If April’s Splinter Cell: Conviction reacquainted gamers with an appreciation of the dark, May will be the time when gamers will fear the darkness and seek out light out of desperation and the need to survive. This is the central theme of Alan Wake, the long-awaited new IP from Remedy Entertainment. The Finnish studio has brought their experience from Max Payne, once again delivering a compellingly visual world, a refined combat system, and a engrossing story. It foregoes the hard-boiled big city noir of Payne and instead explores Stephen King-inspired suspense with an outdoorsy Pacific Northwest setting.
As a refreshing change to traditional video game characterizations, this game’s title character is actually a successful guy, having made a name for himself as a best-selling author. A New York resident, Alan Wake is on vacation with his wife, Alice. Due to suffering from a two-year bout of writer’s block, Alice hopes that the secluded town of Bright Falls and the change of scenery gets Alan’s creative juices flowing.
Some in Bright Falls have other plans in mind though, which include the kidnapping of Alice, and the involvement of the FBI and a questionable therapist who specializes in creative types like Wake. Many of the town’s residents have also been possessed; known as the Taken, they are out to kill Wake whenever he is in the dark. Often equipped with a flashlight, Wake traverses Bright Falls in search of clues that will help him find Alice. The primary clue comes in the form of pages scattered throughout the game and are coincidentally parts of a manuscript that is credited to Wake, but one he does not remember writing.
Despite the premise of a missing loved one, a possessed town and the game’s psychological leanings, Remedy attests that Silent Hill was not a major influence on the game. Instead it takes more inspiration from shows like Twin Peaks, Lost, and 24. In fact, the game goes as far as to split the chapters into serialized episodes. It works for the most part, but certainly does not possess the episode count one would find in a TV season’s DVD boxset. One can even argue that some of the episodes could have been broken down into smaller portions.
Max Payne writer Sam Lake brings his narration-driven prose to the game. It fits better than his previous works due to the obvious fact that Wake is a writer himself. Lake, to his credit, lightens up on the metaphors this time around, which he manages to poke fun of at one point in the game. In addition, the various NPCs throughout Alan Wake are fleshed out well and are not just frivolous characters that had it been another game, would have just one or two lines. It is especially refreshing that many of these characters do not take long to believe Wake’s predicament and are caught up in the perils of Bright Falls themselves. A couple of them also join Wake for a small portion of the game’s exploration and combat, but thankfully do not need escort-mission babysitting.
Aside from the Stephen King nods, many well-known authors are referenced even if some are only briefly mentioned as slight jabs in the game’s dialogue. The countless birds that can pester Alan to death is an obvious Hitchcock homage, and Poltergeist fans will like the many possessed objects that seek to take out Wake. These objects, like the Taken, can be beaten with light.
The flashlight becomes a weapon as much as the firearms Wake comes across. By holding down on the left trigger, the player is able to boost the intensity of the light, thereby disarming the Taken. Other items can be easily selected with the d-pad, and guns and thrown items can be used with the right trigger and the right bumper respectively. When timed right, the left bumper allows Alan to dodge attacks from the Taken, a move that is rendered in satisfying slow motion for added effect.
Navigation throughout the seemingly vast wilderness is assisted by a waypoint indicator. It points with a degree of accuracy that almost takes the fun out of exploration, let alone the possibility of losing one’s way in the chaos of a Taken attack. It might have been intriguing to have a more challenging optional device such as a compass. This might have actually worked since the game often cuts away to a long aerial shot whenever Alan sets forth on his next goal.
Despite Remedy’s initial plan of making Alan Wake a promising sandbox style title, the final linear result ultimately works in the game’s favor. This is especially the case when it comes to preserving its narrative flow. While other adventure titles of similar length pad the experience with time-consuming detours and uninspiring backtracking, Alan Wake exhibits a rare degree of conciseness hardly seen in games. There are numerous obstacles throughout Bright Falls but passing through those locked doors, gaps, and electrified fences takes no more than five minutes or so. There are also countless short paths that deviate from the waypoint indicator, all of which can lead to weapons, ammo stashes, collectible Thermos bottles, and manuscript pages.
