Fright Train to Awesometown
I have been on a quest for a really good story driven suspense or horror themed game for a long, long time. Resident Evil 5 was alright, but it didn't have that creepy atmosphere and the story was throw away. Alone in the Dark had some great ideas and music but the gameplay was simply broken. Heavy Rain seemed to have a lot of promise and it was fun but was hit and miss in both gameplay and story. And who at Giant Bomb has not played through Deadly Premonition? Not exactly the serious horror style I was looking for. Finally comes Alan Wake; five years in the making and 5 years waiting. Perhaps my wait is over.
Much like what "Alone in the Dark" tried to do, the game is broken up in to six chapters that have a beginning and an end and some very nice story telling cinematics in between. The cinematics at the bookends of the chapters really set things up and makes it feel like modern day TV show. Inside each chapter there is plenty of gameplay and shorter cinematics tying it all together. Overall I really enjoyed both the story and the storytelling throughout the game. Very decent acting and some very interesting, likable characters. Alan Wake also spends a good deal of time narrating the story from pages of a mysterious novel that he can not remember writing. This all works well keeping you unbalanced and guessing as to what is really going on.
Even though I could have finished 2 chapters in one sitting (its hard to put it down) I usually stopped playing after each chapter because I didn't want to burn through the game. I really wanted to enjoy both the story and the gameplay and, for me, that is unusual. For as much as game sites like to talk about great advances in storytelling in video games, its mostly bunk. The average game story is about as compelling as watching paint dry or its just plain nuts (I'm talking to you Metal Gear). But this story, while no Nobel prize winner, has some depth and is very well told. When you start a new chapter, you even get a "Last Time on Alan Wake" intro just like LOST. And if you have put the game down for a few days, it will actually remind you where you left off.
Along with an unusually good story, I was blown away by the graphics. Many reviews skim over this or don't find them that impressive but I certainly did. The graphics are not filled with any ground breaking technology or lots of bump mapping but the amount of detail both indoors and outdoors is very impressive. When you are walking outside, the weather effects will change dynamically depending on the level of peril you are in (just a little peril, please!) . These were the most effective depictions of weather I have ever seen on a PC or console. The wind blows, lightning flashes, fog rolls in, and all the trees, grass, and leaves are all moving like crazy. Its quite unsettling, if you are the kind of person who can let themselves become immersed in a game world. And the sound during these sequences is also full of details. Close your eyes and you can still feel the storm around you.
Speaking of sound, the sound work in this game is also top notch. Along with the weather effects (wind, rain, moving trees) they did great work with the voices in 3D space, weapon fire, etc. The music in the game is also quite good. There are a number of graphic and sound touches that add up to an extremely polished game with great atmosphere. And with horror games, sound is at least as important as graphics. Sound may even be a bit more critical for horror and that has been done here with great style.
Finally, we come down to the all important gameplay. In basic terms, its a 3rd person shooter, but they did add a twist. Sources of light like a flashlight are used in combination with weapons to take down the dark enemies in the game. Basically, you need to hit them with light long enough for them to be vulnerable to gunfire and then finish them off. Other games have touched on light as a weapon (Gears of War, Fatal Frame) but Alan Wake uses light as the main driving force behind all its combat and occasional puzzles and its also used as a major them in the story of the game. For the most part, I found the combat fun and satisfying. Once again, the sounds and graphic touches indicating light damage (as in flashlight) help give the combat weight. There are times when it feels great to pull off a sequence of strategically planned kills. At times though, enemies do spawn behind you and blindside you and it can feel cheap. Still, you often find that if you moved a bit more you could avoid these blind spots. On normal difficulty you won't die too often but I get the feeling it will be worth playing through on higher difficulty to see if it requires more strategy and provides a greater challenge.
So, great story, well polished sound, detailed graphics, great atmosphere. Whats the downside? Well, for some, the game will not last long enough. I am taking it slow and trying to hunt down some of the "collectibles" so each chapter is taking me about 2 hours. With 6 chapters, I should get around 12 hours which should be plenty. Some reviewers crank through the game in 8 or less but they don't usually smell the roses. As long as the story does not go completely off the rails in the last chapter, I think the length is about right for me. Other than the non-epic length, I would say lack of depth in terms of enemy design was a bit of an issue. Although I found the combat fun throughout (I have completed 4/6) I have to say that having more variety in the enemies and there attack patterns would have been nice. Also, I would have liked more interaction with the world other than turning on lights and occasionally moving a few things around. There were some simple puzzles but once again, I just would have liked a bit more set pieces with the puzzles on a bit grander scale.
Despite any minor shortcomings, Alan Wake represents a big step in the right direction for story driven, interactive horror. Alan Wake does what many other games have failed to do. It effectively combines story and gameplay while not sacrificing either. If story driven games and suspense/horror is your cup of tea, make sure you check out Alan Wake.