Game Description: Alan Wake, developed by Remedy Entertainment for the Xbox 360, is psychological action thriller that incorporates the elements of a TV show with the interactivity of a video game for a uniquely immersive experience. A suspenseful story told in successive episodes, this release will treat players to top-notch graphics that give the game a stunning cinematic look.
HIGH The external environments are beautiful.
LOW The player sees far too much of them.
WTF The amount of back-attacks and birds.
Five years (plus) in the making, Remedy Entertainment's Alan Wake is finally upon us. Having gone through several changes and an unusually long development period, one of the biggest question marks in recent video game history has finally materialized. Billed as a psychological thriller and positioned to be one of Microsoft's biggest titles of 2010, this 360 exclusive has a lot to live up to. Though the game can justifiably boast a few successful elements, it ultimately ends up being a case of too little, too late.
When the adventure begins, Alan is a successful fiction writer who travels with his wife to the remote town of Bright Falls, Washington. Alan's hit a terrible case of writer's block, and the trip is intended to get him back in pagecrafting shape. Almost immediately after arriving in the town, Alan's wife is kidnapped and an evil force makes itself known by possessing local townsfolk and cloaking them in shadows. These spectral people are known as the Taken, and they're bent on keeping Alan from his goals.
While that premise sounds like the perfect setup for a brooding, slow-burn chiller or new spin on survival horror, the fact is that the majority of the game is spent jogging along mountainside trails blasting groups of enemies. It may come as quite a surprise to some, but it's most accurate to say that Alan Wake is a run-and-gun. It's actually a well-done run-and-gun, though. While the heavy emphasis on combat was somewhat misplaced, its quality should come as no surprise given that the same developers were also responsible for the seminal bullet-time shooter Max Payne.
Adding a layer of complexity to what would otherwise be standard firearms combat, the Taken are invincible until stripped of their shadows. The darkness surrounding them acts as their armor, so to damage them, Alan must wield his flashlight and strip the darkness away before opening fire. This two-step system is an interesting mechanic and builds a pleasant level of tension since it's worthless to reflexively fire on things that cross the player's path. It's also interesting to see pieces of equipment normally relegated to support roles come into play as powerful weapons. Things like road flares or signal guns are the most potent things Alan can get his hands on, and they're devastating to his attackers.
However, although the combat is engaging, I couldn't help but feel that it wasn't enough to base an entire game on. Remedy clearly disagrees, since so much time in Alan Wake is spent shooting in the woods.
To be fair, the forests and mountainsides the player traverses are extremely well-realized and very convincing. As someone who has actually lived in an area of Washington similar to the place where the game is set, I can say that the developers have accurately captured the essence of the land. I was impressed. That said, I felt as though I saw the same ten-minute segment of running-through-forest copied and pasted countless times. As beautiful as it may be, it's just too much.
Adding insult to injury, whenever the player returns to civilization, the developers use every trick conceivable (and even a few that aren't) to get the player back into the forest as quickly as possible. All sorts of questionable events happen to further this end—everything from multiple car crashes, pre-arranged meetings in remote campsites, a rogue FBI agent giving chase, or Alan simply jumping down the side of a cliff. Remedy goes back to the "forest shooting" well so many times that it strains both patience and suspension of disbelief, and feelings of stale repetition set in quickly. I will say that the game finally gets its act together in the tighter, more interesting final third, but by that point the player has already been subjected to an unhealthy amount of samey-same action without enough interstitial content to support it.
Speaking of supporting content, I'm sure that many readers at this point are wondering about the game's story. After all, Alan Wake has been touted for quite some time as a psychological tale of suspense. Although discussing certain aspects of the plot have been flagged as "off limits" in reviews, that's really not a problem here—the story is quite peripheral to the gameplay and poorly-told in general. That much is easy to discuss without any fear of spoilage.
For example, the central premise of Alan being a writer feels completely mishandled. A large part of the plot revolves around an unpublished manuscript that Alan does not remember writing. Rather than capitalize on this idea and build on it throughout, it feels as though it's an afterthought. The manuscript pages picked up through play (collectibles, of course) relate scattered bits of information that don't effectively enhance the story, nor are these pages and their "special qualities" used by or shown to the player in any significant way. We're simply told about them through vague suggestions in cut-scenes or asked to read short snippets of immersion-annihilating text, and it's left at that.
