Alan Wake has had what could be charitably termed a "long" development cycle. It's showed up at the occasional E3 before, but never as much more than a trailer or a few rumors until now. It's now close enough to being done that we can see it in action, though, and it was being shown off behind closed doors at Microsoft's booth at E3.
Remedy is, of course, the development house that created the Max Payne games, and one thing about those games that people don't often give them credit for is the strong element of surrealism that runs through them both. Alan Wake expands upon those themes; it's a playable horror movie, set in a world where anything you look at could possibly come to kill you.
The title character is a popular horror novelist with a bad case of writer's block. In an attempt to shake himself out of his rut, he and his future wife Alice pack up and head out to an isolated town in the Pacific Northwest called Bright Falls. Without distractions, Alan hopes to be able to get somewhere with his next novel.
This works out a little worse than he'd planned. Alice subsequently disappears, and Alan finds himself looking for pages out of a new manuscript of a new supernatural thriller that he doesn't remember writing. The pages are scattered throughout the area; the protagonist seems to be named after Alan, with a wife named after Alice; the book has gone from a simple thriller to an all-out horror novel; and unfortunately, the story in them seems to be coming true. The story involves an ancient power of darkness gradually reawakening and taking over anything it touches.
The darkness can and does animate just about everything it can, from people to machines to animals, and all of them immediately turn around and start looking to punch Alan's ticket. Whatever's being controlled is virtually immune to bullets, as shadows usually are, but light makes them vulnerable. Shine a flashlight on them, and you can hear the darkness hissing as the light boils it away, allowing you to finish them off with conventional firearms.
Alan is decidedly outgunned throughout most of the game. You can handle yourself against one or two human enemies by shining your flashlight on them before opening fire, but it's not long before humans show up two and three at a time or the darkness starts animating things, like construction equipment.
The E3 demo focused heavily on the combat, which was more of a mad struggle for survival than anything else. Getting from one point to another involves finding ways to turn on the lights or judiciously using items like flare guns; in Alan Wake, a flare gun's almost like a grenade launcher, taking out or seriously weakening an entire group of enemies at once. You aren't a combat machine, though, and a lot of your opponents just can't be fought. At one point during the demo, Alan was up against a darkness-possessed crane, while all he had was a pistol and a flashlight.
Alan can also get into and drive cars around the Bright Falls area, which plays heavily into some of the game's missions and levels. While the demo didn't focus on this, Alan Wake will reportedly involve a great deal of exploration and driving, although it's not a sandbox game. Instead, it's tightly plotted and character-driven, but you'll have the option to go four-wheeling around the area if you want to. Presumably, exploration will reward you with things like more pages out of Alan's manuscript.
Alan Wake's been a long time coming, but Remedy knows how to put together a satisfying game. Their track record is solid; they're one of the few developers that have a proven ability to make a plot-driven game without torpedoing the gameplay itself. This is a very different sort of game than Max Payne, though, with higher stakes and a much more vulnerable protagonist. I'm excited to see how it turns out.
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