I need to start this review by being honest about something: I am the target audience for Alan Wake. I’ve watched the X-Files like it was my job (except those episodes with Robert Patrick, that show ended 3 seasons too late). I’ve read Stephen King, James Joyce, Bret Easton Ellis (the game draws most heavily from Lunar Park, which is a shame, because that is the bottom of the Ellis lot. Although a whole game about disenfranchised youth would be pretty boring. An American Psycho game? BRING IT ON), Edgar Allen Poe, and I’m a devoted H.P. Lovecraft follower (it even drops an August Derleth reference on you!). Alan Wake name drops and borrows elements from all of the above, pretty shamelessly in some cases. Thus, I will say, without any shame, Alan Wake is an absolutely fantastic game.
The game starts as Wake and his wife, Alice, arrive at a town in the pacific northwest called Brightwood Falls. As an absurdly famous writer (after playing the entire sci-fi/horror filled game, the most unbelievable part of the game is that Wake is recognizable to the general public…he’s a writer! Could you pick any writer other than Stephen King out of a lineup? And you only know what he looks like because they constantly cut to him during Boston Red Sox games) struggling with writers block, the hope is that a vacation to such a picturesque location will solve the problem. What happens instead is that Alice quickly goes missing and men possessed by shadows start trying to kill you.
The gameplay itself is pretty standard third-person fare. Over the shoulder cam as Wake, you can carry a small assortment of weapons and a flashlight as you traverse through the small town and surrounding areas. What this game does so brilliantly is light. Enemies you encounter are called the Taken, which are basically men surrounded by shadows, to the point that bullets do them no harm. However, throw your flashlight on them and they stagger back, sparks flying as the shadows slowly dissipate. Shadows removed, they then become vulnerable to your standard guns. This essentially two tiered system of combat (remove shadows, shoot in face) adds an excellent wrinkle to the combat. However, in Wake’s horrific reality, light truly is your most effective weapon. Your tiny flashlight may be able to dispel the shadows away, but other more potent sources of light just straight up obliterate enemies. If your anything like me, the first time you bust out a flare gun and peg a Taken in the chest as a bit of slow motion and cinematic camera movements kick in are the kinds of moments that makes you want to play games in the first place.
The pacing of the game is unique and masterfully done. Alan Wake plays out like a television series, with the game divided into six distinct “episodes”. These all have their own titles, ending “credits” with a great soundtrack (actual licensed music from real bands! Other developers take note, we like sweet music in games) and all but the first (duh) actually have a “Previously, on Alan Wake” voice over and montage that sum up the events of the game thus far. I would definitely recommend not powering through this game, and it usually took me two sittings of one hour to hour and a half of playtime to finish each episode, and probably about 15-16 hours in total to finish the game (the game does not have a time played statistic anywhere I can find, wtf). Giving yourself time to think about each cliffhanger at the end of the episodes really does feel like a good television show and I think the game makes a better impression in these episode chunks than it would if finished in one or two sittings. There are two DLC episodes already planned. To say this game lends itself to DLC content is an understatement. If developer Remedy makes DLC chunks on par with the on disc game in “episode” format, they will always have my dollar (or MS points, as it were). The ending of the game wraps up the story, but again, much like a television show, could easily lead in to a “Season 2” of Alan Wake.
As you proceed through the game, Wake finds pages of a manuscript that he wrote lying around the area. Thing is, he doesn’t remember writing it, and the events on the page are describing the events going on around him. These serve to flesh out the backstory, but a good part of the time they will describe events that haven’t happened to you yet. While you could argue it spoils some of the surprises, for me it was a very effective tension builder. “And then I heard the chainsaw….” put me on edge for most of an area as I waited for it to happen. These pages are a very important part of the story, so its nice to have more reason to collect them beyond the usual purely for achievements. Sadly, the no reason collectibles do rear their ugly head, as you collect coffee thermoses for no compelling reason for the whole game. Not to pick on Alan Wake for doing this because most games do, but this is a trend that needs to go away.
