After five years in the making, it's time to wake up
A successful, Stephen King-inspired horror novelist, whose dressing style features a suit-jacket with leather elbow pads, isn’t someone you’d expect to be an action hero. However, the titular protagonist of Remedy’s long awaited psychological action thriller, Alan Wake, is surprisingly adept at wielding all manner of powerful firearms. Maybe it should have been expected given Remedy’s pedigree for cinematic action with the brilliant Max Payne, but since Alan Wake’s announcement back in 2005, we’ve seen a variety of different ideas come and go, from the vast open world to dynamic weather cycles, deadly tornadoes and everything else in between. It’s been hard to gauge what exactly Alan Wake is, but the wait is finally over, the game exists, and it’s an intriguing third-person shooter with a heavy emphasis on story and the creative ways it tells it. Alan Wake might not be what we imagined, but the unexpected nature of it is as mysterious and enjoyable as the story it weaves.
Having written multiple bestselling novels, Alan Wake has spent the last two years suffering through a severe case of writer’s block. With his mind stumped for ideas, he and his wife Alice head to the idyllic, small logging town of Bright Falls, Washington in America’s Pacific Northwest. After setting up their cabin, things take a turn for the worse and Wake finds himself waking up after a car crash, with no recollection of how he got there. He’s missing a week of his life, Alice has mysteriously gone missing and members of the town have turned into axe wielding maniacs, controlled by a malevolent darkness intent on stopping Wake and his efforts to find Alice. It’s an interesting premise, with the narrative building and building towards its conclusion, introducing many engrossing scenarios, enjoyable characters and clever plot twists. The writing is fairly strong throughout, with Wake narrating, via inner monologue, in a similar style to any number of psychological horror novels. At times it can border on the realms of parody, but it’s so self aware, even referencing Stephen King, or Jack Nicholson in The Shining, that it never goes over the edge.
The twists and turns will keep you engaged, but the narrative is extensively complemented by intelligent and anomalous storytelling. Episodic gaming is certainly nothing new, but it’s rarely contained within a single game. Alan Wake is set up like any serialized TV show, with six self-contained episodes within the games overarching narrative. This presents short, one to two hour tales that escalate in excitement before the inevitable, shock-inducing, cliff-hanger ending. You can easily play these episodes one at a time, but after each cliff-hanger it’s hard to put it down; you just want to keep playing to find out what happens next. It’s extremely effective and the fantastic pacing and flow allows for plenty of pay-off and action in each episode, much like a gripping TV show.
Throughout your adventure you’ll also find hidden manuscript pages. They’re written by Wake, though he has no memory of ever writing them, and over time the words begin to come true, integrating into the narrative. Collecting them isn’t compulsory but you’ll want to seek out each one since they help pad-out the story and sometimes provide a different perspective on events. It might seem like an odd choice to reveal what’s going to happen before it does, but it works well, adding tension before the situation is brought to life, exemplifying the role these manuscripts have on the fiction. Disappointingly, however, the writing is a little uneven here, encompassing many clichés and over-exuberant metaphors – whether purposeful or not. You must also read each one in the pause menu despite Wake’s inner monologue. It breaks up the flow of the action when they could have easily been read in conjunction with the gameplay.
While there’s a degree of downtime for exposition, Alan Wake is still, primarily, a third-person action adventure. Wake moves with a fantastic sense of weight that gives a real, satisfying feeling to the movement. Jumping can be a tad iffy, though there isn’t a great deal of it to be done, with a small amount of environmental puzzles here and there. For the most part you’ll be exploring the dark, foreboding forests and abandoned structures of Bright Falls. At night, the forest truly comes to life with some phenomenal lighting and weather effects, creating deservedly eerie shadows. The sense of atmosphere is almost unparalleled, with the density of growth moving with the howling wind as an oppressive fog lurks above the ground, composing a genuinely nightmarish landscape within the game’s sublime attention to detail and authenticity. Bright Falls looks and feels like a real, living, breathing town, and that makes it all the more frightening. Alan Wake doesn’t go for cheap, jump thrills; it’s the sense of dread and apprehension of what’s to come that gets the heartbeat pumping. Your enemies are created from the shadows, able to attack from any angle provided there’s no light source to stop them.
