Review: Alan Wake

Long ago Alan Wake was supposed to show up and be a star on the Xbox 360--but it didn’t arrived and we all moved on. Years later most were still mystified by its premise. Hell, the day I sat down and pressed the start button I still didn’t know what to expect. I presumed it was going to be an open-world, survival-horror game with an investigative spin to it.

I was wrong.

It turns out Alan Wake, at its core, is a very compelling third-person horror shooter coupled with very little adventure or investigative components to it—who knew? Yes there are some very minor puzzle elements to it like seeking out power generators to safely light paths or pushing aside large obstructing objects but that’s about as far as it goes. Missing are the strangely inaccessible door puzzles or inscrutable artifacts tucked behind false walls. It seems to take pride in achieving this, and with style, more than anything else.

The Alan Wake experience is actually very focused on funneling you through a very specific and well crafted experience. This became readily apparent as I began the game navigating through the beautiful and intricately constructed town of Bright Falls. As night fell, I was abruptly introduced to the main antagonist—the “Taken.” As they crept towards me their shadowy armor fiercely protected them forcing me to use a light source to defuse it. Once exposed, I still needed to finish them off with my firearm. The Taken (who usually emit a sinister howl deep within the woods before appearing) eerily stalked me like some kind of demon zombie but unfortunately without much variety. At hour 6 you might find yourself growing a bit tired of fending off the same creatures over and over. Ultimately it hurts the game a bit.

The combat system initially felt refreshingly unique to me. I think Remedy did a tremendous job of amassing a system that created intense action while raising tension. By design the flashlight shines everywhere you look—that is to say—its direction is tied directly to your right analog stick (and cleverly creates your reticule too) with two methods of operation. Standard mode (used to illuminate your path without draining its battery) does very little damage to the Takens shadow armor. The second mode is more focally penetrating and does drain the battery while boosting intensity. This mode slows the pace of the Taken drastically while burning off their armor at a much faster rate.

Alan Wake’s interesting--and slightly confusing--narrative untangles at a nice pace through several episodes—much like a TV show. The beginning of each episode starts with a “previously on Alan Wake” montage that really helps keep the important details in for the player. I found myself reminded of things I had forgotten. The plot finds a nice balance between exploration and action. They’re poised between pieces of a manuscript that are littered throughout the game world, encounters with the Taken and pre-rendered cut scenes.

Unfortunately, it’s the pre-rendered cut scenes that are the most damaging to the experience. Not only are they muddied by a low resolution but they also appear to be constructed of assets from an earlier build. Lip synching is so far off it looks conceivably like a completely different team constructed it. They look antiquated compared to the spectacularly scripted in-game sequences. I don’t understand why Remedy insisted on using them to unravel the games mostly interesting story bits. My only guess is that they ran out of time or money or both.

There has been some discussion amongst the community about the technical limitations of Alan Wake, but I’m here to say that--in the end--it’s a gorgeous game. Remedy has constructed environments that are filled with an eerie personality woven through an environment similar to the Twin Peaks series. So compelling are the environments that it is difficult not to stop every once in a while to admire their work.

Nighttime is when you really get a sense that this game becomes what it should—creepy. As darkness encroaches, when the fog begin to roll in, as the wind howls through the dancing tress it’ll hit you--the forest just might be alive and coming for you. The stage is set for the real star of the game to make an appearance--the lighting system. The lighting in Alan Wake is absolutely stunning and is comparable to the water in Bioshock. That is to say--it's a character in the game.

Once I finished my experience in Bright Falls I sat back and reflected, “this just might be what it would be like if Valve made a third-person horror shooter?” Sure, that might be a bit hyperbolic of me to say but I just really love this game! I think it's an experience most should have.

If you’re a fan of a high quality single-player experience that lasts roughly 10 hours with no multiplayer experience to speak of then get this game.

No comments: