A Fight for the Light
The term “atmosphere” is used frequently when describing a game’s environment or mood. By definition – or at least relevant definition – atmosphere is “any surrounding or pervasive element or influence,” and Remedy Entertainment’s new third-person action/thriller Alan Wake more often than not succeeds in enveloping you with a sense of perpetual tension that is so needed in the horror genre.
The game’s namesake and main character, Alan Wake, is a famous horror novelist with a severe case of writer’s block. In an attempt to inspire his creativity for the macabre, Alan’s wife Alice drags him to the idyllic town of Bright Falls. Though soon after arriving in the quaint logging village, Alan is flung into a horrifying series of events beyond his control – or so he thinks. Upon waking up in the woods with his car wrecked and no recollection of the past week, Alan must fight his way through the dark to rescue his wife, who disappeared the night he lost his memory. Sadly, the "end" of the game proper is wholly confusing and lacks some needed explanation, but the already announced downloadable content will hopefully clear up some of the mess.
At times Alan Wake can be genuinely scary, with the shadow-enveloped Taken emerging from every conceivable direction, hell-bent on stopping Alan from completing his story. The dark forests encompassing the small town can feel claustrophobic; every rustle of a branch or sway of a tree could be a sign that you’re in immediate danger. And as a cue for incoming Taken, an unnervingly fast-moving fog will set in, further obscuring your vision in the dim moonlight. The various Taken you’ll confront range from swift baddies with pensions for axe-tossing to lumbering (no pun intended) woodsmen wielding enormous chainsaws. Luckily – and perhaps a wink at Remedy’s previous titles – a useful dodge maneuver, complete with slow motion, will prevent you from being greeted by the wrong end of a blade. But you’ll still have to manage your stamina, for Alan is an author, not a distance runner, and will grow tired quickly.
Strangely, even though Alan Wake is a writer by trade the former Max Payne developer has made it so he can wield a gun with surprising accuracy. The standard assortment of weapons (i.e. pistols, shotguns, rifles) can be found lying around in some often-convenient locations, with copious amounts of ammunition for you to blast through your foes. The flashlight Alan carries with him doubles as the game’s reticule, and the fluidity of aiming and firing a shot sheds noticeable light on Remedy’s shooter pedigree. (Sorry, that pun was intended.)
The “darkness vs. the light” theme is worked heavily into gameplay. Light is the only means to wear down the shadows that surround the Taken, and Alan will have to use every source of illumination at his disposal. Floodlights, streetlamps and your trusty flashlight are all suitable for exposing the possessed townsfolk, but some set-piece moments require more strategy, such as activating lights to funnel enemies or lighting flares to block paths. The batteries the power the various flashlights you’ll carry are as plentiful as ammunition, which raises the question as to who is leaving all of these spare ammo packs and batteries for you to use. Light-based weapons like flashbang grenades or the flare gun are suitable for taking out larger groups of enemies, while standard flares act as a method of crowd-control – lay one down and any Taken in the vicinity will move back, giving you some much-needed room to work.
If there’s one complaint I have against Alan Wake, it’s some of the more obvious face-lifts the game has undergone in its over five years of development. While cutscenes are fairly well animated (and for some reason letterboxed) the in-game characters look stiff, like marionettes begin lead around on invisible strings. The abundance of collectables scattered around the game begs the question as to whether Bright Falls was once an open world and then scaled back over the development cycle. The occasional driving sequences feel out of place given the linearity of the rest of the game, further reinforcing the notion that Alan Wake may have once been able to roam freely.
Rough edges aside, the folks at Remedy Entertainment have done a great job of establishing a feeling of constant anxiety when traversing through the game. The town of Bright Falls and its surrounding areas are well detailed, though some rather muddy textures are visible during daytime sequences. The dark woods provide and excellent backdrop for Alan’s battle against the shadows, and the use of light as a weapon augments typical shooter mechanisms. The game shows clear signs of its’ long development cycle, but Alan Wake is not only as a competent third-person shooter, but an intense – and at times even scary – horror game.