Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Genre: Psychological Action Thriller
Reviewer: George Damidas
Overall: 8.5 = Excellent
Alan Wake has been a long time coming. I recall being at the E3 when it was first announced, five years ago. With Remedy’s previous title, the well-received Max Payne: The Fall of Max Payne, still fresh in everyone’s mind, the details and video of their mysterious psychological thriller was a highlight of the show. And then … nothing. There were sprinkles of information throughout the years, a release date here or screenshot there, but not a deluge of info. While it might have benefited from more attention, I’d say the low-key approach was best for Alan Wake because, more so than most games, it’s all about the delivery and story, and it would’ve been a real shame had any of its fantastic reveals been ruined before it hit store shelves.
Alan Wake, the game’s titular hero, is a successful author who has been having a rough time getting started on his next novel, Departure. In an effort to clear his mind and reconnect with his wife, Alice, the couple goes on a retreat to the cozy town of Bright Falls. It doesn’t take long for Wake to be recognized, nor for his best friend and agent Barry to pester him, but he takes it all in stride as the retreat is something he’s looking forward to after being in a slump for over two years. After making it to an ominous cabin, it doesn’t take long for things to go very (very) bad for Wake as an overblown spat is interrupted when a mysterious force kidnaps his wife and sends him into a dark, shifting nightmare world. And thus begins Alan Wake proper, one of the best psychological thrillers on the market.
The best way to describe the world and Wake’s interaction with it is by referencing the Lovecraft-inspired John Carpenter film In the Mouth of Madness. Similar to Sam Neill’s character (John Trent), Wake exists in a world whose properties are being ever shifted by a seemingly possessed author who is turning the town in on itself. As he goes about in search of his wife, the Taken, weaker souls consumed by the evil darkness that kidnapped her, harass him and try to get him to bend to the evil’s will. Similar to Trent’s experience, everyone else around Wake only seem mildly aware as to what’s going on – despite a darkness blanketing the town, possessed humans flickering about and debris falling from the sky. In addition to this skewed form of reality, Wake also experiences events from multiple perspectives through recorded footage of himself, unwritten but written manuscript pages, and visions. The initial confusion caused by this approach ends up paying off near the end, whenever all of the seemingly disparate threads come together to form a strong, coherent narrative. But until then, it’s only one confusing piece of the puzzle after the other.
Additional information is gleamed from outside sources as well. Alan Wake is filled with collectibles and stats – radio shows to listen to, signs to read, and TVs to watch. Each one adds a little bit more to the town’s history, current events, and how events are interpreted in the game world. The one I got the biggest kick out of was the old black and white TV serial Night Springs, a Twilight Zone homage (complete with eerily similar theme song and intro) that featured skits about authorial control, the power of imagination, and the weird. The similarities between the two shows might seem odd, but Remedy is pretty open about their sources of inspiration. Lovecraft is actually mentioned several times, with Wake himself commenting on how the events are like one of his stories.
The theme of the power of thought and – especially – literature is everywhere. The discovered manuscript pages can be viewed and are read aloud by Wake, which often foreshadow events. At every step, the game is steeped in the written word. Screenshots don’t really give the impression of how much the game emphasizes its story and atmosphere over all else. While it might look like a third-person action title, it’s about action as much as Resident Evil 5 is about story. And I think that is going to throw, and even disappoint, some people.
Alan Wake isn’t really a survival horror title. The tag ‘psychological action thriller’ is much more apt because there is very little doubt that you will survive. In what will be a point of consternation for many, the game is very linear and you are inundated with ammo, flares, batteries, and spotlights (check points). That isn’t to say that the game isn’t scary; I jumped more than a few times; but it’s not Silent Hill creepy nor as action-oriented as the current form of Resident Evil. The emphasis on the dark, and trying to keep it at bay, is really at the heart of what makes the game so tense: if you’re in the darkness, you’re bound to be attacked. And it’s not that being attacked by itself is the problem but just how vulnerable Wake is. As an author and not an action hero, Wake can only run for short distances and dodge a foot or so to the side. In short, he’s a regular guy. Despite the fact that he can somehow carry a shotgun, nine flares, six flashbangs, a heavy duty flashlight, and a pistol – hey, consider it a videogame trade-off – his physical limitations are that of most writers – minimal. There is no melee combat, either. Oddly enough, while you wouldn’t be far off to think that such a story-driven game would have tacked-on combat, you would be wrong.
