Reviewed: Alan Wake

16Aug10

Alan Wake has a huge job on its hands. Famously announced  at E3 2005 by Finnish developers Remedy, the studio behind Max Payne, the game was finally released earlier this summer with its first DLC, The Signal, out just last month.

With such a gap between concept and release, there was cause for concern that Alan came onto the market under a cloud. A big “is that it?” shaped cloud. Thankfully the game has enough originality to silence some of the ‘nice idea, shame it’s not 2007’ naysayers.

Bestselling author Alan Wake is suffering from writer’s block. He and his wife Alice head to small town USA, otherwise known as Bright Falls, to get away from the pressures of fame, not suspecting that the town harbours a great evil.

Alice disappears and Alan blacks out, awakening a week later with no memory of anything since her disappearance. Mysteriously, pages of a manuscript he doesn’t remember writing are scattered everywhere and the locals are possessed by this unseen evil, or Dark Presence – get used to hearing that phrase a lot. Alan must fight his way through the town to find Alice and unravel the mystery behind the darkness.

What unfolds is a surprising and highly memorable gaming experience, which celebrates the writer’s imagination as a source of both creativity and destruction.

The story is told in episodic format, rather like a TV mini series, complete with “previously on Alan Wake” recaps at the beginning of each chapter. It’s impossible not to notice the clear influence of TV series like Twin Peaks and The X Files in the subject matter, characters and setting, albeit with a pinch of Silent Hill and a fair chunk of Stephen King. So, it’s a video game about a novelist, told like a TV show? Right.

Alan is no obvious hero. He’s called Alan for a start. Having a writer as a protagonist, picking up scraps of past, present and future events, makes for a disorientating yet unique experience where events feel like they are being lived, created and reported all at the same time.

The game plays with these storytelling techniques with striking confidence. Manuscript pages add to the game universe, putting flesh on the bones of the supporting characters, giving us an insight into Alan’s thoughts and emotions. They also scare the shit out of us by describing events yet to happen. The phrase “and that’s when I heard the chainsaw” springs to mind.

The cornerstone of Alan Wake is light and dark; Stay in the light, use it to burn the darkness out of your enemies, then shoot them in the face. Dodge your attackers, recharge your flashlight batteries , keep an eye out for the flickering of a failing generator and movement in the forest around you. This is a game which plays on our primal fear of the dark, of the unknown with great success, incorporating it into the title’s combat strategy.

Location and character designs are remarkable; the dreamy views of Bright Falls from its humble, small town centre to the sun-soaked mountains and forests which envelop it are a joy to behold and the characters are impressively rendered. You can see how Remedy spent their time.

It’s an arguably unoriginal story – the old save the spouse chestnut – but told in an original fashion. The cut scenes are compelling and the unfolding mystery is well thought out. The soundtrack matches the story perfectly with shades of sadness, loss and pain all beautifully communicated, punctuating the story with moments of true poignancy. In fact the sound design in general is quite brilliant.

There are some niggles of course.  There’s never any serious threat of running out of ammo or batteries, so the more hardcore gamer might want to push up the difficulty to make it interesting. And the gameplay does get repetitive. Wandering through the woods, you’ll hear that familiar sound cue, the camera angle will reveal an attacker shrouded in black and battle ensues. Aim your flashlight, shoot. It gets a little old. What saves Alan Wake is the tension it wracks up in spite of this and the unique perspective we glean on our leading man. This is a creepy game, to be played at night and in these perfectly formed episodes.

“Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear. In a horror story, the victim keeps asking why. But there can be no explanation, and there shouldn’t be one. The unanswered mystery is what stays with us the longest, and it’s what we’ll remember in the end.” Stephen King

The shadow of prolonged development time looms large over Alan Wake. The general, possibly convenient, opinion is that the game would have been more impressive or innovative if it had been released before now. It’s a fair cop, but this is one occasion where perhaps we should climb off our fanboy soapboxes and stop declaring shenanigans  because a game took that little bit longer than expected.

With an intriguing story, solid voice acting and beautiful character design and soundtrack, Alan Wake is no game changer but certainly a remarkable achievement.  And a game designed to be played in the dark.

If you’d like to hear this review and some other ramblings about games, please subscribe to the Gamewank podcast. Sketches, top banter and great reviews every episode from Jim Trinca and Ric Morgan. Go to www.gamewank.com for more details.

Advertisements


3 Responses to “Reviewed: Alan Wake”

  1. 1 Lino

    I was promised pizza rolls?

  2. Haha, I’ll have to pop to the shop!

  3. 3 Mad Matt

    Good review, makes me want to get this game and play it with the lights off!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: