GOONL!NE Review: Alan Wake

Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher:
Microsoft
Also on:
N/A (Xbox 360 exclusive)
Release Date:
Friday May 14th 2010
Age Rating:
ESRB: T for Teen, BBFC: 15, PEGI: 16+

I’ve always felt that horror games are one of the most underused genres out there. Given how games can make us feel different emotions, from pure outright joy to unadulterated rage, I’m always left feeling disappointed that more games don’t try to make you feel scared. Whether it’s a dog crashing through a window in Resident Evil or being stalked by a seemingly indestructible necromorph in Dead Space, I love games that make me scared and make me feel palpable tension. Alan Wake makes an entry into the genre and attempts to scare you not with that you can see, but what you can’t see, and the threat of what may be hiding in the darkness.

Alan Wake is the titular protagonist of the game, a best-selling crime writer who has been beset by writers block for the past 2 years. In a bid to regain his creative flow he takes a trip to the idyllic town of Bright Falls with his wife Alice. As you can imagine, things in this supposedly sleepy town are not quite what they seem, and it doesn’t take long for Alan to find himself in a fight for his life, all the while trying to piece together exactly what is happening and how it involves him and his wife.

The story of Alan Wake, what’s happening to him and his wife, and why the small town has suddenly begun trying to kill him is an interesting one, and presented to you through various means, such as narration by Alan, cut scenes, strange flashbacks on TV screens, and through pages of a manuscript, written by Alan himself, that he has no recollection of. The problem with the story being split up this way is that it can be a little difficult to follow at times. This is off-set by the episodic nature of the game however. Split into episodes like a TV series, each new episode contains a recap of the previous episode, with a brief synopsis of the story so far. It certainly helps you keep on top of what’s going on if you happen to lose track of the story partway through a chapter.

The main enemies in the game are the Taken, local townspeople inhabited by the malevolent force known as the Dark Presence. Initially impervious to normal firearms, hurting them requires you to drive out the darkness within them. To do so, you’ll need to use a light source, such as Alan’s trusty torch, to burn away the darkness so they become vulnerable to conventional weaponry. It’s not simply a case of wafting your torch in their general direction however, as Alan will often be facing off against several Taken at a time, so to eliminate the darkness as quickly as possible to require you to focus your torch beam into a tighten stream of a light. Doing so will rid the Taken of their protective darkness much quicker, at the cost of draining the batteries at a remarkable rate. This brings a nice element into the combat in Alan Wake, with you constantly having to balance out the usage of your torch against the amount of spare batteries you have, sometimes intentionally taking longer to kill enemies so that you don’t drain the batteries on your torch too much.

It’s not just your torch that will penetrate the darkness however, and Alan will often come across other items that will be useful in his fight for survival. Flares are pretty commonplace, and while they can be used to remove the darkness from the Taken, their main use will be to create space around Alan, as the Taken have a nasty habit of coming at him from all directions, surrounding him, so being able to create a protective light around him will prove invaluable at times. Flashbangs are great if you want to take out several enemies at once, as they explode grenade like when thrown. If you happen to find yourself confronted by a swath of Taken, then the Flare Gun will suddenly be your best friend, acting much like a rocket launcher does, with the burst of light destroying anything unfortunate enough to be within the blast radius.

To go along with your light based weaponry, Alan will also come across a few different conventional weapons, such as a handgun, shotgun and rifle. As you’d expect, each differs in power and ammo capacity, though surprisingly for a novelist, Alan is a rather good shot with whatever weapon happens to be in his hands. Maybe he goes to the firing range in his spare time? Your carrying capacity is limited so you’ll need to make sure you’re always using the right weapon at the right time, saving the ammo of the more powerful weapons for your fights against the tougher enemies.

One of the most annoying parts of the game for me was actually in relation to the Taken. They have an incredibly annoying habit of just appearing out of nowhere, and when they do, the camera will generally pull out and show you where they’re coming from. You’ll spot the Taken that are in view, get your torch ready to burn the darkness away from their evil bodies, only to find yourself attacked from behind by a Taken who was nowhere to be seen mere seconds earlier. Given that it doesn’t take a huge amount of hits from the Taken before Alan is killed, finding yourself struck by a blow that was impossible to dodge can become exceptionally annoying.

