Game Review: Alan Wake
Release: May 18th, 2010
Genre: Psychological Action Thriller
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Available Platforms: Xbox 360
MSRP: $59.99 for the Standard Edition and $79.99 for the Limited Collector’s Edition
ESRB Rating: Mature (Blood, Language, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, and Violence)
It has been nearly five years since Remedy Entertainment — the guys who brought us Max Payne — announced Alan Wake. In that time, there had been many doubts as to whether the game would ever be released. Now, so many years later, it is finally available. The question is: did Remedy make good use of their time and money, or should they have cut their losses long ago?
Alan Wake — and I’m quoting directly from the box — is “a Psychological Action Thriller”. Taking on an episodic format, the game is obviously influenced by television shows like Lost and Twin Peaks, as well as the writings of Stephen King — in fact, Stephen King is even mentioned a few times. Although early media led me to believe that Alan Wake would be more of a survival horror game, but it’s really more of a third-person shooter — not unlike the Max Payne series that came before it.
You play as Alan Wake, a successful novelist who has been struggling with writer’s block for the past two years. Traveling from Manhattan to the sleepy town of Bright Falls, Washington, Alan and his wife Alice are looking for a little R & R. After a brief introduction to the town and a few of its residents, the Wakes arrive at a quaint little cabin to begin their vacation. When night falls, things take a turn for the worse as Alice goes missing. Before you know it, the story jumps ahead one week to find Alan in a car accident, dangling precariously over a cliff. That’s when things really start to pick up.
Throughout the game, while Alan searches desperately for Alice, Bright Falls is taken over by “the Dark Presence”. Shadowy figures, townsfolk who have been possessed by the darkness, attack and impede Alan’s search. As Alan progresses, he randomly finds pages to a manuscript, a book that has his name on it, although he has no recollection of ever writing it. Even more bizarre, the pages are chronicling the events Alan is experiencing. Bright Falls has a dark history, and it’s about to get darker.
Alan Wake looks amazing. The amount of detail Remedy put into Bright Falls is outstanding. The town is a living, breathing place, and the surrounding forests are, quite possibly, the most realistic I’ve ever seen. The characters, although the animation can be a little stiff at times, have just the right amount of realism; they look amazing, but they never fall into the uncanny valley.
Where I think Alan Wake really shines — pun most definitely intended — is in the lighting. Shadows shift and undulate, light streams through gaps in the trees; it’s all so real. Let me give you an example.
Imagine, if you will, running through an immense forest in the middle of the night. What little starlight there was is now obscured by the trees and only your flashlight is left to show you the way. The atmosphere is oppressing, ominous. Suddenly, as your crest a hill, you see a lightpost, a cone of illumination cascading over the ground. As you run for it, the wind picks up, the trees start whipping around, and a fog rolls in. Suddenly, dark forms leap from the shadows — your flashlight beam glints off of some kind of blade — and attack. Just as they are about to reach you, you pop a flare and a immense pink light washes over you, forcing the darkness to retreat temporarily. The assailants fall back, shielding their eyes, as you make your way toward the lightpost, toward salvation. The flare dies out and the darkness once again engulfs you; the attackers are coming back. You sprint through the darkness, towards the light. Footsteps and the slash of a blade can be heard right behind you. Just before you step into the cone of light, everything outside of it gets darker. Then, suddenly, you’re safe, bathed in the warm glow. Now, that is all you can see, that cone of light.
Maybe that sounds a little fantastical, maybe not. Either way, it’s real. Not only is there darkness and light, but the game is programmed to react to that light, and in a realistic fashion. As you approach a light, as your eyes start to adjust to the glow, the darkness you’re still in only intensifies. Flares will create a protective bubble, but the darkness that was forced back seems to concentrate at the edges, waiting to rush you like an angry mob once the bubble pops. The atmosphere this creates is unlike anything I’ve seen. Silent Hill has fog, sure, but even that doesn’t quite compare.
The writing is also fantastic — the story is engaging and the characters are believable. The episodic plot progression leads to cliffhanger endings and, consequently, an almost overwhelming urge to press forward and see what comes next.
The controls, while very competent, do feel a bit clunky at time; the occasional hiccup when trying to open a supply box or climb a ladder does occur. Overall though, Alan is fairly agile and, for a writer, handy with a gun. The dodge mechanic is useful, but, after awhile, I was getting a little tired of seeing the slo-mo that accompanied it.
Remedy also stays true to form with Alan Wake, inserting their own fake television show, Night Springs, into the mix. It makes the world feel just a little bit more tangible. In fact, Remedy accomplished that a few different ways. For instance, beyond the TV show, there is also some product placement. Some people may be annoyed by this, but I had no problems since it was seamlessly integrated — Alan uses Energizer batteries and flashlights, his cellular service is through Verizon, and he drives a Ford that comes complete with Microsoft Sync. Yeah, it’s product placement, but at least it exists in proper context. Moreover, I feel that, much like Night Springs, these details make Bright Falls and the universe of Alan Wake a little bit more believable.
And that brings me to the soundtrack. Pop culture references and product placement aside, Alan Wake manages to create a realistic setting in one other way. Remedy not only has a score, but they also used the music from actual bands to round out the soundtrack. Artists like Ray Orbison, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Poe can be heard as you travel through Bright Falls, and the songs are eerily appropriate to the setting.
Being the big horror fan that I am, I do wish that they would have taken the horror elements a bit farther. Tornadoes of darkness and possessed locals and birds are great, but that’s all there is and you’ll have seen every enemy the game has to offer by the end of the second episode. There was a moment fairly early on, when Alan is inside a cabin, that got pretty creepy. As he’s about to step outside, a shadowy figure can be seen walking slowly by the window. It was a moment that made me want to keep Alan safe inside the well-lit cabin. Another instance — again, inside a cabin — was especially creepy as, from somewhere beyond the walls, I heard the words “Die. Die. Die. DIE. DIE!” being chanted, seeming to come from every direction at once. But then it was over. Instances like these rarely, if ever, happened again. I know the case says “thriller”, but I can’t help but want a bit more horror. I was hoping the overall story would be more like a work of Sutter Cane.
I also need to comment on the multiplayer, or, rather, the lack of a multiplayer. I honestly don’t think a multiplayer would have benefited Alan Wake. In fact, I think multiplayer would have hurt Alan Wake, as the development team would have been divided and the single player game would have been compromised. This is a story-driven game, and, at close to ten hours, that story is a little short, but otherwise awesome. I paid $80 for the LCE, and I found it to be worth every penny.
Alan Wake is less a horror game and more of a third-person action shooter (with lots of thrills and chills for the kiddies), but it is in no way a bad game. As I said, I would have liked a bit more horror, but, that personal preference aside, the game is undeniably well made in every aspect. You can’t go wrong with a purchase here, or, at the very least, a rental.