Alan Wake – Review
Alan Wake is a man of mystery in more ways than one. After five long years in the making, the titular character wakes up on the Xbox with a groggy head and, finally, we can see if the game, legendary in its schedule slippage, was worth the wait – that is, if the curious amongst us haven’t lost interest before now and drifted to other, story-driven, titles.
Alan Wake is a successful, New York thriller writer, holidaying with wife, Alice in Bright Falls in a bid to overcome his writer’s block and repair his marriage which has suffered from Wake’s increasingly erratic moods. Bright Falls lays nestled amid pine forested peaks and lakes which could have been plucked wholesale from Stephen King’s imagination.
Scrape beneath the sleepy, small town facade however, and, naturally, all is not what it seems. Mysterious disappearances, ghost stories, and deaths lurk in both the town’s past and recent history – after all, any location swaddled in pine trees, boasting suspicious sounding lakes, (and with, frankly, a disturbingly erratic power supply), should set alarm bells ringing.
Wake’s wife, Alice, suffers from a lifelong fear of the dark, and while, by the end, one can empathise with her, her idea of holidaying in a cabin in the middle of a haunted lake where the power is reliable as someone’s Nan’s old fifty pence electricity meter isn’t perhaps the wisest. Not long after arriving, Alice inexplicably vanishes and Wake sets out in search of her, battling his patchy memory and the supernatural forces which have been awakened in Bright Falls. Wake is not an action hero, just an everyday guy, struggling to save his wife and make sense of the unfolding chaos, but ultimately playing a far greater part than he had imagined as the twists and revelations unfold in the undulating story.
The game, touted as a psychological thriller, is divided into six episodes, actively emulating a TV series – each one complete with a requisite cliff-hanger ending and soundtrack ‘credits music’. ‘Previously on…’ recaps punctuate the start of each new ‘episode’ and, as with the TV dramas it aims to mirror, the story progresses and evolves, with decent pacing and new characters and plot elements slowly introduced and fleshed out, while flashbacks also play their part. The voiceover narration is provided by the main character himself and while at times can seem unnecessary, such niggles are soon forgotten as the story cranks up the pace.
The game is heavily inspired by literature and television – the writers citing influences such as Stephen King, Lost, and Twin Peaks among others, while elements of Hitchcock and similarities to a theme in one of Wes Craven’s smarter horror offerings are apparent. However familiar some ideas and influences may be, the whole episodic style is an innovative framework and the chunks make the story more digestible – something which offers a welcome, momentary pause in which to ruminate and reflect on the latest developments.
The gameplay is simple, with Wake aiming to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’ in one piece, using the basic HUD compass as a guide. While not exactly varied or in-depth, it just about makes the length of the narrative before patience wears thin. Along the way, he picks up discarded manuscript pages of a novel entitled ‘The Departure’ which seem to keep pace with events and flesh out unseen moments – even predicting what is to come. Arguably this device can kill tension, but for the more cowardly/nervous gamer, any heads up to a pickaxe wielding maniac is always appreciated.
Aside from some ‘A’ button bashing to power up generators, there is little in the way of puzzle solving, only as much as is necessary to open doors and gates in order to progress and as such, the game has to wear some accusations of repetitiveness. Wake spends the game either running from one place to the next, or being chased – which is not ideal when you consider his, often, infuriatingly sluggish pace.
General movement is fluid enough, however, sprinting is another matter. After only a few meters, Wake dissolves into a wheezing mess, apparently lumbering through treacle. I’d like to think that if a terrifying, shadowy dervish was tearing up a bridge behind me, I’d manage a faster pace than that of a crippled tortoise on Ketamine.
Sprinting in bursts seems to be the way to go, especially for last minute dashes to reach safe-havens or performing agile dodges, (often triggering a neat cinematic as an axe or sickle whistles over Wake’s head).
Jumping was another bugbear, with Wake gallop-hopping like an idiot, seemingly unable to leap anything above waist height unless the game had designated it to be vaulted (which is never indicated). Perhaps more grating was the patchy context sensitivity of interactive objects such as chests, leading to some milling about to get the prompt to display in order to access a weapon cache – something which was especially frustrating when in a hurry or in fear of lobbed axes.
The combat in Alan Wake, however, is both simple and beautifully effective; one of the game’s great successes, the flashlight is a satisfying innovation, acting as a both weapon and aiming reticule. Light burns away the shield of darkness shrouding the game’s dark attackers known as the Taken – shells of the living, filled and possessed by the Darkness. Once their shield has gone they are vulnerable to the handful of weapons on offer which range from the classic shotgun, revolver, and rifles to life-saving flash-bang grenades and flares. While the Taken in various forms, are a more tangible enemy, the darkness itself is a sentient, malevolent presence throughout, wisping and drifting, almost resembling ink underwater, using the Taken and whatever else it can possess as puppets.
Rather than throwing hordes of enemies at an unwary player, cinematic slowdowns are common before they move in and warning scrawls, daubed on rocks and buildings often point to impending attacks, though it can be easy to miss them until after a Taken has tried to bifurcate you with an axe. Your mysterious helper has also marked routes to weapons caches…the convenience of which I could care less about if it gave me even one extra flare to hold in shaking hands.
Relief from the darkness comes in the form of safe-havens, provided by reaching the footprint of light sources such as lamps, floodlights, and lit buildings or by cranking up a generator in order to power an overhead light for some brief respite. They also act as checkpoints, which are, for the most part, generous, with precious little backtracking to be done should Wake meet a sticky end. They also, more often than not, offer emergency boxes full of batteries and ammo.
As far as ‘stuff’ goes, well-trained, frugal gamers will be in for a shock – flying in the face of convention, the game expects you to use your gear because it won’t carry over into the next episode. All those carefully hoarded flash-bang grenades will do bugger all good if you don’t make use of them; such prudence will only serve to make life difficult (and arguably shorter). The game rarely leaves you wanting for long however, with copious amounts of emergency supplies and weapons scattered throughout the episodes in boxes, buildings, and car parks.
The portrayal of the darkness is not the only thing to impress with Alan Wake – the game itself looks beautiful, offering realistic, and highly detailed environments including locations such as mines, dams, power plants, logging camps, and the town of Bright Falls itself. The characters are well realised, especially in the cut scenes – many of which, including the game’s opening, have a heavy filmic feel, with the camera swooping and skimming over mountain roads, pine forests shrouded in early morning mists, and glassy lakes with ripples picked out in the shimmering light – all to breathtaking effect.
Aside from looking good, the supporting cast are nothing especially new – the resident oddball who appears to know more than the locals credit her with, the no-nonsense sheriff, the trigger happy FBI man with an alcohol problem and attitude, and the bumbling, comic-relief best friend. That said, all are solid, serviceable, and never detract from the story; even Wake’s agent and best friend Barry manages to stay on the right side of annoying and provides a sliver of light-heartedness with some amusing banter over the last headlamp in the store and a running joke about a cardboard cut-out of Wake (which, incidentally, fares better than many of the extras.)
The supporting cast are also where a few of the game’s loose ends appear to surface – character motivations, actions, relevance, and even fates are seemingly left hanging in some cases. While perhaps providing fodder for the inevitable sequels or prequels, and thus making it more forgivable, it was hard to judge whether some were indeed loose ends, or if I had simply been denied those elements of the story because I had missed manuscript pages – something which was all to easy to do.
The amount of collectables for a game such as this was odd. Being almost permanently fused with the fabric of gaming, collectables are so often the bane of many titles, especially for completionists and Alan Wake will undoubtedly fray tempers in this respect. Along with the aforementioned manuscript pages, one hundred coffee thermoses await, along with chests, signs to read, tin-can pyramids to shoot, TVs to watch, and radios to listen to. While many will be scattered along your direct path, others naturally require venturing off the beaten track. However, some parts of the game are linear trails, while others will sudden spit you into open woodland, meaning scope for exploration is often an uncertain element and upon finishing, there is no indication as to where those missed goodies may linger.
For every niggle though, there is something to balance and outweigh it, with neat touches and effects helping conjure atmosphere and tension. Moths flutter around strip lights, odd television programs dominate the airwaves and through the madness, the outside world seems unaware of Wake’s tormented journey, perfectly demonstrated by the scattered radios which bring the warmth of a friendly voice – pockets of comfort which must be left as Wake ventures back into the darkness. Not just part of the combat mechanism, the torch plays a big part in creating a dynamic atmosphere, the beam sending shadows see-sawing around dilapidated buildings, or swinging wildly back and forth in the aftermath of an attack as the player spins and triple checks their surroundings.
