2010 may become known as the “Year of the Delayed Game” as we’ve already been graced with the release of several titles which may not have seen the light of day. Heavy Rain, Splinter Cell: Conviction and Final Fantasy XIII have all been pressed to discs and have been devoured by the hunger gaming masses, but what about that other game? You know, the next title from Max Payne developer Remedy Studios, the one that was voted the most anticipated game of E3 2005?
In case you’ve somehow forgotten, this product is called Alan Wake, a game where the player takes control of the titular character in an attempt to parse out the mystery of the dark presence in the town of Bright Falls. Playing upon the natural fear of the dark and blending that into the mechanics, Alan Wake promised to be a premier psychological thriller with a great story and gripping atmosphere. Now that the game is out, how well do the boasts of the developers hold up?
Although it has been a long time coming, the fruits of Remedy’s labours are delicious ones indeed as Alan Wake is one of the premier single-player titles in recent memory. I don’t think I’ve played a game that has kept me this enthralled in its narrative progression for quite a while; indeed, I went home at lunch time a couple of days last week in order to squeeze in another hour with Mr. Wake and his paranormal shenanigans.
From start to finish the pacing of Alan Wake is excellent, pausing at the exact right moments to give the player a much needed breath and throwing massive assault against them when they least expect it. Combat in Alan Wake is entirely focused around the use of light to strip away the defensive layer of darkness from The Taken, a group of townsfolk who have become zombie-like due to the dark presence corrupting their bodies.
Alan has many sources of light at his disposal ranging from a handheld flashlight to flares, flashbangs, and search lights. The flashbangs are great fun to use as they aren’t that debilitating to you but can take out several of the smaller Taken with one good throw. Handheld flares are mostly used to give you breathing room, but the gun-launched variety is extremely useful, eliminating your attackers in one hit.
While you are given many options to strip the darkness away from your foes, the gun selection itself is a little small. It’s not a big complaint, but the revolver is so effective that I rarely used any of the larger weapons. That said, you can also use the environment to dispatch the Taken if you have the opportunity. While the enemy variety is very small (small and large Taken and darkness-infected crows), the combat is such a rush that you really won’t notice the lack of exotic enemy types. At several points in the game, Alan can drive a car to get to his destination quicker, but these contraptions are probably the worst thing in the game. You’re never in one for more than a few moments, and they control like poorly-maintained shopping carts.
Alan is constantly outnumbered by the Taken, and you have to be very crafty with the use of your flashlight and any other inventory items you have. Flashbangs are in short supply and the quickest way of shredding darkness is to “boost” your flashlight, which drains the batteries. Batteries were fairly abundant on Normal difficulty, but there will still be times where you feel like your barley made it through the last battle, relying on your guile and your wits to make it through. Alan can also execute a slow-motion dodge if the left bumper is pressed at the correct time; watching Alan duck underneath a swinging chainsaw and the turning around to blast the enemy is a really cinematic experience, even when it gets repeated several times through a given fight. My only complaint about the combat is that the dodge maneuver is a bit sketchy to get a hold of, and even later in the game it can be a bit finicky. Practice makes perfect, but there will be times where you could have sworn you avoided that axe.
As fun as the combat is, the real hook of Alan Wake is the story. Like I mentioned at the beginning of my review, the game has a very taut pace and will hook you almost from the get-go. The entire escapade is split into episodes like a TV show complete with a “previously on” segment at the beginning of each one. I personally felt like these were a bit tacked on, but the TV structure of the game does work on some levels. The end of each episode features a nice piece of licensed music which really adds to the atmosphere of the game.
Like most psychological thrillers, the story does get a bit muddled in the end and the final scene is left open to interpretation, but the overall ride is just so enjoyable that you’ll be able to forgive it for those minor grievances. All the characters in the game are well rounded without falling into the usual horror tropes, and the character of Barry Wheeler, Alan’s agent, is my personal favorite. He’s a big city dealer who’s just so out of sorts in the bucolic North Western town of Bright Falls, but by the end of the game he really starts to shine. Alan himself is an unusual choice for a protagonist, but playing a middle-aged writer who’s kind of a jerk is refreshingly different from the stoic men-at-arms that populate so many other games. The people of Bright Falls are also fun to listen to, and the local night-time radio DJ is particularly great as well. The only character who felt out of place was Agent Nightingale, the FBI operative who is sent to Bright Falls to track down Alan for…some reason. Why exactly Nightingale is involved in the story is never made explicitly clear, so his character just feels a bit extraneous.
Alan Wake would have earned top marks in the story department from me if the lip-synching wasn’t so terrible. While it isn’t quite on the Splinter Cell: Conviction level of bad, the characters rarely move their mouths in conjunction with what they are saying. Sometimes, this carries over to the expression the characters are supposed to be conveying; angry looks like happy, and pain looks like constipation. Things like that can really pull you out of the moment.
Fortunately, the rest of the game is a real treat graphically. For a game that relies so heavily on the differences between light and darkness, the engine can produce some really excellent effects. The way your flashlight cuts through the gloom is excellent, and when the darkness begins to fog over the real world, things get really creepy real fast. One moment that really stood out for me is a sequence where I was guiding Alan along a mountain path using a rail car. Beset upon by a flock of ravenous ravens, I used the flare launcher and watched mesmerized as the bright red contrail drifted lazily down through the branches of a tree, sending of beams of light in every direction. This game is mostly a feast for the eyes, so it’s just a shame that Remedy couldn’t have put more time into facial animations before the game went gold.
All told, Alan Wake is an addictive experience that will keep you glued to the edge of your seat for the entire run. If it weren’t for the issues with the wonky facial animations, the small enemy variety and the unnecessarily aggravating driving sequences, Alan Wake would have earned the top ranking. It’s still a great game, though, so I urge you to at least give it a rental.
So, that’s what I thought about Alan Wake. I mostly loved the game, but what about you guys? Anyone playing this, and what are your thoughts?
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Note 01/04/2011: Looking back on this year, I’ve come to realize that Alan Wake delivered way less than some of the other games I’ve given an A to. While I did have fun with the game and the single player was a fast paced thrill ride for the most part, in retrospect the flashlight combat did start to wear on in the later acts, and the cutting of the ending to repackage as DLC didn’t do the title any favors either. While Alan Wake is still good, it just doesn’t stand up as an A upon further examination.