Other aspects of Alan Wake's tale are equally unsatisfying. Despite the large amount of voiceover narration meant to illustrate his internal character, it felt rushed and free of emotion—the work of someone more interested in delivering lines from a script than actually showing humanity. It also doesn't help that one of the biggest questions in the game is answered in a matter-of-fact cut-scene that has about as much impact as a wadded-up piece of paper thanks to poor development of supporting characters and sketchy plotting overall. The ending? It's the definition of anti-climax, and little payoff for a story that never builds up any steam.
Alan Wake puts up a front of being cerebral and deep, but it simply doesn't do the legwork to back it up. I had significant difficulty becoming invested in the events and found it very hard to care about anything that happened from start to finish. It may not have been the original intent of the developers, but the game's storytelling takes a clear backseat to running and gunning. It's unfortunate because the unsharpened core of something great is here. However, the end result in its current state is more like a one-trick pony birthed from a tryst between Twin Peaks and Alone in the Dark, only without the things that made each of those productions great.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, language, use of tobacco and/or alcohol, and violence. To be honest, I'm a little surprised that this game only rates a "T". There's tons of shooting possessed humans, and plenty of creepy weird things that would likely freak out younger players. It may not be excruciatingly graphic, but between the combat and the other elements, there is no way I would let children near the game. For older players only.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: You should be aware that the game uses audio cues to signal the arrival of enemies and the "all clear" when attackers are wiped out. There are usually visual cues to accompany enemies arriving and when the coast is clear, but players who miss them may find themselves spending extra time searching for enemies who aren't there anymore. There were other instances when hearing would be beneficial to other particular situations, so hearing-impaired gamers might notice themselves having to work a little bit harder.
HIGH Increased use of the game's psychological elements.
LOW The combat is infuriatingly cheap and unbalanced.
WTF The Signal's product placement for Verizon is unbelievably blunt.
If you read my review of Alan Wake, then you know I wasn't a huge fan. While the premise offered much potential, it was disappointing to see the developers stick to a repetitive run-and-gun formula while refusing to capitalize on the things that made the title unique; things like the main character being a writer, or how the adventure had to do with a "dark place" and its ability to alter reality.
To call Alan Wake a missed opportunity is putting it mildly.
Much to my surprise, the developers have done an about-face in the postgame DLCs, both The Signal and The Writer. While neither is perfect by a long shot, I felt as though they both captured and built on elements I enjoyed in the campaign. On the other hand, the combat is still so miserable (especially in The Signal) that it's difficult to wholeheartedly recommend either.
Without spoiling the content (and really, there's not much to spoil) the add-ons take place in sequence directly after the campaign's end, and neither delivers any post-game revelations. While the status quo for Alan stabilizes a bit, those looking for a substantial "what happens next?" resolution won't get it. However, what they will get is a double dose of what should have been in the game in the first place—psychological head trips inside Alan's mind.
Both Signal and Writer feature the kind of surreal, fanciful, and deceptive level design that was only vaguely hinted at before. This time around, doors don't lead where the player expects them to, familiar sites become strange and foreign, and the world as Alan sees it is broken up into jumbled bits of memory and impression. As far as I'm concerned, both of these DLCs offer better (and far more interesting) environments to explore than any that were seen in the main game.
This tantalizingly disconcerting work is further supported by the developers re-establishing the relationship to Alan's novelist persona. The old (and totally ineffective) mechanic of picking up lost novel pages is given a quick nod and then shoved aside in favor of planting actual words in each level. As Alan journeys along, he often comes across seemingly incongruous bits of prose—nouns literally floating in the air. Snippets like "BOOM", "TOOLS" or "BRIDGE" litter the landscape. When Alan shines his light on them, the concepts are transformed into what they describe. (An explosion, ammo, and a wooden platform, respectively.)
This trick was previously seen only briefly at the end of the campaign, but I'm quite glad it gets major play this time around. It's a perfect fit for the game, not only as a way of acknowledging the literary connection, but also as a very clear manifestation of the fluid otherworld Alan finds himself trapped in. Whatever he imagines can become reality, and this was a concrete translation of that theme.
Something I also found positive was that there's much more time given to Alan's internal thought processes, from both himself and from figments of his imagination that have no problem voicing the things that Alan knows, but can't admit. While I still don't care much for Alan as a character (he's a complete ass, really) I felt as though I finally got the kind of internal dialogue that this project had been screaming out for.
While I was surprised at my appreciation for the themes and level design in The Signal and The Writer, I had no appreciation whatsoever for the combat. For some reason, the developers display a sickening fetish for back-attacks and enemies that seem to pop out of nowhere. There are a few tense setpieces that impress in The Writer, but the general unpleasantness of encounters is especially bad in The Signal—I found myself dying at least once or twice every time enemies appeared. Unfortunately, this wasn't the kind of difficulty that made me want to get strategic and rise to the challenge; it just made me hate the low-blow enemy placement. I soon learned to run away from as many ambushes as I possibly could, and I would recommend the same to anyone else.
