Alan Wake has seen delays and a mass quantity of hype. Some of that certainly lies in the hands of the media at large (go ahead and lump us in there too, if you like), but a lot of my personal excitement comes from the hype train that picked up speed after E3 2009’s preview. I specifically remember two lines at Microsoft’s booth last year: one for Halo: ODST and one for Alan Wake. The folks walking out of Alan Wake, while I was in line, always seemed more psyched up and more conversant than those walking out of Halo.
The subsequent days at E3 were spent talking with fellow press about what we had seen. Alan Wake, Scribblenauts, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Zelda: Spirit Tracks... noticing a trend here? Everything except for Alan Wake saw a Fall release. Here we stand, at the start of May, and Alan is scheduled to wake up in a few weeks.
So what has that extra time in the oven produced? Is this a game that lives up to the hype?
The company behind Alan Wake is Remedy Entertainment. They were the team responsible for Max Payne. In fact, they’ve been silent since Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. Remedy initially announced plans for Alan Wake for the 360 and the PC during E3 of 2005. Since then, plans for the PC have been scrapped and Alan Wake has spent over five years in production.
Remedy, however, has been known to change the name of the game. Don’t forget their introduction of the now over-produced, fridge-nuking, bullet-time gameplay mechanic. And, yes, they reference it here too. With Alan Wake, Remedy has set out to produce a new way to fight while making said way less easy to spoof. That’s how we’re reading it, anyways.
But before that, how about a little background? Alan Wake is the story of Alan Wake; a famous writer of thrillers. The game links Alan’s style to that of Stephen King’s as soon as it opens up by quoting the real life author. Alan’s wife Alice, who is deathly afraid of the dark, takes Alan up to Bright Falls for a vacation from the pressures of the real world. This small, touristy, wooded town is about to celebrate its’ annual Deerfest. The area is filled with hiking trails, nature parks and terrain that looks somewhat like Oregon or Washington state.
It’s on Caldera Lake that Alice corners writer’s-block-victim Alan with a typewriter and encouragement. Alan gets angry, argues with her and storms off. Alice is attacked and disappears. In order to find her, Alan must traverse the city of Bright Falls and discover its secrets, and the secrets of his own writing. The spoilers stop there. This is a game that relies entirely on the foundation of a strong narrative. No sense ruining that setup for the rest of ya’.
The narrative structure is presented in a fantastic episodic format. Each episode sits at about two hours in length, depending on how much exploring gamers want to accomplish. This length is a little disheartening. Rather than being presented with a nice, hour long session of gaming, players need to play for around two in order to achieve episode completion. And, the game is designed to take longer than that. Secrets and collectibles will keep some folks in each episode for two or three hours. The major issue is that the game gets easier the more players explore. Running off of the beaten path (usually hinted to do so with glowing arrows) results in extra ammo and stronger weaponry. Take the game slowly, become better prepared to conquer the darkness.
There’s always a perfect moment for the episode to stop about an hour in, but it just keeps going. So, every episode has like two hour long arcs. The arcs themselves are well paced and typically bring Alan through really intense moments while providing a strong amount of nerve jarring downtime. Normally, Alan starts out with the safety of daylight, but that slowly fades to darkness as the story picks up. Don’t misunderstand this criticism of episode length. The idea is awesome (the execution is definitely not bad), and the potential it brings to the table for future narrative structure and even DLC is astounding. I just wish the format had been a little more conscious of perfectly satisfying length.
Each episode is left with a cliffhanger and some sweet licensed music. Alan Wake is fantastic for its combination of original and licensed tracks. And each is used with perfect measure, thought licensed tunes can pickup in the midst of episodes as well. As episodes end, the jams kick in and players are left angry and humming. Perfect.
But the best part about Alan Wake isn’t how episodes end, it’s how they begin. Don’t worry about stepping away from this game for too long between episodes because you’ll be ushered back into the story with a nice reminder every time you start a new section. Literally, the voice of Alan starts each episode with "Previously on Alan Wake…" Then players are given a nice montage of moments from the previous episode. It’s amazing, honestly.
Back to motivation: if it isn’t obvious enough, this game is about Alan as he moves through Bright Falls looking for his wife. He’s attacked by townspeople and poltergeists, each consumed by darkness. The only way to defeat them, and this is where the unique mechanics come into play, is with light. Alan is armed with different light sources. From the beginning, however, it’s a flashlight. Every enemy is guarded by darkness; basically a black shield that makes them seemingly invincible. Alan must use the flashlight, by either shining it or focusing it on an enemy, to bust the darkness and then finish them off with a firearm.
