Alan Wake (Video Game)
Reviewed by Mr. Dark
Published by Microsoft Game Studios
Developed by Remedy
When the first words of a game are 'Stephen King', you have my attention. You also have balls. Dropping the name of the biggest name in horror writing at the very beginning of your first horror game as a development studio is a bold move. You're putting the player in a specific set of expectations, and they don't get much higher.
Remedy (best known for the Max Payne series) makes that move at the beginning of Alan Wake. Do they follow through? Oh yes, and then some.
Alan Wake is, for all intents and purposes, the Stephen King of his universe. He's a celebrity. His novels are massive best sellers. He's a household name and recognizable on the street to almost anyone who sees him. Unable to write a thing since his last novel two years ago, he agrees to take his wife on a retreat of sorts to a remote Washington town called Bright Falls. A few days before Deer Fest, the Wakes arrive in town, get the keys to their cabin, and head to Cauldron Lake to begin their vacation.
And then everything goes straight to hell with stops in madness, darkness, and evil.
Bright Falls is weird. Twin Peaks weird. If you watched the prequel series of shorts on Xbox Live, you know just how weird. (And if you didn't, what the hell are you waiting for? Go watch them; they're free and awesome!) Nothing this quirky little town holds is as entirely strange and wrong as what lurks in Cauldron Lake, however.
I was worried that Alan Wake would be derivative. The prequel shorts and the setting seemed very, very similar to Twin Peaks. A little too similar, if you get what I'm sayin'. I was afraid it'd just be 'Stephen King goes to Twin Peaks and shoots ghosts with a flashlight'. I'm thrilled to say I was dead wrong.
I'll just get this out there: Alan Wake is the most original and thrilling new horror franchise gaming has seen in quite a while. I'll drop some names here: Silent Hill. Resident Evil 4. Fatal Frame. Yeah, I went right there. That's where we're at, that's the company Alan Wake keeps. I haven't felt this way playing a new series since the first time I wandered the streets of Silent Hill. In fact, the best way I'd describe the game would be Silent Hill meets House of Leaves in Twin Peaks, as adapted by HP Lovecraft.
The foes Alan faces are possessed humans, The Taken, wrapped in darkness itself. Vulnerable only to or in light, the primary play mechanic is shining the flashlight and 'boosting' it to take out the darkness shielding the Taken, then offing them with either a firearm or environmental damage such as exploding barrels. It sounds so simple, but it's new. You haven't played something that works just like this, and it's that novelty that instantly put me to thinking of the great games I mentioned above. Such a basic combat system, but also so fresh that it just captures you. The small selection of weapons available doesn't drive the combat strategy as much as having to take out different enemy types and numbers in changing settings and situations, using different combinations of flashlights, area effect weapons like flares, and direct damage firearms. It's not just a matter of finding a powerful gun and shooting a lot or running away. You'll die each and every time you try to do that. You have to use your head while under quite a bit of psychological stress. It's just fantastic.
The play is novel, but the story is stronger. The six 'episodes' that make up Alan's first 'season' take you on a journey that has you constantly questioning reality. You know what you're experiencing, but what's behind it? Are you a figment of someone else's imagination? A character in a novel, forced to live the writer's whim? A character in your OWN novel? Is it a drunken, insane dream? Is it an alternate reality? You could write a thesis for a philosophy degree based on the various possibilities and how they play out surrounding the basic reality you're living in during this game. It takes you on a mental and emotional roller coaster ride that picks up speed as secrets are revealed and Alan discovers the truth behind what's happening to him.
Alan's quest to stop the darkness plaguing Bright Falls and responsible for the collapse of his life is incredibly rich. While it's a linear story by necessity, there are a ton of bells and whistles to experience. Radio shows featuring the town's late-night talk host are scattered throughout the town. TV's play episodes of a Twilight Zone-like science fiction anthology called Night Springs, all shot in full-motion video. Of course, the manuscript that is the main feature of the plot also waits to be found, page by page. All of these provide glimpses deeper into the story, into the world, into the town, into the darkness.
The manuscript is a stroke of sheer genius in storytelling. Sometime during Alan's missing week, it appears that he wrote his new novel, or most of it. He doesn't remember it, though, and he finds it page by page, all out of sequence, as he roams the town and its surroundings. Remedy uses these pages in a way I've never seen before in a game. Sometimes they provide insight into scenes that happen outside of the view of the player, such as a conversation that happened between two characters after you've left the scene. Others may just describe something that's already happened. The game shines in the third instance: Frequently a page will describe something that hasn't happened yet. These don't serve as 'spoilers', they increase the tension. When you read a line like 'the bulldozer charged at Alan', and you haven't seen any bulldozers around, you can't help but be just a tad bit concerned about your immediate future. When those pages show up quite a bit before the events described, it provides for a very tense period of waiting for the other shoe to drop. It doesn't help that the shoe is likely carrying a chainsaw.
I also have to comment on the technical work Remedy has accomplished here. The engine is gorgeous, plain and simple. Many have complained about the facial animations...man, talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. The only game I've seen with a bigger, more detailed real-time world is Just Cause 2, and that game didn't have to invest so much into atmospheric effects to set a mood. You cross vast distances of woods and mountains from one goal to the next, in real time, with no load sequences, while realistic weather effects twist the woods around you. It's gorgeous, it's realistic, and it deeply enhances the immersion a game like this needs to have to be effective.
Is Alan Wake a perfect game? No. Two things plague it that pull us away from that height.
First, a strength becomes a weakness: There's just too much combat in similar environs here. By the time you hit the final episode, you've killed all the enemy types many times. You've used all the weapons. You've been there, done that, and quite a lot. Yes, the ante is raised by throwing more enemies at you in tighter situations, but after a while it does get a little tedious. You find yourself saying 'okay, enough', wanting to get to the next plot point. This only set in for me at the end of the game, but it did happen so it's worth noting.
Second, while the plot is the high point of the game, there are holes. There's a character that plays a major role in the game; yet, he comes and goes without apparent reason. We don't know why he came, who he really is, or anything about him other than what we see. It's puzzling, and since he's the one annoying, badly written character in the game, it's doubly frustrating. I also have to admit that the ending is lacking. Yes, as promised, it is an ending, not a cliffhanger. We know extensive DLC is coming as early as July, and we know they'd like to do a 'season 2' in the form of a sequel, but this game is self-contained. However, Alan's fate and the story's resolution is...less distinct than I'd like.
Those two admittedly minor complaints aside, Alan Wake lives up to the hype and the wait completely. If you enjoy horror and have an Xbox, you need to go buy this game immediately. This is the beginning of something great, something we very rarely see: the start of a new horror gaming franchise that will be imitated and heralded for years to come.
4 1/2 out of 5
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