It isn’t only the torch either: the game presents a broken-down buffet of Mary Celeste eeriness. Abandoned, wrecked vehicles smother bridges while machinery and equipment left running in yards and desolate campsites give a sense of a dark hand suddenly descending, the shells of the Taken all that is left to stalk these, now deserted, locations.
Music is used to good effect to build tension and as a precursor to an attack. In the usual Pavlovian way, the player soon learns the music cues which act as a prelude to the Taken attacking and it creates an air of panic as the darkness swirls in and your torch swings in the sprint for the distant, beckoning light; these devices and others ensure that the player approaches each new location with a trepidation that is rarely misplaced.
The soundtrack throughout the game, on the radio broadcasts and bookends to the episodes, is excellent, with the choices complimenting the game’s themes of darkness and light, dreams, muses, and nightmares with offerings from David Bowie, Roy Orbison, and Nick Cave to name but a few.
It isn’t just the music which helps set the scene either – sounds layer up with the visuals and score to create a suitably nerve shredding atmosphere – creaking log beams swing above a seemingly deserted logging yard, groans of old machinery, the rumble of automated junkyard equipment, and unending buzz of power lines in a transformer yard all inspire tension in their background filler. Perhaps more ‘in your face’ chilling, (and at times, perversely amusing) are the last vestiges of humanity possessed by the Taken in the odd remembered phrases, coming snarled in thick, distorted layers as another prelude to attack.
The game is full of odd little touches which gently ply on layers of depth: a box of old books in the cabin which have no relevance until much later and in the clinic in particular, odd things drawn or painted by patients seem to echo the story with maps and depictions of Wake and the Taken there to be noticed or ignored, depending on the individual’s appetite for exploration. The biggest success is perhaps ‘Night Springs’, the delightfully schlock TV show, reminiscent of the Twilight Zone which turns up on TV sets throughout Bright Falls, a show which, effectively mirroring reality, has spun off in-game into both an Xbox360 title and board game.
While linear in its ‘A’ to ‘B’ gameplay, there are some truly standout moments in Alan Wake: the game’s arguably strongest set piece coming at the halfway mark as Wake defends an old stage in the middle of a field from a horde of Taken, complete with crashing rock music and fizzing pyrotechnics. While more moments like this would have been wonderful, the focussed, driving needs of the story perhaps outweigh the call for overblown set pieces…but still, just one more of that calibre would have been perfect.
To fully explore the concepts of the game would be to spill some of the secrets that are best unravelled in its own telling, but themes of light and darkness are key, as are the, often, blurring lines between fiction and reality. With each episode there are twists and revelations, each chapter adding layers and further weaving in additional strands to the narrative until the last push to the finale.
The writers were aiming for a satisfying conclusion for this story, but one which was careful to prop open the door for future seasons, not wishing to confine Wake’s adventures to just one series – as such, and without spoiling anything, the ending, while not wholly disappointing, still left a feeling of ‘what the hell did I just do all that for’. Game franchise aside, the developers have hinted at something larger, admitting to wanting to build something that could cross over to other forms of entertainment; perhaps meaning, ironically for something aping a TV series…a television series or film. At the very least, expect a book.
Regardless, we haven’t heard the last of Alan Wake and I for one am glad; indeed, with two DLC packs already slated for release later this year, it will be interesting to see what future seasons have in store; if they build on the solid foundation provided by the story, innovative combat, and beautiful filmic style, they will certainly be something to look forward to.Pros
- Beautiful, realistic graphics and locations
- Simple and innovative combat
- Great soundtrack
- Rich, filmic and televisual feel to some of the cut scenes
- Episodic style, emulates a traditional TV series format
- Compelling themes and story
- Generous checkpointing
- Conjures a great sense of atmosphere
- One outstanding set piece
- Sprint action is short-lived
- Obscene amount of collectables for a game like this, with no indication afterwards what episode or location they were missed in
- Did I miss the point of the clinic?
- Loose ends or sequel/prequel fodder?
- Could be seen to be repetitive
- Missing manuscript page collectables denies you elements of the story or backstory
- One outstanding set piece
After five years of lurking in the shadows of development, Alan Wake has stopped flirting with the light and stepped up and the results are impressive. It could never hope to live up to the hype which inevitably surrounds a game this long in the making, but it has a solid story, compelling, classic themes, and a style of presentation which sets it apart from those around it. Was it worth the extensive wait? Perhaps not, but then, little is, and in spite of its flaws, it is a more than worthy franchise to hang your gaming hat on for the forseeable future....as long as that future isn't another five years away.
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