The mist rolls in. Strange sounds stir. The score kicks up. All hell breaks loose.
Welcome to Alan Wake, a marquee game almost as old as the Xbox 360 console it is currently exclusive to. Remedy Games, the Finnish design studio behind Max Payne and Alan Wake’s mastermind, have been under intense scrutiny to deliver a groundbreaking experience with Alan Wake since first unveiling the game’s amazing lighting effects nearly five years ago. If you dig grandiose interactive storytelling and being chased by possessed people in the night then stepping into the shoes of Alan Wake is as good as it gets.
Set in the fictional town of Bright Falls, which in turn is inspired by real world settings in Washington State and the television show ‘Twin Peaks,’ Alan Wake is the sci-fi tinged story of a novelist by the same name who escapes to the small wooded town with his wife, Alice, for some much deserved time away from living under a microscope in the big city. At the same time, Alan is having strange dreams which may or may not be connected to Alice’s sudden disappearance shortly upon arriving at their vacation cottage on a lake.
Alan Wake’s narrative sets up an intriguing scenario as the writer attempts to piece together what happened to Alice and why the subsequent week of his life is missing by questioning residents of Bright Falls and digging into his past. What if the strange occurrences happening within the otherworldly darkness that envelops and terrorizes Bright Falls in current time are the result of a novel Alan has yet to write? What if playing through the events of the game was written beforehand by you? Think Stephen King (referenced in the game) wandering into an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ (also referenced via a spoof in-game television show).
Tune in next week for the answers! Well not exactly, but close. Alan Wake is structured to play out like a serial television show where each episode ends with a cliffhanger and tonally matched song, with the cliffhanger being resolved the following episode. Within each episode are pages of the mysterious manuscript hidden around the section of the town you are tasked to traverse. Pick up the page, read it, and the events it describes will happen to you shortly thereafter. It’s the next generation version of “Choose Your Own Adventure” designed to inject suspense. What if what you read is really bad? You have no choice but to face it when closing the page and returning to the game. Or you can choose to ignore and never read the page altogether.
Alan’s best friend as he follows clues and leads throughout Bright Falls with his portly sniveling agent, Barry, is a flashlight. Out in the darkness are the possessed townsfolk and before they can be gunned down, the darkness must be “melted” from them. Depending on the strength of the enemy and intensity of the flashlight (there are standard and high-powered types), it could take anywhere from a couple seconds to upwards of ten before they are rendered vulnerable to attack.
Part of Alan Wake’s mastery of tension arises from have to defeat each enemy essentially twice when they are coming at you from different directions. If you concentrate the flashlight in one direction, you are completely vulnerable in the other for an extended period of time. If you run out of ammunition for flashlight batteries then you had best think about hightailing it out of there.
Where Remedy has excelled with Alan Wake is in the game’s visuals and ability to create atmosphere. The forests are lush, dense and breathtaking on their own. When the darkness rolls in, the trees and shrubs begin to sway and crackle in the breeze. Distant lights poke through the leaves while a soft mist rolls across the ground. The music accelerates as if in a movie and combat – or defense – is initiated. When the final enemy in a wave is exterminated the death transpires in slow-motion to signal a breather has been earned. It is an exhilarating experience that plays out multiple times as the story unravels and plays by far the best in a full 5.1 surround sound setup with an adequate subwoofer.
In a game of Alan Wake’s scope that encompasses more than a handful of fully rendered and realized massive locations (with screen tearing hiccups twice, but nothing worth turning away from), there has to be some compromise via gameplay simplification that accentuates the obvious. For example, discovering a hidden chest (one of many collectibles that also include coffee thermoses, television and radio shows in addition to manuscript pages) that contains a flare gun is a surefire bet that the next attack will require that weapon to survive. The same goes for utility lights that can be switched on and off; if there is a trio of them pointing towards a central location then multiple enemies will be headed to that spot.
By the fourth episode of Alan Wake, there is a desire to stumble upon a little more variation in the touted weather system and the types of enemies faced. I wanted to see more of the time of day engine in action while playing rather than being relegated to mostly during flyovers and cut-scenes. Maybe start a level in the late afternoon and watch it go dark in real-time, or have rain spontaneously begin to fall. One twist in types of enemies encountered requires you to change your tactics, but other than that there is not enough variety evolution from beginning to end.
Enemy stagnation might sink other games, but not Alan Wake. As the story unravels you just have to know what happens next. Even though the narrative runs linearly, there is enough space to the sides of the required path to follow to explore and enjoy the incredible artistic work that went into bringing Bright Falls to life. Bright Falls begs for a future sandbox treatment.
Alan Wake also warrants additional episodes as Remedy plays their ‘Lost’ card by offering more questions in the game’s conclusion than answers. The story is far from complete, more the end of a first season than a greater story. Some will be discontent with its lack of closure and consider the narrative incomplete and the dollars invested a waste. Others will salivate at the thought of additional episodes to keep Alan Wake’s journey alive, the first of which is coming in late July. Both sides can beat the game now and unlock nightmare difficulty for a new challenge and 15 exclusive manuscript pages not available in the other modes.
Years of suspense built up awaiting the arrival of Alan Wake has placed almost impossible expectations on the game. It is not perfect, nor does it pretend to be. But it is creepy to play, unique to experience and incredibly well made. Rather than raise an existing console bar, Remedy has created their own. Best of luck to those who wish to reach it.
– Dan Bradley
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