This streamlined approach also extends to the game’s suitcase-free inventory system, lending to a sense of realism. At most Alan can only carry a flashlight, one flare gun, one revolver, a handful of ammo, batteries and some flashbang grenades. He is also limited to either a shotgun or a rifle, but certainly not both. There are also no health items as Alan relies on both light and rest periods between battles to heal up.
Survival horror fans who conservatively save items should not have to worry about stocking up ammo for the long term as the start of each chapter manages to find a convincing reason to strip Alan of his stuff. Of course a reasonable degree of item management should be exercised and the player ought to make sure that the Taken are weakened with enough light before unloading a stream of ammo rounds. It should be added firing a flaregun in a crowd of Taken is one of the many satisfying experiences in Alan Wake.
In other titles, opportunistic gamers exploit weak enemy AI and the checkpoint/save system by making kamikaze runs to the next checkpoint/save so as to avoid combat. In Alan Wake, gamers are practically encouraged to escape some situations. Remedy breaks additional gaming conventions by making the majority of the enemies fast enough to catch up to Alan; those who are slow are equally threatening with their heavy-duty weapons and stalking demeanor. There’s a heightened sense of tension as the darkness further accentuates the little light in the game. Often the player will have to make the split-second value judgment on whether to take on the Taken directly or use the few available flares to stall the Taken and take refuge under the spotlight just a couple dozen yards away. Alan also exhibits a convincing level running stamina where he is only able to sprint in short bursts. This all leads to a Sleepy Hollow-like sense of heart-racing tension where the user feels like Ichabod Crane (or a pursued screaming cheerleader from countless slasher films) many times over.
One might think that setting the majority of a game in a dark forest would be a risky proposition in potential monotony, but Remedy manages to make it work. The weeks and mileage the team racked up in their Washington/Oregon research trips paid off as Alan Wake is one of the most graphically superb Xbox 360 games to date. Aside from the forest, there other many other environments that show great detail and contrast when explored by flashlight. Shacks and farmhouses are spooky, a mine can induce claustrophobia, and an expansive vacant road can send chills knowing that Taken are most likely close by.
Alan Wake’s soundtrack is a well-thought-out mix of diegetic and non-diegetic songs that maintain a mostly ‘Americana’ feel; one might initially hope Johnny Cash would be heard at the end credits (he is not in the soundtrack). Many of these songs do fit the setting and would not be out of place in an episode of The X-Files. The only thing that outdoes the soundtrack is the string section crescendos that play briefly every time the camera cuts away to an approaching Taken, making the scene all the more suspenseful.
Provided the player savors the experience, explores, and reads the manuscript pages, it should take a little bit over ten hours to beat Alan Wake the first time around. It goes without saying that skilled gamers should start off on Hard mode as there are no more than a handful of scenes that will need two or three attempts. Moreover, all of the achievements are reasonably attainable where half of them can be unlocked by just completing the first playthrough.
It is a compliment to Alan Wake that–to paraphrase a movie critique cliche–many gamers will find themselves starting a new, harder playthrough the moment the credits finish rolling. The game’s concise design will be unappreciated by many, but seldom has there been a game like this where linearity is a wholly positive experience. It is equally impressive that the manuscript page set-up is not merely an arbitrary collectible (typical in many other adventure games) but actually has important relevance in the game’s overall story. The ending is arguably satisfying, leaving enough open in the story to justify a follow-up. Remedy fans will certainly not allow the same seven-year gap between Max Payne 2 and Alan Wake but perhaps DLC-format releases might work, provided Remedy can make a commitment similar to that of a full game. It will certainly be Game of the Year for a number of media outlets, which is not an easy accomplishment given this already-jam-packed year of AAA titles. The game’s lightning accomplishments will be hard to beat come awards time and writer Sam Lake once again does his share in legitimizing the video game as a serious storytelling medium.
(This review was based off an 10-hour playthrough of the game on its Hard difficulty setting, as well as a 45-minute Nightmare playthrough of Alan Wake’s first episode. 35 out of 50 achievements were earned for a total Gamerscore of 660. Gamertag: Circle Of Vice. A copy of the game was provided by Microsoft for review.)
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform: Xbox 360
Released: May 18, 2010