It’s surprising just how satisfying the combat actually is. Wake has access to a nice array of weapons, with each having a solid ‘feel’ when used – nicely modeled mechanics for recoil, reloading and aiming. The flashlight is used in a Luigi Mansion-style method of stunning enemies to finish them off. It actually makes sense in the game, and looks quite cool, as Wake must destroy the darkness that shrouds the Taken before killing them. Poltergeists come around as well, with the flashlight again used to destroy the surrounding darkness as well as the object itself. There are only about four enemy types, which does make some of the encounters feel a bit repetitive at times, but Remedy’s ability to constantly capture the ‘silhouette in the foggy woods’ mystery keeps them surprisingly enjoyable.
But none of that matters if you don’t go along for the ride. As in In the Mouth of Madness, the game world and story can veer into some pretty strange areas. If the concept or characters don’t hook you within the first hour, then what you get out of the game will be a so-so action title set in a weird world. If it does grab you, then you’re in for a great time. Broken up as episodes, each of the six segments has a stylish intro and outro that break the game up into nice chunks. The game also takes advantage of its form to present some really interesting scenes that do a great job of putting you in the moment, such as seeing a massive black force feel giant trees from high on a mountain side. Seeing a storm approaching from over the horizon is thrilling because you know the darkness, and all sorts of pain, will follow and you’ll be the one going through it.
As interesting of a journey as Alan Wake provides, there were a few items that stuck out at me. One of them is product placement: there’s too much of it, or possibly not enough of it. In some games, it makes sense to have real-world products; sports games are a great example as athletes and cars have sponsors and ads adorn arenas. But it really doesn’t do much for immersion to walk through a store and see Dish Detergent, Candy, Soda, and Energizer batteries. The Lincoln with Microsoft Sync in the beginning stood out like a sore thumb among all the other Red Square Car and Green Truck models. Verizon was the oddest, though, since I don’t recall seeing its logo on Wake’s cellphone – just on several well-lit billboards. In such a gloomy and atmospheric game, dabbling instead of going either all in or not at all is more distracting than immersive.
Combat can also veer a little too much to the Monster Closet side of things. The game tends to shift into slow motion and pan the camera to wherever enemies spawn – except for the one or two directly behind you. While you’re focused on taking out the horde coming on headfirst, the others get a free shot. And the motivation to fight was never terribly strong as Alan’s connection with Alice is handled in the same handful of flashbacks; the bond was more assumed than established. And Barry … oh, poor Barry. Aside from Alice, one of Wake’s biggest motivations to keep fighting is Barry’s habit of constantly being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The problem is that the dynamic isn’t consistent as he tends to always find a way to a safe spot, even if it’s four feet from you, while you have to fight off a half-dozen crazed loggers while trying to save him – you need more help than he does. Although I will say that he ended up being a pretty nice addition, coming a long way from his initial irritating ‘Al-baby-c’mere!’ impression.
Despite some rough character models, the faces in particular, and some poor compression during cutscenes, the game looks great. What really sells a lot of the mystery and tension is the excellent lighting. From the misty forests to the rolling smoke from a lit flare, Remedy did a great job in setting everything up. The music is also fantastic, with some choice licensed and original tracks. The crazy Gods of Asgard, a ‘70s metal band inspired by Norse mythology, had a great tune that can actually be found online on a mock official band site. Even the extras are well done, like the Rod Serling-esque Night Springs narrator and especially Wake’s own narration. I even found the teammate AI to be really solid, with only one weird mishap where Barry wouldn’t stop running in an elevator – but still, far and away better than a lot of titles. The consistency of the production values in maintaining the suspense and mystery was really well done.
Recommending Alan Wake is difficult because it won’t be what many will want it to be. Despite its strong combat mechanics and numerous encounters, it’s not really about the combat. The enemy is the world itself and the unseen force that is driving it asunder in a quest for power, and that won’t gel with you unless you go along for the – sometimes odd – ride. Remedy knows they have a good story filled with strong reveals and interesting characters, and that they are telling it really well, so they want you to experience it. I think that approach will cause many to break with Alan Wake because it’s a game designed for you to finish it, and not many are. Depending on your proclivity, you will jump in and go for it or sit back and wonder what the big deal is about a linear, repetitive game with only a handful of enemies in some small town. Personally, I was hooked, and after that cliffhanger, I can’t wait for the DLC.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)