kombat's Alan Wake (Xbox 360) review

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There's something off about Bright Falls...

Remedy Entertainment announced Alan Wake all the way back in 2005 during the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo. Since then it’s popped on and off of people’s radars at sparing intervals, and now that it’s finally been released, it seems as if Duke Nukem Forever should be only just around the corner. It can then only be described as fortunate that with such a long development period, Alan Wake has turned out to be a compelling and rewarding title to experience. 

The game’s protagonist holds the title’s namesake, and is presented as a highly-successful suspense-thriller novelist who — with due thanks to an extended case of writer’s block — hasn’t managed to put words to paper in the two years since his last release. He and his wife Alice take off to the quaint town of Bright Falls, nestled within the mountains, in an effort to get away from the fast-paced New York lifestyle, and to give Alan a change of scenery and a chance to get over his ailment. After a brief argument between the two, Wake’s wife disappears, and the writer begins finding pages to a manuscript for a novel he hasn’t written yet. What’s worse is that the horrors scribed into the document begin occurring in earnest, and all of this sets off a mystery that’s much bigger than Alan Wake himself.    

The driving force here is undoubtedly the unyielding fiction backing the whole of the package. There’s nothing particularly profound about the narrative, but the means through which it’s delivered is striking. The main bits of Alan Wake’s story occur through traditional cutscenes, but you as the player will come across transcript pages, radios, and televisions, all of which will give tremendous insight into the past, present, and even future events surrounding your actions. It’s not impossible to grasp the entirety of the plot’s intricacies without these easter eggs of information, but there’s no doubt that they assist incalculably with coloring in the dark and dreary world that would otherwise only be outlined.

There are some very story-centric portions of the game that take place during the daylight hours, but you’ll spend the bulk of your time transversing Bright Falls and its outlying woodlands by night. That’s when all the spooky stuff happens. There are these dark-enshrouded creatures called the Taken, and there isn’t a single one of them that would pass up an opportunity at putting an axe in Wake’s spinal column. Fortunately they do have a weakness, that being anything fluorescent in nature, and resultingly you’ll spend a lot of time fumbling around with a flashlight. There’s nothing overly complex about the gunplay; burn away the darkness surrounding the Taken, and pop them a couple of times with a weapon of choice. There are bigger, badder enemies, but the only variation they apply is the longevity of your aforementioned actions.

It’s the simplicity and redundancy of the combat that serve as Alan Wake’s only real drawback. Nothing about how you dispose of your night-stalkers ever really changes through the game’s ten hour run. There’s some stronger enemies, some faster ones, and even some malevolent demon crows to dispatch of. There are some possessed objects that’ll fly at you, and a few pieces of heavy farm equipment that make it their sole duty to run you down, but the process undergone to remove the threat is essentially the same regardless. This isn’t to say that there’s no fun to be had with the shooting; you’ve got plenty of ways to make things entertaining for yourself, from flare guns, to flashbang grenades, to hunting rifles. But if simply switching out your weapons every once in a while doesn’t help you in disguising the action, you’re likely to find yourself a little burned out with the repetitive temperament of the rather frequent combat encounters. 

There’s a thin layer of visual fidelity coating the town of Bright Falls, but all of that mostly emerges during the odd daylight segment. Everything looks pretty good at best, passable at worst. There’s some stiffness and irregularities to the character motions, especially when you tell Wake to climb just about anything. The characters usually aren’t all that prone at keeping their lips synced with the excellent voice acting, which is distracting during cutscenes.

Where the game is at its best is when it has free aim to showcase its lighting effects. I’m still not sure if they’re the best I’ve seen in a game, or if it just seems that way given how much of a staunch presence they have in the world. Headlights, street lamps, and even the gentle blinking of a computer terminal all stand as beacons of attention as you wander through the roads and forests. You’ll even find that bounding through certain of these restore Wake’s health and trigger a checkpoint. These effects all invite a sense of hope and an even stronger sense of environment into a world where your primary enemy does its best to conceal both.

It’s the strong deliverance of the narrative and a clear sense of place that lend their hand to making Alan Wake the game that it is. The constant conflict with the Taken eventually leaves something to be desired, but that just makes it all the more baffling that the game can get away with being as compelling as it is. There’s a good time to be had with Remedy’s latest, and there’s little to regret about spending the full duration and seeing it through to the end. Just be sure and pack an extra flashlight and revolver, because Wake always seems to be forgetting his.

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