Rule #1: Don’t Go Out at Night!
Alan Wake was a big surprise; for the most part, it actually lived up to its billing. The psychological thriller from Remedy Entertainment and Microsoft Game Studios was absolutely successful at recounting a gripping, suspenseful, intelligent story that grabs hold of the gamer and keeps them tuned in. Despite the repetitive combat, this is certainly a title that narrative-oriented Xbox owners will want to add to their collection.
Players take on the role of Alan Wake, a world-famous novelist struggling with a debilitating case of writer’s block. In order to get his mojo flowing again, he and his wife decide to leave the hectic life of New York City behind and head to Bright Falls, Washington for a serene, bucolic vacation. For Alan, this is a chance to forget about deadlines, paparazzi, and overly-adoring fans. For his wife, this is an opportunity to get her lost lover back on track; a way to reclaim the old Alan, the man she married.
Unfortunately, the Bright Falls nights are not as restful as the post cards of Cauldron Lake make them out to be. A darkness has quietly terrorized the town since the 70s, and Alan Wake and his wife soon find out just how dangerous it can be for the characters in an Alan Wake novel. That’s right; Alan is forced to write a thriller that supernaturally controls the events and lives of everyone in town, leading them to their doom, while simultaneously feeding the dark taint that haunts village.
The game’s story really is the star of the show. As such, I won’t go into details as to how it progresses and twists and turns. However, what I will talk about is the delightful way in which it is presented. First of all, because Alan and the other players are just puppets in a narrative that has already been penned, the developers were able to foreshadow upcoming events and further detail recent occurrences through dropped pages of the manuscript. Throughout the game, you will stumble across paragraphs of text that either provide you with insights into upcoming events, describe parallel occurrences to which you are not a party to, or nicely flesh out circumstances that have already come to pass. In this way, Alan Wake’s story has level of depth and richness few other games are able to match.
Another great aspect of the storytelling is how expertly it is paced. The developers did a great job of dividing up the game into episodes (which last around an hour and a half). These episodes are wonderfully self-contained; each boasts an important story-arc broken up by a lot of thrilling action. This keeps things generally fresh and engaging; you’ll never find yourself bogged down by too much of one aspect.
The episodic delivery of the narrative also serves another purpose: the story is allowed to mature and ripen in players’ minds. Because each episode takes players through quite a bit of combat and puzzles, while providing them with a manageable amount of plot to absorb in 90 minutes, it really feels like one of your favorite TV programs. In fact, I would tell potential players to savor this game and limit themselves to one or two episodes per evening in order to get the most out of the title. I, sadly, had to rip through the game in just two sittings, and there are a lot of bits of the puzzle that stayed with me that I would have liked to have mulled over and contemplated a while longer between multiple play sessions.
Of course, as good as the story is, it wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable without quality action elements. In my opinion, this is where Heavy Rain failed utterly. To some extent, Alan Wake doesn’t get it perfect either; fighting off groups of Taken (Dark Presence-tainted villagers) can get very repetitive. Despite the persistent creep of commonplace combat, blasting away the dark, swirling armor around your foes with a light source and then unloading a pump-action shotgun in their face still manages to be both satisfying and enjoyable. Using alternative methods for dispatching the darkness, such as flare guns and flash bangs, is especially nice. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if purely action-oriented gamers with little patience found the combat portions of the game to be dull after awhile.
Remedy Entertainment did go ahead and include three different levels of difficulty to challenge such gamers, and there are a lot of hidden goodies (coffee thermoses, tin can pyramids, radios, weapons stashes, TV monitors, etc.) to find, challenging Achievements to unlock, even new manuscript Easter eggs to uncover. However, these nods to the core gamer may not be enough.
For starters, only the first two levels of difficulty are unlocked at the outset, so the truly skilled will have to settle for a less demanding experience. What’s more, I didn’t find the increased difficulty levels to significantly augment the enjoyment I got out of the game. In fact, I would say that things just got a bit more frustrating at certain points rather than more challenging. Moreover, other than the glut of collectibles strewn about the game and the advanced Achievements, the story really only lends itself to one play-through; the extra pages of story likely won’t interest an action gamer anyway.
Technically, the game is nearly perfect. The controls are very precise, the environments are astoundingly detailed and lushly rendered, the use of lighting effects is second to none, the musical score perfectly elicits a thrilling ambiance, the sound effects are round and satisfying, and the voice work is quite proficient at conveying the tension and portraying the characters. ?this is a beautiful, extremely well put together title.
The only glaring issue I found, technically speaking, is the often god-awful facial animations. All it takes is a few minutes with the game to realize just how bad it can be. Actually, the lip-syncing and expressions tend to improve as the game goes on, but in a game this gorgeous and realistic, it is a real problem for maintaining complete immersion. As a result, Alan Wake isn’t quite as believable as he should be, and his best friend (and agent) Barry is one of the most fake, plastic-looking gaming characters of this generation. This is really too bad because he is actually quite likeable, with a lot of well-written comedic dialogue.
Alan Wake is an exceptional thriller that was a pleasure to play. That said, if you’re a gamer that exclusively values action, you may find the combat to be too repetitive for your liking. However, if you’re a gamer looking for a thoroughly engaging narrative that’s well supported by some heated gunplay and the occasional light puzzle, Alan Wake is exactly what the doctor ordered.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.6 Graphics
The use of lighting is phenomenal. The setting of Bright Falls is masterfully realized. Other than the conspicuously unrealistic facial animations, this is one gorgeous game. 4.6 Control
Other than often stubborn interactive objects, this game is a breeze to control. The developers did a great job of communicating tension through the controls without making things frustrating. 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music is perfectly terrifying, and the voice work is almost always spot-on. 4.0 Play Value
This is a great story to playthrough, but probably only once – maybe twice. There are a lot of satisfying collectibles and Achievements, but multiple difficulties don’t add very much. This aspect is what keeps the game’s overall score down. 4.2 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.