The main problem with the game however is how slow the game is to start. Split into 6 episodes, the first 3 are pretty slow going, with lots of traipsing around the mountain and forest regions that surround Bright Falls, fending off the Taken, to get to whatever goal you’re headed towards. Before long, you’ll start to wonder whether the game is worth your time, as the gameplay starts to become a little repetitive, but here’s the key point – it really is worth your time. From episode 4 onwards, the game really picks up pace and starts to throw some memorable set pieces at you, including fending off the Taken from a rock concert stage while music plays all around you. It’s almost like Remedy wanted the first few episodes to be a nice, gentle introduction to the game and how to deal with the Taken, but let it go on one episode too long. The story, strong enough from the start to keep you playing through the first few chapters, also picks up as the game nears its completion and you’ll really want to get to the end of the game to find out just exactly what is going on. Finding out exactly what the Dark Presence is, and just how Alan came to write the manuscript pages without remembering it are definite reasons to push on to the conclusion of the game.

As you go through the game, you’ll see and explore many of the areas in and around Bright Falls, and it’s an exceptionally well put together town. The forest and mountain regions are both beautiful and frightening, especially as you really only go through them in the night, when the Taken are about. You’ll peer into the darkness trying to see if anything up ahead is going to jump out and try to kill you. With light being such a prominent part of the game, it’s no surprise that the lighting effects are first class, and you’ll soon give an audible sigh of relief when you see a streetlight, not only because you’ll know you’ll be safe in there from the Taken, but your health will regenerate much faster, while the game will also autosave your progress. The only thing that lets Alan Wake down visually is the facial animations on the characters. Given how long the game has been in development it’s slightly disappointing that the faces don’t portray more emotions, and when they do, it’s not always clear what ones they are. The lip syncing is pretty poor as well, and while neither problem is a major issue, it does stand out somewhat against the visual splendour of Bright Falls and the surrounding areas.

The audio side of the game follows the same pattern as well, with some wonderful music and atmospheric sounds, which are let down by some lacklustre voice work. Alan’s internal monologues are often delivered with a lack of conviction and emotion, and when he reads the manuscript pages you find scattered around, he often seems to read them with no thought to the text, emphasizing the wrong words and not doing the written words justice. Just like the visuals, the problems aren’t deal-breakers, but they are an annoyance, especially as other games such as Mass Effect have shown just what good voice acting for do for overall quality of the title.

Final thoughts: Alan Wake really is a game of two halves. If all the chapters were like the first three, the game would be pretty average. If they were all like the final three, it would be one of the best games of the year. As it stands, Alan Wake is well worth the time it takes to get through the first three chapters. The story is strong and intriguing, the action uses light as an interesting gameplay mechanic, and it really gets going in the final three chapters, with some very memorable set pieces. If Remedy can use this as a good starting point for any future sequels, and get the pacing of the game right next time, then I can’t wait to see what may lay ahead in Alan Wake’s future.

Gameplay – 8: The use of light as an actual weapon gives the game a unique twist, and the combat is generally excellent, but it’s such a shame it took so long for Remedy to take the training wheels off and really cut the game loose.

Graphics – 8: A beautiful game world and some awesome lighting effects really stand out as the stars, but the character models could have done with some polish, especially given how long the game has been in development.

Sound – 8: Some great songs are in the game, mostly played over the ending of each episode, and some lovely ambient sounds, but the voice work seems to have been done half-heartedly.

Presentation – 9: A great, if a little hard to follow story, with the episodic nature of the game giving it a TV series feel. Lots of TV and radio reports to watch and listen to that help to immerse you in the game.

Overall – 8: A little slow to start, but when it gets going Alan Wake is a really great game. The story is strong enough to keep you going through the early stages, and by the end of the game you’ll be really glad you stuck with it, both for the conclusion of the story, and the improvement in the action that comes with it. As a starting point for a franchise, I’ve seen much worse than this, and I really hope Remedy do decide to bring out a sequel, as there is much promise here to be built upon.

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