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Alan Wake – Game Review

Alan Wake XBox Cover Art

Release Date: May 18, 2010
System: Xbox 360
Rating: Teen
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft

A long long time ago, back in the Summer of 2005, a little project called Alan Wake made its debut at E3. The game started development at least four years before that. And now it’s finally been unleashed on the world as an Xbox 360 Exclusive title. This is the first game from Finnish developer Remedy Entertainment since The Fall of Max Payne in 2003. Does the game show its nine year development stage? Has it been worth the wait? Welllll…yes and no.

You play as the titular Alan Wake, a hugely popular crime author, who hasn’t been able to knock out a decent novel in the past year or two. So he does what I’m led to believe all good moody novelists do when they’re suffering a block: vacation to a creepy cabin on a creepy lake in the creepy woods of the Pacific Northwest. Alan is joined on this trip to a generator-powered cabin by his loving wife, Alice, who happens to be terrified of the dark. Not long after the couple arrives at the cabin and get settled in, they have a fight. Alan runs off into the night, knowing she won’t follow him. A few minutes later we hear Alice screaming in terror as the cabin’s generator has shut down. How unlucky is that?! Upon bursting back into the cabin, Alan follows the screams to the deck, where the railing is broken, and we see what appears to be Alice in the water below. Alan jumps in.

[ad#longpost]What follows that is six “episodes” of what’s quite possibly the most twisting and engrossing plot to come to video games so far. As soon as you think you have what’s real and what’s not figured out, the game throws another twist at you. Alan’s mad search for his wife fills itself out into a journey that will drag you through mental hospitals, mines, a dam, and one most spectacular sequence…that I will not spoil for you. Through the whole game Alan finds pages of a manuscript of a book that he wrote (and even the pages themselves are quite well written). What’s more, the pages all describe events that just happened, and eventually…events that will happen. All the while you will have to defend yourself from the possessed denizens of the quiet mountain town, known as The Taken, and other effects of what’s called The Dark Presence.

The game has a lot of obvious influences, and isn’t ashamed about putting them right out in front for all to see. The story is obviously Stephen King all over the place, and indeed the first lines of narration in the game start with “Stephen King once wrote…” The town, called Bright Falls, and the characters you’ll meet along the way might as well be lifted directly from Twin Peaks. At one point you’ll meet an FBI agent who is described as hating little communities, and “he doesn’t like the trees or the coffee.” Understandably, there is also a huge influence from this team’s only other major project, the film-noir-drenched Max Payne games. The game play is similar, and there are several nods to it in the game, including the return of the voice of Max himself, James McCaffrey.

The world of Bright Falls is as painstakingly-detailed as you could want it to be. This is where Remedy’s marathon development really shows itself. It almost seems like a real place you could visit, you know, if it weren’t computer-animated and plagued by an unnamed evil. And you will be able to stop and admire the scenery, at least when you aren’t running in terror. Scattered around the world are working radios and televisions where you can listen to the local radio station and watch episodes of Night Springs. Night Springs is a direct take-off of The Twilight Zone, and these short five minutes bit consist of concepts that are interesting enough that they could hold up as films or episodes of a TV show on their own.

Alan Wake town

The sound design is amazing. This is a game you’ll want to play with headphones on, as long as you don’t mind changing your underwear once in a while. The Taken will sneak up on you every chance they get, and footsteps rushing up from behind might be your only warning. The effect on the possessed voices turn the sometimes hilariously out-of-context lines that they have (imagine a dark axe-wielding figure running at you, growling “Omega-3 fatty acids are good for your heart!”), and makes them absolutely frightening. The score does its job well; sullen, suspenseful, dramatic, and panicked all at the appropriate places. To support the “episodes of a TV series” motif, Remedy has also licensed tracks from artists including Roy Orbison, Dead Combo, Harry Nilsson, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Poe, The Rumble Strips, David Bowie, and Remedy’s in-house band Poets of The Fall.

The only trouble I see with this game is in how great it is. The story may be a little too subtle and complex for the meat-head “Madden” and “Halo” gamer looking for a scary shooter, and the scary shooter might be a bit frustrating for some casual gamers wanting to experience the complex story. Even so, the cutscenes are skippable, and the scary shooter is far from impossible, even though you’ll need a few tries to get though some sequences. The gameplay is that of a third-person shooter. Alan, being a writer and not a space marine, has been thrown into a hostile world when fighting is not his greatest skill. He can shoot, dodge, run, and not much else. No cover system, no diving and rolling, no bullet time meter. Just you, flashlights, and whatever you can find lying around. Luckily what you’ll find lying around consists of a revolver, two different shotguns, a hunting rifle, a flare gun, road flares, and flashbang grenades.

You might notice a heavy lean toward bright shiny things there. Your best friend in the game is light. Light is the only way to burn off the dark energy surrounding The Taken, so you can hurt them. Some light sources like the flare gun will just totally dissolve some weaker enemies altogether. There are also street lights and floodlights that act as safe havens, making all the bad things go away as long as you stay in the light…or the light doesn’t go out.

The game isn’t perfect of course. Though there is some room to explore and take different paths, the game is totally linear. In today’s world of open-world sandbox games, it’s something noticable, especially when the game was originally promised to be an open world. The graphics, though certainly realistic, aren’t breaking down any borders. They look like they’ve been around since the beginning of the current generation of consoles. The lip-syncing on the characters isn’t great, and some of the voices don’t fit their character models at all. The episodic angle that the game takes is interesting and well done, but I would have liked to see them take the concept a lot farther. I wouldn’t be surprised if we found out the episodic concept was just tacked on as a vehicle for the later installments in the series, whether major release or DLC, both of which Remedy promises are coming. In that respect, it will likely do its job well.

Alan Wake light

Probably the biggest issue the masses will take with Alan Wake is product placement, something that hasn’t been seen much outside of racing games. Disregarding the “OMG Capitalism sucks” argument, and the “game’s gotta be paid for somehow” argument, I’m of two minds on this. On one hand, there’s the added realism factor of it. Alan and cast drive Ford and Lincoln cars equipped with the Microsoft Sync system, use Verizon cell phones, play Xbox 360s, and you can’t walk thirty feet in the game without tripping over a pack of Energizer batteries. In theory this can help immerse you in the world. Real people use Energizer batteries, not Fake-O Brand batteries. Incidentally, you’ll likely use up hundreds of batteries over the course of the game. You wouldn’t think Energizer would want to be associated with such a short life span. Then again, they ARE being used to cleanse the souls of the possessed. I guess there’s a trade-off. Anywho…

On the other hand, we’re so use to seeing Fake-O Brand things in games that when we do see a phone emblazoned with the Verizon logo, it makes you go “Hey, he’s got a Verizon phone!”. You’re totally taken out of the game, and dragged back into the real world, if only for a few seconds. So is product placement in games a terrible thing? I don’t know, but it gets games made when developers need cash, and we’re probably going to be seeing more and more of it because of this.

Overall, I give Alan Wake (or what probably should be called Alan Wake: Series 1) four cups, which might be a bit low. It has many strengths, and manages to take its shortcomings and spin them in a way that seems unique, or at least justified. It will certainly go down as one of the greatest stories in gaming, in spite of its ambiguous ending. For now, there is a standard and limited edition of the game available. The LE is $20 more, comes in a hardback book cover, and includes the soundtrack/score, a 144-page book, some behind the scenes videos, and an in-game developer’s commentary; something I already greatly regret not having. Both editions of the game come with a redeemable code for the first DLC episode, due out in July.

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