your vehicle. If there's a way to die in the driving sequences, we certainly couldn't find it. However, the driving sequences actually make it more likely that you'll miss collectibles as you zoom by.
When you're not engaged in nighttime combat, Alan Wake offers players stunning visuals of the Pacific Northwest. Natural vistas are rendered superbly, with soaring mountaintops and lush treetops. Perhaps the only real complaint we have is repetition. Alan ends up spending a lot of his time in basically identical abandoned buildings, and these end up being some of the least interesting portions of the game. The visuals suffer slightly when it comes to rendering people and faces; try as they might, the faces never quite look natural, and the lip-synching usually feels a bit off from the vocals. We also noticed an occasional bit of screen tearing during the dozen or so hours spent playing the game, but that was the exception rather than the rule.
By and large, Alan Wake is a visually gorgeous game and one that serves to showcase the visual prowess of the Xbox 360. It's not just the visuals that are strong though; the sound is equally memorable.
Alan Wake's sound design shines on three layers: voice acting, musical soundtrack and ambient noise. The voice acting is worth a mention because all of the characters fit their roles like a glove. You never get the sense that someone is out of character and just reading lines. The licensed music selections used in the game are varied and offer a range of styles, but mentioning the set list will probably spoil some things for music-savvy readers, so I'll refrain. However, it is the ambient noise that shines.
This is a game that screams to be played on a surround sound system. It sounds great on a standard stereo setup, but when you turn down the lights and crank the sound on a 5.1 system, Alan Wake does an incredibly effective job of drawing you into the world. You're not just sitting on the couch watching the screen; it sounds like you're standing right next to Alan, with the wind whipping around you. For the review, we used a set of Astro Gaming A30s and the Astro MixAmp to experience Alan Wake. The clarity of sound was so good that what was originally intended to be a two-hour session ended up being a 10-hour all-nighter. To be sure, the sound direction on this one deserves major kudos.
Given its focus on the single-player experience, you might think that Alan Wake offers little in the way of replay value, but the game offers up a number of collectibles in addition to the aforementioned manuscript pages, along with easy access to replay any completed episode. If that weren't enough, some of the manuscript pages are only available in Nightmare mode, which necessitates a second playthrough if you want to collect them all. Of course, not every replay angle is a collectible, and one of the achievements even requires a level-based speed run.
All in all, Alan Wake is a brilliant piece of storytelling and one that is going to stand out as an example of single-player gaming done right. The combat mechanics are solid and interesting, and fighting The Taken is often exciting and intense. The light-based mechanics keep the gameplay invigorating, and there's a fun layer of depth in allowing players the option to fight or run. It may not be perfect, but the experience is so visceral that overlooking any small hiccups is an easy task.
Chris "Atom" DeAngelus also contributed to this review.
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