When Remedy released their dark, moody game based on a dark, moody writer by the name of Alan Wake, the game was outshined by a little game called Red Dead Redemption on the sales charts. Many have argued this is in fact the reason for Alan Wake’s less than amazing sales, and they may have an argument there, but other games aside does Alan Wake deserve your attention? Read on as I try to shine some light on Mr. Wake.
The game takes place in the Pacific Northwest where Alan Wake, a successful writer stuck with a horrible case of writers block, and his wife are vacationing in hope of relaxing and getting Wake’s creative juices flowing again. Almost immediately things prove to not be what they seem in the quiet little town of Bright Falls, as Alan and his wife are attacked by a dark presence that he might fight in order to save his soon missing wife and figure out just what is going on. Remedy present the story in the form of a TV show, with each section of the game referred to as “episodes” in the show, completely with a “Previously on Alan Wake at the beginning of each one and a cliff hanger ending meant to make you want to tune in “next week” at the end of each episode as well (including in one case a use of the song ‘Haunted’ by Poe as the camera fade out that I was very fond of).
It is obviously from the start that this is a game that is story driven, and the not so subtle Stephen King, small town with a dark side aura is easy to take in. The entire concept and execution of the game is interesting for its’ uniqueness if nothing else. Top-notch voice acting and a well written, if not slightly convoluted story excel at making this more than just some concept game that falls flat in terms of execution. At its’ core, Alan Wake feels very much like being inside of a Stephen King novel, and I mean that in the best ways; the general creepiness that makes you expect death at every turn and trust none of the people you encounter. A game is made up of more than just a story though, in needs both the visuals to back it up and the quality gameplay to make it fun.
Alan Wake certainly has a type in regards to visual style. Making a rough estimation, and assuming you didn’t just “hang out” for any of these scenes, there is maybe an hour of game time that is spent in the light of day. The best way to describe the setting of Alan Wake would have to be poorly lit pine forest, as you will spend most of your time running down dirt paths with nothing more than moon light to guide you. The scenery is actually incredibly well done, if you have ever been in the woods during a full moon this will look pretty accurate to you. The town and other settings hold up ok as well, but it certainly seems more effort was put into making the view from certain cliffs look almost photorealstic rather than making the inside of a cabin so. Unfortunately the character models also don’t have the same impressive design qualities either; and the facial animations for everything other than pre-rendered cut scenes looks very dated. These are minor issues though compared to the often times maddening camera. Giving you the ability to float it to the right or left is almost cruel, as it will simply default back to the left after a few seconds, and more over I’m not sure why it floats on either side to being with. In a game where big angry lumberjacks made out of shadows and carrying giant axes are trying to kill you, the camera often manages to be one of your most prolific enemies.
The game does make another notch in the unique tally counter for its’ combat system. While sometimes very unforgiving, the use of light at your main weapon is, for the most part, executed with exceptional quality and gives Alan Wake a much greater sense of strategy when it comes to combat than most. All enemies must first be weakened, essentially having a force field of darkness that must be broken, before your guns can do anything to them. Light can also blind your enemies and give you precious seconds to reload or escape a very bad situation. Beyond just using a flashlight and a gun, the game plays with the light combat idea by giving you flares to hold off large groups, flare guns to not only light the way but also take out groups of enemies at a time, and my personal favorite, the flash bangs, which are like nukes to those shadowy bastards with the axes. There are also environmental “light traps” where you can lure enemies into light bright enough to kill them, or use lantern “turrets” which can be focused for devastating effect. When you aren’t lighting up a room with your smile/flash bang and shooting shadowy lumberjacks in the face with a shotgun, you’ll spend most of your time pressing the doge button in hopes of ducking under a swing of an axe or running like hell (but be forewarned, Alan clearly didn’t take track in high school). Once you get the hang of the combat, which admittedly takes some time, it is a fun and innovative system for dispatching your enemies, and after the story, probably the highlight of the game. The combat is at its most fun when you are not on your own and another character is fighting with you; but unfortunately those moments are fairly rare in the game.
The game does have some faults, or at least things that are bound to drive you a little crazy, although not as crazy as Mr. Wake. There are plenty of scenes in the game that feel like they should have been cut scenes instead, and on more than one occasion I missed picking up a collectible or two because a cut scene started even though I had yet to go where I needed to. The fact that many enemies could attack had a range attack that consisted of a never ending supply of axes thrown with amazing aim also made some combat situations a bit overwhelming, in a very frustrating way. There is also the not so subtle marketing in the game, from the constant need to collection Energizer batteries to power your flashlight, and the Verizon references. And of course I can’t forget one of my favorite annoyances, the bear traps that look almost identical to a manuscript pick up. Really had some fun with that in the first level with a bear trap. These issues aren’t enough to ruin the game experience, but are certainly bothersome when they occur.
Lastly, Alan Wake has two pieces of DLC that add two more episodes or “Specials” to the story. The first, The Signal, is included with all new copies of Alan Wake as a download code, the 2nd, The Writer is available on Xbox Live and has been on sale for under 240 MSP (or lower) twice now. This is an example of the DLC almost being required since they offer the closest thing you will get to a definitive ending to the game, and they are wildly different in terms of quality. The Signal is almost entirely combat based, and further exemplifies the “marketing” problem mentioned above; I kid you not when I say that in one scene you are on a phone and someone says to Alan “Can you hear me now?” The Signal is probably the weirdest in terms of story too, taking the oddness of the core game’s story and maybe going to far into just plain weird. Overall, it is a good thing that The Signal is free, as that is about the right price for it; I pretty much only recommend playing it to not skip the story leading into The Writer and the achievements. The Writer on the other hand really felt like a proper continuation of the game, both in terms of play style and story. The best way I can describe The Writer is to take the core game, and then add some LSD; as things get seriously strange, but in a very entertaining way; it also sports some pretty easy achievements as well. Even if the gameplay of The Writer wasn’t a good time, I would still have to recommend it purely for the sake of reaching a more definitive ending as I stated before. Not every question will be answered, but it is far more satisfying than the ending you are left with in the core game or The Signal.
To put it all together, Alan Wake deserves a lot of praise for being unique, challenging and genuinely fun to play. Very few studios are willing to take a chance with gameplay not immediately familiar to most gamers, and even fewer are willing to take that chance on a new IP that spent several years in development; and it is a real shame that Alan Wake didn’t perform better at release as I can’t help but think Remedy would really nail it with a sequel. While frustrating at times, the game will leave the vast majority of gamers who give it a shot feeling like their time was well spent. For the full experience, make sure to play the DLC as well; not doing so will make the game feel unresolved. All in all, for a game that can be found new in most places for under $20, it is well worth the price of admission.
Final Rating: 8.5/10
CBR Break Down:
Console Played On: Xbox 360
Approximate Time to Completion: ~15 Hours
Gamer Score Earned: 1200/1500
Price Bought at: $19.99
Recommend Purchase Price: $19.99 or under is more than fair for this title.