It's been a little more than two months since Remedy's Alan Wake hit store shelves, and the next chapter has arrived. Free for anyone who purchased a brand-new copy of the game, and 560 Microsoft Points ($7 USD) for everyone else, The Signal explores what happens to the eponymous title character after the credits close at the end of the original game. It's a short romp, but one that is extremely satisfying and guaranteed to leave you wanting more.
Whereas the original story started off in reality before slowly veering into nightmarish madness, The Signal offers no pretense of normality. It offers up nightmares right from the start.
Trapped in a dream world, Wake isn't sure who, or what, to trust at first. The world shifts around him, with reality seemingly bending at will and the darkness encroaching at a constant pace. The Taken are just as aggressive this time around, though their numbers seem to be a bit higher. Spawn points also appear to be a bit closer to Wake's location this time around, resulting in dual feelings of claustrophobia and being rushed. The designers play off those feelings well, in order to preserve a sense of tension and foreboding.
Combat hasn't changed much. You still use the flashlight to destroy the dark shield surrounding the Taken before finishing them off with another weapon. Items and weapons collected from the main game don't carry over into the DLC episode. You start with the basics, but things quickly ramp up and you're toting the big guns in no time. That initial feeling of being underpowered doesn't last very long.
Story-wise, The Signal pretty much requires you to have finished the main game before giving it a go. There's really nothing stopping you from jumping right in if you haven't, but for someone coming in fresh, the plot probably won't make a whole lot of sense. Just like a TV series, this episode assumes that the player is familiar with what has gone before. This means that it doesn't shy away from using past material as a base, but it also means that going straight to the DLC is like trying to understand "Lost" by starting halfway through the third season.
Visually, The Signal is a bit of a rehash, using familiar locations from the game. However, the locations that you revisit aren't always identical to the originals; instead, they are twisted versions that feel familiar, yet wrong. In keeping with the nightmare theme, buildings aren't in their proper locations and how you completed levels the first time through doesn't necessarily have anything to do with how you'll get past similar obstacles here. The net result is an episode that feels completely fresh.
Although a lot of the visual assets have been reused, the audio is fresh. Dialogue for The Signal is original, with a script that focuses on adding to the story of Alan Wake rather than rehashing lines from the main game. The voice actors once again do an admirable job, with a production level that is on par with network TV shows. The only real disappointment in the audio department is the fact that only one new soundtrack track is included. After the varied selection that made up the original game, we were hoping for a bit more in The Signal.
One interesting mechanic that was touched on in the main game, but wasn't really explored, is the use of words as powerful items in the nightmare. Here in The Signal, the developers took that idea and ran with it. As a writer, Wake controls the words, so in this episode, words are scattered throughout. Shine your flashlight on a word to make it transform into the item it describes. Most of the time, the words are helpful, but the occasional enemy does get included, so it is wise to look before you shine that light. In one section, the ground is littered with words that describe enemies, forcing you to carefully navigate throughout — and avoid the use of any light-based weapons — lest you flood the area with Taken.
Playing through the entire DLC episode takes roughly 60 to 90 minutes, if you're just going for the story. Maxing out the Achievement points and collecting all of the alarm clocks and Alan Wake standees extends that time a bit.
Ultimately, if you enjoyed playing though the main game, then The Signal is going to be a welcome expansion to the adventure. It expands on the Alan Wake story but doesn't lay every card on the table. Much like a single episode in an ongoing TV series, The Signal provides a few answers but then taunts the player with new questions. The hard part is going to be waiting to see what happens next in The Writer.
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