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.