This darkness bursting effect is seriously satisfying. Liken the sound and tension to blowing the overshield off of a Spartan in Halo. A circle will slowly tighten around the enemy as their darkness diminishes, once it closes the darkness busts into golden ember and the enemy is susceptible to gunfire. The flashlight itself is battery powered. It’ll run forever with recharging juice, but focusing the flashlight in order to strengthen the beam drains batteries. Batteries are scattered throughout levels, but players will regularly be in short supply. Batteries in ammo come in two varieties: feast and famine. Players will find spots stacked with refill potential, or they’ll scramble for 6 bullets for their revolver.
Alan will find flares, flareguns and flashbangs as he makes his way to the game’s end. True weapons like revolvers, rifles and shotguns are also scattered throughout the game’s world. Each has its own merits, though most players will likely fall back on the revolver. It’s an easy weapon with a larger availability of ammo. One point of note: aiming in this game is really, really easy. It feels good to pop a flare and clear a space filled with four dudes in less than 10 seconds. But, a shotgun shouldn’t kill someone 100 feet away as efficiently as someone shot at point-blank range.
The controls are nice and tight. Aiming feels good and walking, sprinting and running are alls pot on. The only imperfection lies in jumping or moving up and down objects. At one point, I was able to walk/slide my way up to the top of a cabin in the woods. Shouldn’t have been able to do it, but the physics surrounding inclines and jumping are a little wonky.
The shorter driving sections also work well. Use high-beams to break the darkness and run people over. Satisfying. Though the camera isn’t designed as well as it should be. The slightest nudge left or right swings the camera around the vehicle way too fast. You also won’t be able to pull the camera back away and up from the vehicle.
The enemies themselves are a little bit of a downer. Bright Falls seems jam-packed with rednecks wielding meat hooks and hatchets. Each of them, covered in darkness, looks the same as they attack Alan. The monotony is broken up with larger lumber workers, chainsaw dudes and angry birds–yes, birds. But, by and large, it’ll feel like fighting an unending horde of the same beast…only some of them are taller. Attacking patterns do vary based on victim type Some sprint, some practically teleport, some lumber and some lower their shoulders and go for the tackle.
The monotony behind the enemies is broken apart by the level and environmental design. Lumber yards, dark forests, dams, small town streets, power plants, abandoned farms… the variety works well to put a fresh take on the constant stream of fighting in the dark. It was a little surprising to see Remedy counteract the blinding repetitive nature of enemies appearing out of shadowy corners with the brilliance of variety in locales. It’s too bad that the opening portion of the game is so heavily wooded; players may be turned off by thinking this thing is entirely in the woods. It isn’t, promise.
The wooded sections do work, of course. Dark enemies blend perfectly into the black bushes, rocks and trees. This actually becomes a strong source of tension in the game. Players will constantly be wondering when and where the next opponent will emerge.
Beyond the darkness, lighting and sound play a huge role in keeping the tense moments tight. Alan Wake succeeds immeasurably in keeping tension strong through downright inspiring physical effects. The light from buildings, streetlamps, flashlights and road flares all looks completely different. And each effect presents a striking mood and style.
Sound falls in the same category. Grunts, growls and shuffles fill the woods at night. Playing with headphones was absolutely terrifying at times. The sounds surrounding Alan create a level of ambiance that arrives to open, scared arms.
Character dialogue is also very strong. Though, some faces (particularly Alice and a diner waitress) look a little too lifeless. In a story that relies heavily on narrative, it’s important to deliver it in an interesting and stylized way. Alan Wake succeeds. The voice acting is solid, though the self-narration can sound a little cheesy. The inter-character chatter is rock solid. In particular, every bit of dialogue split between Alan and either his friend Barry or the retired rockers is ‘effing awesome.
Alan Wake leaves players wanting more. But it does so in the best way possible. The final word on the game doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, but it’s clear that this was the design. The first few episodes, while intriguing, don’t compare to the last four hours. Fantastic stuff awaits players as they seal off the experience of Alan Wake.
It lives up to the hype, and in many ways surpasses our expectations. The story is thrilling, the characters are well developed, the gameplay is addictive and the potential for future DLC and sequels is more than welcome. We loved Alan Wake.