As much as I loved it, Alan Wake is not a perfect game. The combat, while visually stimulating, really doesn’t evolve in any meaningful way from the start of the game to the end. There are a few standout set piece battles that are excellent (one will have Left 4 Dead 2 fans smiling broadly), but you will have seen most everything combat has to offer by the end of episode two. This isn’t to say the combat is bad, most of it just becomes very stale by the end. There are a few vehicle sections scattered about as you drive cars to various places, but the controls are not very responsive and the vehicles do not handle well at all. I like the idea of having to travel, and it is a nice change of pace, but the on foot stuff feels so much better that I think the game would have been better served to leave the vehicle bits out. One other minor annoyance was some pretty blatant in game advertising. I have no problem with the idea as long as it remains unobtrusive. Alan Wake gets it right for most of the game, such as Alan’s flashlight saying Energizer, or his phone clearly having the Verizon label on it. These make sense in context and are fine. In the game, finding televisions and turning them on will result in interesting backstory or a rip on The Twilight Zone called “Night Springs”, which is an interesting thing to watch. However, in one (and only one, to be fair) instance, a turned on television literally just played a couple of commercials. I sat there and watched them because I was thinking something relevant might actually come on, but it never did. After training the player to expect some kind of reward from watching tv, it almost felt like they were baiting me into watching commercials. If you’re playing the game and see some commercials start on one of the TV’s, just move on, nothing of note happens.
Visually, Alan Wake is strong. The pacific northwest setting hasn’t been done a ton in games and Remedy clearly did their research well on what the area should look like. Bright Falls itself is dead on, as floats from the upcoming “Deer Fest” sit parked around town and the surrounding forest areas feel appropriately large and foreboding. While most of the game takes at place at night, seeing how light kills the Taken daytime becomes your sanctuary, there are a number of daytime sections that really show off the town and region, as Wake interacts with some of the locals. Words or still images cannot do justice to how stunning light looks in this game. Shining a flashlight on the Taken sends small batches of sparks flying. Flashbang grenades (ALMOST as cool as the flare gun, but not quite) turn your entire screen white if you’re close enough, then bathe everything in an eerie blueish-white as they fade out. I played all of this game in the dark (really, the best way to play it) and when I snapped on a hand held flare to drive some surrounding Taken back away from me, my entire room was bathed in red light from my television, which was always extremely satisfying.
Sound and voice acting deserve some major kudos as well. Guns pack the expected level of punch, but its the light weapons and Taken themselves that are the most memorable. As you shine a light on the Taken, the sound as the shadows disperse is almost sheering metal. The reverse is also true, as you learn to recognize the sound of shadows swirling around you, prompting you to make sure your flares are at the ready and weapons are reloaded. The voice acting ranges from average to some of the smaller characters, to great for a couple of the major ones. Wake himself is pitch perfect, able to do a range of emotions and remaining consistent to his character, but the absolute standout is the voice work on the character of Barry Wheeler, who is Alan Wake’s literary agent and good friend. Wheeler spends portions of the game traveling with you and he has a more than a few laugh out loud lines. In a purposefully dark and dreary game, Wheelers reference to the Eye or Mordor of Lord of the Rings fame was probably the funniest thing in a video game I’ve heard in a while. He brings comic relief without being relegated to being comic relief, and I attribute a lot of that to his great voice work.
Alan Wake is greater than the sum of its parts. Combat is sharp. The voice work is solid. Strong visuals and sound all make for a good experience, but it is the way these things come together that elevate Alan Wake to that next level. The story is on par with any sci-fi/horror movie or television show you’ve seen recently, and the episodic structure really drives this point home. Small moments, both scripted and those you’ll create by happenstance, will stand out. The first time you fire the flare gun. The first flashbang grenade that your a little too close too. Finding Barry after he raids the local general store (absolutely hilarious). Reloading your shotgun as a hammer wielding maniac bears down on you and getting the shot off right as he gets close. You won’t remember the bad vehicle controls or that the Taken don’t vary much. What will stick with you is those moments and the smartly crafted story. If your a fan of any of the various forms of media Alan Wake draws from, this is a no brainer, play this game ASAP. If you’re not, play it anyway.
Filed under: Games | Tagged: Alan Wake, August Derleth, Bret Easton Ellis, brightwood falls, Elrood, eye of mordor, flare gun, flashbang, H.P. Lovecraft, light, lord of the rings, pacific northwest, remedy, Stephen King, Taken, voice acting, x files, Xbox 360 |