Cue a sleepy logging town. Darkness and fog settle amongst the lush forests and the only light available comes from the stars which pierce the void, only barely. A middle aged man comes thrashing through the woods armed with a flashlight and a pistol. The danger literally surrounds him.
The setting for Alan Wake is the aforementioned town, Bright Falls and playing this action based psychological thriller will see you doing plenty of running and stumbling. As with most games Alan Wake involves a classic good versus evil concept but plays this out via the most simplistic metaphor possible; evil is darkness. It's a notion pushed into our psyche from an early age, villains always seem to be lurking in shadows. Nontheless it's somewhat unsettling to experience this idea taken to its logical conclusion where the villain is the shadow.
It's a raw and honest portrayal that's fitting of a novel by the eponymous author protagonist, Alan Wake. Just as appropriate is his motive, to find his wife who seems to have been taken by the darkness. Simple, blunt, to the point. Wakes direct narration ties the package together especially as events and revelations become more elaborate. The game doesn't talk down to the audience, it clearly speaks to them and allows events to unfold naturally as both Wake and we piece together the puzzle.
In some respects the story feels more coherent than the playable part of the experience, which let's face it is fairly significant. It has all the bearings of an entirely linear game but every once in a while you'll be expected to jump in a car and navigate your way across miles of countryland and roads to get to your destination. There appears to be limitless tracts of land that you could cover but you constantly have a compass pointing out quite clearly where you should go. There's no problem at all with the game having an entirely linear level structure, it just feels difficult, if not nigh on impossible, to justify these weird snatches of open world gameplay. There's nothing in these patches that couldn't be portrayed through better level design, or in most cases, a ten-second cutscene of Wake arriving at his destination, bar a few obscure collectibles which could have been placed at any other position of the linear levels.
Fortunately the combat takes up far more of the game than the odd driving tasks and is handled with much more fluidity. For the most part Wake finds himself fighting humans who have been possessed and amoured with a layer of darkness. The only way to kill them is to first remove the layer of darknes shrouding their bodies and this is where the light v. darkness comes into play, literally. Most of the time you'll be using the standard flashlight to wear enemies down before taking a few choice shots at the bodies beneath with a firearm of your choice. You'll also make good use of the flare guns and stun grenades which will wipe out taken enemies in spectacular pyrotechnic fashion. Standard handheld flares will keep enemies at bay and can be strategically placed to buy some time to reload a gun or fire up a generator to provide light-based cover from any enemy attacks. It's a basic combat system but holds true throughout the game, especially when the environments begin to play more of a role in battles later on in the game and provide numerous opportunities for the player to take full advantage of the light mechanic.
Perhaps most impressive in Alan Wake is the atmosphere it evokes. As the game wears on, regardless of how familiar of the mechanics you are, the game has an eerie feel about it that doesn't seem to get old. The shifty, silhouetted forest proves considerably more haunting than any shuffling taken opponents. The poltergeist objects which appear later in the game stick to their title well and prove to be more of an annoyance than a seemingly credible threat but the deep shadowy woodland is one that never quite loses it's disturbing charm. In crafting Alan Wake, Remedy have proven that rousing real tension and mood provoke more skipped heartbeats than a frantic search for ammunition in any of the countless survival horror games out there ever could.
Alan Wake is an unsettling and brilliant ride in spite of a few design problems and although it might not revolutionise horror games, it certainly makes an impression from beginning to end.