After playing through both The Signal and The Writer, the biggest impression I'm left with is that these two chunks of game (hateful combat aside) are better than anything that came on Alan Wake's retail disc. They illustrate Alan as a character, they immerse him in a world of his own internal madness, and they play to the strength of the premise in a way that actually makes sense. I can honestly say that if these levels had been included in the main campaign, my overall evaluation would've been significantly higher.
...The question now is, did the developers come to this shift in design after seeing negative feedback from Alan Wake's release, or were these best bits of the adventure intentionally held back from the start?
Disclosures: These pieces of content were obtained via paid downloads and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 2 hours of play were devoted to The Signal, and 1.5 hours were devoted to The Writer. Both pieces of content were completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, language, use of tobacco and/or alcohol, and violence. To be honest, I'm a little surprised that this game only rates a "T." There's tons of shooting possessed humans, and plenty of creepy weird things that would likely freak out younger players. It may not be excruciatingly graphic, but between the combat and the other elements, there is no way I would let children near the game. For older players only.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You should be aware that the game uses audio cues to signal the arrival of enemies and the "all clear" when attackers are wiped out. There is usually a visual cue to accompany enemies arriving, but very rarely when the coast is clear. Players who have hearing issues may find themselves spending extra time searching for enemies who aren't there anymore. There were other instances when hearing would be beneficial to other particular situations, so hearing-impaired gamers might notice themselves having to work a little bit harder.
Seems like we've been hearing about Alan Wake for years now…oh, it's because we have. Doesn't matter to me, though—when games look this good, you almost don't mind the wait if it means they're getting it right.
The title (developed by Remedy Entertainment—the guys who gave us the Max Payne games) made an appearance at E3 yesterday, and it looks incredible. Alan Wake is being billed as more of a "psychological thriller" than a survival horror title, but it looks to feature enough creepy visuals to keep even the most discerning genre fans looking over their shoulder as they clutch their 360 controllers with sweaty fists.
The game centers on Alan Wake, an author who travels to the town of Bright Falls with his wife Alice. She goes missing, and Wake finds himself trapped in a nightmarish world where it appears as though the events in his latest novel are happening around him. This gives off a very In the Mouth of Madness vibe, which is a movie I adore, so I'm totally in on this one.
Remedy states that game will be mission-based and presented in an episodic fashion, comparing it to Fox's The X-Files. Light and dark will affect the gameplay in various ways (using it apparently weakens enemies and causes damage) and it appears as though there's a sort of "bullet time" element at work in the game as well (it's in the latter part of the trailer).
I'll definitely be bringing you more on this one as the game gets closer to its spring 2010 release. Until then, tide yourself over with the new trailer.
Find more on The Horror Geek blog.
Although it's currently still under review embargo, Microsoft's PR reps have said that talking about and previewing the first episode of Alan Wake (360) is fair game. So, although certain elements of it have been labeled "hush-hush", I can still spill a little...
With the game having been so long in coming, I'm sure that most of you reading this are already quite familiar with the premise—but just in case: Successful fiction writer Alan Wake has contracted a serious case of writer's block and decides to take a trip to a remote, woodsy location in "Bright Falls, WA" as a way of relaxing and getting back into his groove. Almost immediately after arriving, Alan's wife is kidnapped and a mysterious evil presence makes itself known by possessing local townsfolk and turning them into shadowy homicidal killers.
The first thing that struck me was that the environmental work is fairly impressive. The woods look convincing, and the mountainous, rural location is believable. Having personally lived in Washington in an area not unlike the game's setting, I can say that things felt "right". The devs did a great job in capturing the land. The work on light/dark effects is also rather striking in certain areas.
In terms of how the game plays, Wake definitely sports a very marked action bent. When the possessed townies show up, Alan must first de-shadow them with his flashlight, stripping away the protection granted by the evil force. Once that's done, they're susceptible to standard firearms and can be taken out with a few shots. Standing in pools of light (under a street lamp, for example) refills Alan's health, and spare ammunition and batteries are available in good supply. I suspect that some players may be caught off-guard by the Uncharted-like emphasis on action, but the flashlight/gun mechanic is easy to grasp and adds a nice level of tension since enemies can't be defeated until they've been properly illuminated.
