Alan Wake review
A Gradual Fading Light
Imagine you had the opportunity to write a novel that turns real, and you're the protagonist; I'm sure you'd be the handsome, superhero character who gets the hottest lady and has a great reputation across his hometown/country. You'd be a flawless figure who's pretty much invincible. But what if the story is being controlled by a dark presence that turns it into a psychological horror, and your job is then to work out a credible and happy ending for the protagonist (also known as you!). I bet you wouldn't be too pushed on being part of that story. Fortunately for you, the role is not yours but instead Alan Wake's, and his objective throughout is to try and make sense of the weird happenings around Bright Falls. If Stephen King had released a game on the Xbox 360, it would pretty much be this. Maybe it'd be a little creepier, but the influence is definitely evident right from the off - in fact, his name is thrown about a few times throughout the game. I'd go as far as saying this game was released on the right console, in the wrong era. Many gamers wouldn't respect a great story these days and would much prefer to just have themselves a generic action shooter; Alan Wake is most definitely not your generic game, and can come across as a breath of fresh air at times for all those thriving a good story.
Stories this good don't come around too often
The main reason why this game is such a breath of fresh air is because of how much thought went into in, on a story basis. If you think of psychological action/horror games, there are few you can count on one hand; in fact, the two that come to mind for me are this game itself and the original Max Payne - it's no coincidence that Remedy Entertainment developed both games. Alan Wake is a very successful novelist (I like to compare him to Stephen King in the game, but I'm sure you can put him down as any successful novelist in the past) who - after years of successful acclaim with his Alex Casey series of books as well as others - has suffered from writers' block for the past 2 years (when his last novel was published). Affected by his lack of creativity that he so craved, Alan and his wife Alice vacate New York and visit Bright Falls to escape their busy lifestyle. After arriving via boat, Alan visits the local diner to obtain the keys to Cauldron Lake (the place where him and Alice will stay) and it isn't long before we're given a real taste of how strange and eerie the town is, with eccentric, comic and down right creepy characters.
The couple take off to the lake and quickly begin to familiarise themselves with the place. After finding the mains fuse box for the cabin (Alice is terrified of the dark), Mr. Wake returns to discover that his wife has brought along his typewriter. Furious, Alan has a go at her as the main reason for his escape from New York was to clear his mind and take the pressure away from any writing. He storms off, leaving her alone in the cabin where it cuts to a shot of Alan at a frantic pace, his back to the cabin when the electricity goes once again. Perplexed, Alan hesitates then hears the haunting scream of his wife as she pleas for him to come and save her. After you rush back, you find that your wife has been thrown into the lake at the side of the cabin and Alan dives in without a second thought. Cut! A week passes without you even knowing what the hell is going on - you're still questioning so much of the last few minutes in your head. Alan has crashed his car and is taken to police headquarters to recover from his injury, and to be questioned. From there on out, without spilling the beans, your objective is to find out what happened in the week that past, and get to the bottom of the disappearance of your wife. Sounds like a lot to take in, doesn't it? And believe me, you will be clinging on to every word spoken, in order to retrieve more information about absolutely anything that could be considered important to the plot. Manuscripts are scattered throughout the game. Alan is given the deed of writing the story he's found himself in, and during the week that's disappeared off the face of the Earth, he's lost them. Finding and reading these manuscripts offers so much more to the story, and develops every character adding a serious amount of depth for a game that's quite short as a whole. In comparison to stories from games I've played in the past, this ranks up there with the very very best.
If only you knew your fate, Alan
Diving into novelty gameplay that eventually wears thin
The first moment you get a real taste of the gameplay is in a nightmare Alan's having before his crash. You're one of his novel's protagonists, and to your dismay, it's a horror novel! Darkness surrounds you and you must follow the path to the lighthouse in the distance. It's now that you get a taste of the game's controls - movement of the X and Y axes is fantastic, and will come to your aid on so many occasions when you need to turn around and take out fast-paced enemies. As a whole, the controls are quite similar to that of Alone in the Dark. LT to aim your flashlight, RT to fire, A to jump, X to reload, B is your action button, LB to sprint and the directional buttons to change weapons; pretty standard stuff to be honest. The controls aren't perfect though, sadly. The sprint button is almost pointless as Alan can sprint for about 3 seconds before he's exhausted (you'd think he was fat), and repeated sprints cause him to tire and move really slowly for a good 5 more seconds - now that's a long time if you're being chased by a dark presence or Taken (your dark enemy characters throughout). And if that wasn't bad enough, LB is also the same button to dodge attacks as it is to sprint; so the game decides when you're in and out of combat. If you're in combat and you want to run away, you'll end up looking like a goon with a limp - a soon dead goon for that matter. The jump button is borderline pointless as it often registers late and Alan doesn't exactly jump any great distances. To be honest, it's stuff like that that really hinder Alan Wake from being an amazing protagonist in a game.
Back to the gameplay; it's very enjoyable at the beginning of the game. You'll get a taste of the enemies you'll encounter at a very early stage in the dream. Your object is to shine your flashlight at these darkness Taken creatures to weaken them. If you don't destroy their 'dark shield' if you will, your bullets will do no damage. Sure, it'll slow 'em down but that counts for very little when you quickly run out of ammunition! Weaken the enemy with your light, then light them up (literally) with your bullets to create a slow motion and dramatic effect. As you progress through the game, you'll fight bigger and tougher creatures with a greater horde of enemies.
Once it becomes heated and intense with more enemies, you'll be able to use your flares, flasbangs, flare gun and shotgun. The best thing about the gameplay is how spontaneous everything feels. The horror element means that enemies can pop out at any given moment, from any direction so you'll forever be on your toes. The ominous winds that blow and the daunting darkness just add so much more to the effect and will make you want to sprint for the nearest lamp post checkpoint. As a whole, the gameplay slowly nosedives as you get towards the latter episodes of the game - the last two in particular. While it's so enjoyable at first, the repetitiveness of it in episode 5 onwards makes the game seem more like a chore than fun. Although the very last episode is supposed to feel like an epic journey to your final destination, it's so tiresome and there's a stage when you just wish it would end.
Weakening Taken with your flashlight before pulverising them
Lighting > Graphics
Alan Wake is played in third-person much like Max Payne, and in fact, the graphics are very reminiscent to that style. Take Alone in the Dark and add Max Payne and you've got yourself a beautiful baby Alan Wake. Cutscenes are ever-present and the graphics shine most in these. At times it looks and plays like a movie and there are moments when you wish it was a movie to achieve its full potential. And while the graphics are good on the eyes, the lighting shines bright (terrible pun, I'm sorry) in every moment of the game. Light is predominant for the whole journey - your flashlight is always by your side, weakening enemies requires light, killing them absorbs a huge flash, your flares protect you, enemies can't enter the light, lamp posts are 'safe havens' that give you checkpoints, the objectives ahead shine bright and the scenery is absolutely delicious. Normally I don't comment much on a game's lighting, but Alan Wake's lighting has such an effect on you that it'd be silly to not take note of it. The penetrating winds in the game are also worth noting; not only do they make you anticipate a nearby attack, but they terrify you as the trees of the forest (most of the game is played in forest terrain) often look like distorted enemy figures - and when a game frightens you, your mind likes to play tricks and make silly assumptions.
"You've created a time paradox!"
Weapons, characters and voice-overs that establish a fairly solid game
The game has quite a few setbacks, and the gameplay is its biggest con when you rack up the hours of playtime. However, there are some redeeming features that make the game shine. Starting with weapons; as aforementioned, there isn't a wide variety of weapons but my goodness do they make it work so well. At first, you'll come across a flashlight, handgun and flares to get a taste of the game. There isn't a lot to say about the handguns except that they add to the game's realism, but flares are fantastic. When you're overcrowded and outnumbered, dropping flares will make enemies cringe, drawing their attacks to a close temporarily and giving you time to regain health, flashlight battery or reload. Then you'll come across hunting and pump-action shotguns that have a serious kick to them and add an epic outcome to killing each enemy Taken. Shotguns are your main weapons for a little bit, then it turns to flashbangs, and flashbangs to flare guns to both have a similar effect; engaging either will cause enemies to explode into light and it's enemy deaths like this that gives the game redeeming quality.
Alan Wake himself is a sensational protagonist as mentioned before (with some minor control flaws), and both his narration and voice-acting is extremely effective and memorable. He narrates through the game using a dialogue effect to turns of events in the story as well as current objectives. He also narrates on each manuscript you find, and there couldn't have been a more suitable narrator unless you hired Morgan Freeman. Then you've got the dark presence's voice that's so terrifying any time you hear her, the Sheriff, Rose, the two old-school rockers and Barry who all create very credible and distinctive characters. Barry is probably the most enjoyable; he's Alan's agent and best friend and he shows up shortly after you begin to unravel what's going on in the strange place of Bright Falls. Although it's a horror, he creates so much comical scenarios with his thick, typical New York accent. If that wasn't good enough for you, he's fat and he wears this ridiculously large red/orange jacket that just adds value to everything funny he says. Towards the end of the game, he finds a way to kill the enemies, and at one stage he has Christmas lights all over him to 'kill the Taken' as well as a headlamp (calling it the 'flaming eye of Mordor'). Brilliant!
Good, but not sensational
Alan Wake is a game that'll grip you from the beginning. But unfortunately as you progress, your grip loosens and slowly you begin to fall. I'm sure it's not the same for everyone; the game is probably pretty amazing as a whole for others but it just slowly decreased in value as I reached the end. If it wasn't for the compelling story, I would've quickly lost interest and probably not have completed it. In terms of replayability, the game has a Nightmare mode where a few of the manuscript pages are only available - so if you want to 100% it, you'll have to play through it anyway. That said, I'm not sure if it'd be worth it. I'm sure you could have a look at the full manuscript online and it'll have a similar or better effect with less time dedicated to the game. There's no doubt in my mind if this was a book or movie (more importantly the former though) it would be absolutely fantastic. But because of the gameplay - and the lack thereof at times - the quality is hindered. Overall, you'll finish the game in 5-8 hours. I normally take as much time as possible with each game to let everything sink in and it took me about 8 hours to complete - it could easily take you 4 or 5. But then when it's done? There really isn't a lot to do, and that isn't fantastic for a game with no multiplayer mode whatsoever. If you can pick it up for a good price, I'd definitely try it out for the story, weapons and Barry alone (what a guy!), but I wouldn't go throwing my money at someone to purchase this. With that said, make a fresh novel out of it, and I'll bite your hand of.
OVERALL RATING: 7/10
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