Format: Xbox 360
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Released: 14 May 2010
Alan Wake has been a long time coming and by all counts, Remedy's “psychological action thriller” has had what sounds like a tumultuous development cycle. The game has experienced multiple delays. Some of them can be chalked up to comparatively small staff at Remedy, but from reports, Alan Wake has changed both its gameplay format and gaming platform on its way to release. Naturally, the amount of time it's taken to arrive raises questions about what the game will be like. Will it look dated? Will it feel derivative? Prospective punters would be forgiven for viewing Alan Wake with a little trepidation before they make a purchase. However, anyone who does stump up for a copy is in for a treat. Alan Wake is an eerie, atmospheric and exciting piece of entertainment. It's ambitious too; the way the game's layered narrative and playing mechanics appear to stem from the shortcomings of its central character seem indicative of some lofty artistic aspirations. This isn't half bad when you consider that the pitch for the game's story sounds like the blurb on the back of a Dean Koontz novel.
The game begins as detective pulp fiction author Alan Wake arrives in the sleepy town of Bright Falls. Ostensibly he's on holiday with his wife Alice, but he's also on the run from his publisher. He's battling a bad case of writer's block and he's become plagued with doubt about whether his talent has dried up. He's also started having vivid nightmares in which he's attacked by axe-wielding characters from his novels. After a decidedly creepy encounter in the town's diner, Wake and his wife head out to their holiday cabin by the lake in woodlands around Bright Falls. Alice soon goes missing and Alan finds himself stumbling through the woods in search of her. He also starts finding pages from a manuscript he can't remember writing and is soon set upon by shadowy figures wielding axes and knives.
Alan Wake's plot is one of its strongest assets – so much so that revealing anymore than the above set-up would probably ruin the game for anyone who hasn't played it. Remedy told us in our preview with Alan Wake that they avoided looking at other video games when creating their new IP, and instead, took more inspiration from pop culture such as movies and contemporary TV. Such influences are certainly evident throughout the game. Stephen King probably looms largest over the proceedings; the writer/protagonist, American small town setting, supernatural foes and the plot's narrative which blurs the line between fantasy and reality are calling cards from King's back catalogue. However, pop culture hounds will spot plenty of references to other, similarly themed works. With its menacing woodlands and kooky inhabitants, Bright Falls is a dead ringer for David Lynch's Twin Peaks. The game is structured like a high-end HBO television series; the six levels are presented as episodes and each one ends on a cliffhanger and begins with a "Previously on Alan Wake" montage of earlier events. There's even a nod to Rod Serling's classic TV series, The Twilight Zone in the form of an in-game television serial called Night Springs.
Overall, though, the biggest influence on Alan Wake's narrative and gameplay come from its titular character. Alan Wake is one of the most engaging protagonists we've come across in a video game in some time, even if he is also the sort of person most of us would cross the street to avoid. To put it bluntly Wake is a deeply flawed individual – selfish, immature and prone to violent outbursts – and it soon becomes clear that many of his problems are of his own making. It's a testament to the writing prowess of the developers at Remedy that they've managed to make this unpleasant character both compelling and sympathetic.
Wake's shortcomings as a character not only effect the narrative, they also bleed into the gameplay. The game's core mechanic which involves using light to battle through darkness is also a neat metaphor for Wake's writers block. In Alan Wake, light is the player's best friend; Wake is healed by it and he uses it to fend off and destroy his enemies. Players initially start out with a torch and a six-shooter, but as the game progresses, they'll get access to bigger and brighter torches as well as more weapons including shotguns and hunting rifles. They'll also pick up an assortment of light-based devices which act in the same way as weapons in other third-person-shooter games. Flares create a safe perimeter for brief spells, flashbangs and flaregun double as grenades and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers respectively, and spotlights are used in the same way as mounted gun turrets. It's a good idea to keep stocked up ammunition as there's a cap on the amount of bullets and batteries Wake can carry. To this end players are encouraged to forage around in any buildings they come across, and to make use of the large number of emergency boxes dotted around the Bright Falls woodlands.