I'd like to say more, but anything else worth talking about at this point would probably be viewed as off-limits. If you're still curious about the title and want to know more about what to expect, I think it's fair to say that if you mashed up Twin Peaks + Alone in the Dark: Inferno + Uncharted you wouldn't be too far off...
In other games news, I'm extremely sad to report that I have officially stopped playing Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth on DS. If you take a quick glance to your right, you'll see that the original Phoenix Wright is on my "top ten of all time" list, and deservedly so. In large part, its ranking is due to Edgeworth himself, and the masterful way Capcom wrote him. Upon meeting him in the first game, he seemed so cutthroat and relentless. Contrary to that first impression, over the course of the game it's revealed that he has an unyielding sense of honor which eventually leads him to become almost an ally of sorts. I had high hopes after hearing that he was going to star in his own title, but the end result has been bitterly disappointing.
The level of writing isn't nearly as sharp and witty as it has been in the past—though to be fair, the Ace Attorney series has been on a downward slope since #1. Besides the dialogue, the cases Edgeworth finds himself involved with aren't compelling at all. I would literally start getting sleepy after just a few minutes, my fatigue causing me to play at a glacial pace, taking a week to get through what would normally take me an afternoon. It was a hard decision to quit since I've played through the previous four titles, but each one has been worse than the last and this is just the last straw. I never thought I'd say about and Ace Attorney title, but I quit.
Finally, the PSP Mini scene has been heating up a bit lately. That particular section of the PSN store has seen fairly regular additions over the last few weeks, and the quality of the releases has certainly been improving.
If you follow me on Twitter, you probably saw me raving about Monsters (Probably) Stole My Princess. Incredibly cute and funny, the player takes on the role of a delusional vampire whose Princess has been swiped. Tracking down the culprit, this vamp double-jumps his way up long vertical stretches in the pursuit of various creatures in his realm. There's really not much more to it than jumping and trying to string together combos by not touching the same platform twice, but it's incredibly addicting and very well-done. I enjoyed it enough to complete it 100%, and I really can't remember the last time I could say that about a game.
Other Minis that have caught my eye include Freekscape: Escape From Hell, Normal Tanks, and Retro Cave Flyer. I haven't had much time to spend with any of these, but what little I saw of each leads me to think that they will be worth checking out in detail. If you've got a Minis recommendation of your own, leave a comment and let me know!
Alan Wake is certainly not a terrible title, but it is repetitive and fairly underwhelming—doubly so for a game that's been in development for more than five years. I give credit to the developers for some beautiful environments and a combat style that's sensible and engaging, but it's weak in most other areas. I also have to say that for a game that's been so heavily touted for its story, I found the plot to be poorly-structured and unsatisfying.
(A side note to you preemptive Alan Wake fanboys who've been posting negative remarks on the review: At least have the decency to wait until the game hits retail before tearing my evaluation down. If you've got a reason to disagree with me, I'd love to hear it. Present your case. Tell me your rationale. I'm honestly interested. However, you really don't have a thing to say until you've actually played the game, you "every other site gave it a 9" tossers.)
In other games news, I've been spending a bit of time with Retro (mini) on PlayStation Portable. It's a new take on the old formula where players pilot a ship of some sort through obstacles and caves while struggling against gravity. I think the first game of its type ever played was Solar Jetman way back on the NES, and this isn't much different. However, although it's not reinventing the wheel, it's got a clean presentation and it handles well. If you've got an itch for this sort of thing, I think it will be pretty well scratched.
Also just finished off the Blue Toad Murder Files series on PSN with the wife. My review of the first three (of six) chapters is right here. Although it's lean on gameplay, a few of the puzzles are bogus, and the story isn't as tight as it could be, I admit that I had a soft spot for the dialogue and characters. Some of that stuff just completely cracks me up. The butcher? Pure gold. If the game was a little more robust in terms of how many puzzles were offered and had the multiplayer tweaked, I would have no problem recommending it to others. As it stands, it's fairly flawed, though there's a lot to like if you dig kooky cut scenes.
One final bit on games, I was quite lucky this week and won a copy of Monster Hunter Tri from GameZone in one of their contests.
Though I'm totally in love with the concept of hunting giant monsters, my experience with the original PlayStation 2 Monster Hunter was quite negative and I couldn't possibly conceive of any way the follow-up PSP version could have possibly been worth my time. Even so, I still think the concept is golden and reviews of Tri have been very favorable. I'm really hoping that Capcom has tweaked the formula enough to finally deliver the goods. At this point, I wasn't convinced enough to put my own money down on it, but I will most definitely put a free copy through its paces.