It seems like it's becoming more and more of a rarity to experience a game that manages to create a unique identity for itself in this day and age when publishers are less willing than ever to stray too far from the norm. Instead of innovating developers are tasked with copying the gameplay from the best selling games of the last few years in an attempt to duplicate the original titles sales numbers. Unfortunately this leads to a slew of games that play almost identically to one another, yet lack the heart of the game being emulated, which as often pointed out is best personified in the first person genre. This has lead to a staleness in the industry and has also resulted in me purchasing far less of todays blockbusters. On a positive note though, this change has also seen me looking at more games I missed out on originally as I attempt to find new gems to add to my collection. Despite it's flaws and occasional stumbles Alan Wake is without a doubt one of these gems.
At the time of its initial release a lot was said about Alan Wakes unusually long development time. Remedy spent five years working on Alan Wake and many gamers and critics were wondering if the wait wouldn't prove to be worth it; not unlike 2008s Too Human or the more recent Duke Nukem forever, two games with lengthy developments that landed on the wrong side of average. Fortunately this wasn't the case and Remedy proved that their time spent under Rockstars wing had taught them the value of polish and presentation. Two years after it's release the game is still a visual stunner with some of the best lighting effects in the industry. Seriously I never ever thought I would describe the way a flashlights beam shoots through the nights fog as beautiful but here I am doing just that. The attention to detail is also stellar and deserves a special mention. The lights in the back of a diner not working, and the rust on a fence or car really helps sell the feeling that this small rural town has existed long before the titular Mr. Wake ever set foot into it.
Voice acting is of a consistent quality throughout the whole affair and our heroes narration throughout the course of events made me think back fondly to the studios earlier Max Payne. Guns also have the right amount of pop behind them and the cheesy voices of the Taken oddly fit considering the games somewhat tongue in cheek tone. I mean what other game has it's main character derogatorily referred to as Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft within a 45 second span? The ambient noises are wonderful and the licensed music great but the games background music isn't anything special. It's not bad by any stretch of the word, but it's not as if you're going to find yourself humming one of your favorite tracks days later as you might with a Zelda or Metal Gear. Although the star of this show is the man, the myth, the legend,.... the Barry. Seriously his one liners will have you chuckling throughout this adventure and the little guys surprisingly death resistant too.
Oh Barry don't ever change
The main draw for me however was that claim of being a "Psychological Action Thriller" that the game proudly boasts on its front cover. I'm glad to report that this claim is fulfilled and that the games narrative will stay with me long after the sections of game-play remain little more than a blur in my mind. Alan Wake and his wife Alice arrive at the small rural town of Bright Falls (just in time for the local Deer Fest) so that Alan can attempt to clear his head. Alan is a famous best selling author but the problem is that he's been suffering from writers block for the past two years. The good news is that while in Bright Falls he overcomes his writers block and manages to write a whole manuscript in a little under a week. The bad news is that his wife was kidnapped by an entity known as the dark presence and that Alan was manipulated to write said manuscript. To put the cherry on top of this crap cupcake the events of the story he wrote are coming true and as events proceed and become increasingly more hostile, it becomes apparent that things will not end well at this rate.
The great thing however is how much is left open to interpretation in the games narrative. I'm sure the additional DLC further explains the events of the game but even without it I found the plot provided enough closure while still leaving the events of the game open ended enough to merit different interpretations of what exactly happened. Any game that decides to have me doubt the sanity of my main character, and even wonder if the events of the game occurred in it's own fiction is good food for the thought. And that's something we really don't get enough of in this industry.
Unfortunately when it comes to game play Alan Wake is more of a mixed bag. The basic gunplay is satisfying as you must first use your flashlight to weaken enemies before tearing into them with revolvers, shotguns, and hunting rifles. A stylish dodge maneuver helps keep things interesting and despite the lack of enemy variety throughout the adventure everything does remain entertaining. Flare guns, flash bangs, and environmental hazards add more ways to dispatch of the Taken. If the game kept things simple it wouldn't be so bad but the second half of the game starts throwing possessed objects at you and these encounters run the spectrum from heart pounding to mind numbing. When a bulldozer springs to life and begins charging you it is genuinely exhilarating, but when various crates and pitchforks start flying your way it begins to feel as if the development team started to run out of creativity.
Oh look another flying crate
At the end of the day Alan Wake is going to split gamers down the middle. Some will be turned off by the daytime sections which feature no action and claim it to be a piece of trash, while others might think it to be a horror title and will wind up disappointed when the game fails to deliver the scares. In my opinion though, Alan Wake is one of the best games available for the Xbox 360 and running around Bright Falls collecting manuscript pages and watching faux Twilight Zone episodes will remain some of my favorite moments in gaming. It won't please everybody but Alan Wake certainly fills a niche and it is likely to captivate its intended audience.