The combat requires more than a little multitasking. A typical attack involves pointing the torch at an approaching target, focusing the beam to burn away its protective shadowy coating and then opening fire. However, the enemy AI is smarter than most; if more than one opponent attacks at any given time, the moment the player targets one of them, the others will fan out and flank them. Similarly, if the player drops a flare, any opponents that aren't killed will recede back into the darkness and wait for it to die out. This can lead to some rather hairy moments, in which players will whirl from dispatching one opponent to find a second one almost on top of them. In firefights an attack can come from any direction with very little warning, and this makes the player feel constantly under threat.
This sense of vulnerability is compounded by the Alan Wake's flaws as a action hero. Unlike most other 'everyman' protagonists who turn into lethal combatives the moment they get their hands on a weapon, Alan Wake plays like an average joe with no formal training in the weapons he's forced to use. When players point a firearm, no handy reticule appears on the screen; the bullets head in the direction of whatever the player is pointing the torch at. There's also no target lock – if players spin quickly to draw a bead on an oncoming opponent, there's every chance the first couple of shots could go wide of their target. The game's antagonists are a far tougher than Wake, who takes only two or three blows to kill; even stripped of their shadowy armour, some opponents require five or six bullets before they go down for good. Due to the fact that players are likely to run out of batteries and ammunition in short succession, there are moments when the best tactical decision is to hurl a flare or flashbang in the direction of Wake's attackers and then make a run for it. However, when doing this, players are advised to make sure there's a well-lit haven nearby as Wake isn't as fast as his attackers, and is only capable of sprinting over very short distances.
The game's environment plays a key part in adding to the sense of impending dread. Aside from the game's atmosphere which can turn on a dime from feeling safe and serene to one of choking menace and foreboding, the town of Bright Falls grounds the supernatural elements of the plot in solid reality. The world of Alan Wake looks absolutely stunning and the developers have obviously put a lot of work into making Bright Falls and its surrounding woodlands look and feel like a real place. Every part of the game's environment is exactly what one would expect to find in the American Pacific North West. There's a sense of authenticity in every aspect of Bright Falls from its vegetation to its architecture to even its weather and lighting. The spooky music mingles effectively with the noises of the forests of Bright Falls to create the sense that danger could lurking over the next ridge or around the next corner. The game may feel like a waking nightmare but the world it contains feels like part of our reality.
As good as Alan Wake is, however, it is by no means flawless. Perhaps this was inevitable, given the game's lengthy development cycle, but there are more than a few aspects of Alan Wake that look a little behind the times. The first, and most obvious of these is the visual presentation of the characters. This wouldn't be such a huge issue if Alan Wake wasn't such a character-driven story, but as it stands, there are more than a few wince-worthy moments in which the gravitas of what the characters are saying or doing is undercut by the poor facial animation. The dated character graphics are particularly jarring when set against the fantastic woodland backdrop or picture perfect small-town of Bright Falls.
The game's shortness in length is also a concern. For a game that contains a very linear single-player experience, and no multiplayer mode at all, Alan Wake is feels very brief. There are plenty of distractions to pad out the game's length – such as the TV and radio shows and the collectable thermoses and manuscript pages – but even factoring these into the mix, the game takes between 10 and 12 hours to complete. Players who ignore this extra content will shoot through it in even less time than that. Finally there are instances where the in-game narration feels overdone; inner monologue is all well and good, but players don't need narration when all it's doing is describing the action on the screen. Not only is it unnecessary, it punctures the menacing atmosphere and makes the proceedings feel a tad farcical.
These drawbacks, however, are far outweighed by the game's stronger aspects. It may have taken a while to get here, but Alan Wake has been well worth the wait. Remedy has created a superb video game that uses one of the best written characters in the medium all year to tie its plot, themes and gameplay together seamlessly. Thrilling, frightening and geuninely compelling, Alan Wake is a nightmare players will not soon forget.