- May 04, 2010 22:00 PM PT
It isn't perfect, but Remedy's oft-delayed Alan Wake is an enjoyable and tense survival horror title that boasts a gripping plot, gorgeous environments, and an inventive "light versus dark" battle mechanic.
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Once a praised writer and notorious bad boy, Alan Wake retreats to the small pacific northwestern town of Bright Falls, Washington, to escape the big city spotlight and save his failing marriage. But what begins as a restful getaway quickly turns into a twisted nightmare: Wake's wife Alice goes missing and an entire week somehow vanishes in a blink of the writer's eye. A mysterious darkness has also invaded the town, possessing the population and turning them into something monstrous. Wake stumbles upon the scattered pages of a manuscript he authored yet cannot recall writing. The horrific tale woven on the pages springs to life in the darkness of Bright Falls, and sets the stage for the The Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks inspired supernatural thriller that Remedy Entertainment has crafted.
Although it's reminiscent of Remedy's Max Payne and Konami's Silent Hill, Alan Wake utilizes a "light versus dark" mechanic that helps set it apart from similar titles. Possessed townspeople and objects can only be defeated once they have been bathed in an appropriate amount of light. This can make combat an extremely tense experience: Alan Wake features several heart-sinking moments where hordes of possessed townsfolk lunge toward you in the hopes of cutting your adventure short. But rather than just mow them down, you have to strategically expose them to light in order to make them vulnerable. Thankfully you're armed with a variety of flares, flashbangs, and a flashlight to use against the game's monsters, known collectively as "the Taken," and juggling your inventory of traditional and light-emitting weapons is half the challenge. Showing off its proclivity for time manipulation, Remedy also included a Max Payne-like ability to avoid incoming attacks with a bullet-time-style dodge maneuver, which allows players to shake off close-quarter and ranged attacks.
Once bathed in the appropriate amount of light, the 'Taken' easily succumb to Wake's standard arsenal of weapons.
Sadly, the majority of the gameplay is hinged on combat, and while this can be exciting, it would have been nice to have a bit more variety. There are a number of puzzles as well, but they mostly revolve around shining light through darkened passages. You can also collect pages of the mysterious manuscript I mentioned earlier, and although this is completely optional, the pages foreshadow events in the game as well as flesh out the story and motivation of the characters involved. Unfortunately, some of the manuscript's pages can only be collected in the game's "Nightmare" difficulty setting -- Alan Wake's "very hard" mode -- that only becomes accessible once the game has been completed. Hidden television sets also broadcast an entertaining series entitled "Night Springs," which is a not-so-subtle homage to classic Twilight Zone episodes. The live-action series, along with local radio broadcasts and historical information signs scattered throughout the town, help add to the overall atmosphere.
The game's licensed soundtrack, which is one of the best I've encountered in a recent videogame, also shines, with songs like David Bowie's "Space Oddity" fitting in nicely with the game's haunting story. There are a number of interesting plot twists that work, and the mystery surrounding the sleepy town of Bright Falls is actually worth seeing through to the end. Sadly, some of the characters fall into typical horror movie tropes and exhibit inconsistent behavior, but the overall story is still beautifully told, imparting a genuine sense of suspense.
Wake can utilize vehicles as quick transport and devastating weapons against attacking waves of the 'Taken.'
That same level of excellence isn't consistently found throughout Alan Wake, however. There are several design decisions that feel dated and gimmicky. For instance, there is no sense of continuity or progression in Alan Wake. At the beginning of each level, which are broken up as though they were episodes of a television series, every weapon and gadget you've previously collected disappear. It's a design decision that's far too punitive and there's little contextual reasoning to support it. The heads-up display is cumbersome, displaying every objective in plain white text, and really cuts into the beauty of the surrounding environment. You have the ability to drive vehicles, and while it works well enough, it's really just a cheap way to progress the story along; the same can be said for the day portions of the game where you interact with the townspeople of Bright Falls who have yet to fall victim to the mysterious darkness plaguing the town. I also noticed an inconsistency in the character models. The title character looks detailed and refined, but the rest of the cast look positively dated in comparison. They exhibit awkward animations, which is made even stranger when you take into account the town's picturesque environments.
But despite these small issues, Alan Wake still manages to weave an impressive story with a satisfying conclusion that also leaves the door open for the "premium DLC content" Remedy has promised. It isn't perfect, but Alan Wake is a superb mystery that has plenty to offer. Gamers willing to put up with the minor inconsistencies will be rewarded with a rich narrative that's definitely worth experiencing.
PROS: Strong story and haunting conclusion; great voice-acting; gorgeous environments; superb soundtrack and nods to pop-culture fixtures.
CONS: Character models look dated; game resets player progression at nearly every turn; leans heavily on combat; characters take on typical 'horror movie character' qualities.