Because light isn’t just a guide to the next safe haven, it’s also your most reliable weapon against the darkness and the transformed townsfolk known as ‘The Taken’. Wake always carries a flashlight with him, and mixed with the more conventional weaponry, they form a potent combination. To kill your foes you’ll need to drain the darkness from them by focusing your flashlight beam on their bleak figures. Once the darkness has gone they’re susceptible to damage from your arsenal of weaponry, whether it’s a revolver, double-barrelled shotgun, pump-action shotgun or hunter’s rifle. It’s an enjoyable mechanic, utilising the light before going in for the kill, separating it from other third-person shooters, however minimally. And while the movement feels very weighty, the shooting is precise and intuitive. The beam from your flashlight is clear to see and the bullets follow its path allowing for some accurate shots.
However, Alan Wake isn’t like a Silent Hill – putting you up against one or two enemies at a time - but goes much further, and you really have to manage the crowd. Because of the darkness, your enemies appear from everywhere and you really have to watch your back. There’s a useful dodge move, complete with stylish use of some cinematic slow-motion. But to successfully survive you’ll need to exercise other light sources. The flashlight is highly effective at draining the darkness and knocking enemies back, but when you find yourself surrounded, flares, a flare gun and flashbangs prove immensely useful. Flares might not be able to drain the darkness in an acceptable amount of time, but using them will propel enemies back, away from its light, allowing ample time to reload and plan the next assault. Flare guns, on the other hand, are Alan Wake’s equivalent to a rocket launcher, able to destroy multiple enemies at once, much like the flashbangs and the frag-like effect they have on ‘The Taken’. Combat in Alan Wake is an immense juggling act between these different methods of destruction. ‘The Taken’ attack in droves so you really need to use every tool in your arsenal to survive, particularly on the higher difficulties. It’s clear Remedy learned a lot when developing Max Payne, and they’ve applied their methods here to create an extremely gratifying shooter.
Sadly, it does run out of steam before the ten hour story comes to a close. The combat is enjoyable, but Alan Wake is a one-trick pony, so repetition eventually sets in. Combat is strong enough to stand up on its own, particularly when you factor in some of the sublime set-pieces, but it would have been nice to see a little more variety to proceedings besides from the few short puzzles. It certainly doesn’t help that the enemies are severely lacking in any sort of variety. You’ll spend the entire game fighting the same five enemy types, both in look and attack patterns. There are a few poltergeist moments as the darkness manifests itself in inanimate objects, but these moments are more about avoiding attacks than fighting back.
It’s also awfully linear. Your next objective is clearly marked on the mini-map and the path there is essentially a straight line, more often than not. It’s a drastic departure from the open-world game we thought Alan Wake would be, and while the linear path helps the narrative, it would have been nice to see a bigger emphasis on exploration. You get a sense of its previous scale in some of the short driving sections, but otherwise Alan Wake is a linear journey. If you do veer from the obvious path, there are some collectibles to find, however. Besides the manuscript pages, you can also find things like coffee thermoses and crates of supplies. They’re not particularly exciting, and definitely not worth coming back for on multiple playthroughs, unless you crave the Achievements. However, there are some worthy Easter eggs to find, and a brilliant, in-game, Twilight Zone-style TV show called Night Springs. You’re supposed to be saving a friend from grave danger, or running from the darkness, but find yourself transfixed by this delightful little TV show. It’s a masterful inclusion, and along with the local radio station, augments the game’s already superb atmosphere.
It’s a shame that same atmosphere suffers during the day. While the night sections are decidedly impressive, the visuals take a pounding once the sun comes up. There’s no doubt the draw distance is amazing, but shadows are extremely jaggy and low-res, along with the textures, and there’s a degree of pop-up during driving sections. At night it gets substantially better, though there are some problems with screen tearing, and certain shadows still look poor. Animation also looks odd and is downright terrible on faces, especially the lip syncing, so it does take some shine off of the presentation. However, whoever compiled the soundtrack deserves a medal. David Bowie, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, anyone?
Remedy said they spent so long developing Alan Wake because they wanted it to be as perfect as possible. While it may not reach the realms of perfection, it’s still a stunning title that’s almost worth the long wait. The Finnish developers have built a believable universe surrounded by a strong narrative, impressive storytelling techniques and enjoyable combat with a unique twist. It has its flaws with repetition, linearity and some poor presentational issues, but this is a world ripe for a sequel to improve upon every single aspect. It might take another five years, but you can guarantee it will probably be worth it.