In my review of Army of Two I talked briefly about polish. Polish is one of those many little aspects that can really enhance the experience of playing a game. Another such aspect is atmosphere. Of those games that have unnerved me in the past, I remember Silent Hill 2 and Dead Space the most. These games got atmosphere spot-on, and they weren’t scary in the sense that things were jumping out at you. They were scary because the environment and sound combined to give you a very foreboding feeling. Alan Wake is a long-developed project by Remedy, which you may know for creating the fantastic Max Payne series. It’s a game that treads a fine line between action and horror, while taking a stab at joining the atmosphere hall of fame. Read on to find out if it’s a worthy contender.
Alan Wake is a very pretty game. You’ll be treated to many sweeping vistas of the Pacific Northwest and they all look great. There will be several times throughout the game where you want to stop and just soak in the scenery. The real visual powerhouse of Alan Wake, though, comes as a result of two things: lighting effects and fog effects. Light is everything in this game; it’s your only friend and your only weapon. Well…except for guns, but even they are useless without light (more on this later). Light is presented as something warm and protective and the visual effects highlight that. The way light washes across the screen in various colors, depending on the source of the light, is very calming and I’m sure Remedy intended this. The way light flows around objects and appears different from different angles is really rather impressive.
The other important graphical effect at work here is fog. Like the Silent Hill series, Alan Wake uses fog to twist normal locales and set pieces into creepy, unfamiliar ones. If there’s one thing this game nails, it’s the visuals of creepy forests at night. There are times when the fog picks up and flows across the scenery unnaturally and it simply looks amazing.
The visuals of Alan Wake do leave something to be desired, though. The faces, while they look good, have some of the worst animations and lip syncing I’ve seen in recent years. It can be rather jarring seeing close-ups of the characters speaking: what you’re hearing doesn’t match up at all with what you’re looking at. This is a problem that may pull you out of the story a little bit, but the story is so good that you’ll be able to get past the awkward animations. There are some other minor problems like a few blurry textures up close and texture pop-in at the start of a new area, but these flaws are easily forgiven.
It also doesn’t hurt that the voice acting is top notch, especially Alan’s voice over narration. It’s obvious that a lot of care went into the game’s script. Audio is a strong category for the game overall, as the sound effects do their job and then some. The guns feel heavy and realistic, which you would expect from the creators of Max Payne. The sounds of the world feel right and very natural, adding to the atmosphere of the game. Not unlike Dead Space, you’ll often find yourself hearing something and then frantically looking around to locate the source of the sound.
With a game like Alan Wake, I need to mention the story. It follows a bestselling author named Alan Wake (surprise, surprise) and his vacation in the logging town of Bright Falls. I’m not going to summarize more than that but it’s important to note that his wife ends up missing and creepy things that he has apparently written are coming true. The inspiration for the game’s story is obviously the personality and work of Stephen King, and as you go on in the game you’ll find that it starts to resemble the novel It more and more. The plot is engaging, and certain mechanics I’ll mention in a moment do a good job of keeping your interest focused on what’s going to happen next.
I must say that the pacing seemed a little strange to me; each question answered opened up something like three new questions. With this kind of building up, you expect some closure, but when I came to the end of the game the story still had a lot that remained to be explained. Perhaps it’s because of this that the story seems to drop off, leaving something to be desired. It’s not a drop off in the sense that they might as well put up a subtitle saying, “See you in the sequel!” Rather, they just weren’t sure what they were doing with the ending and decided to make it unclear to avoid that problem. Apparently there’s some DLC coming out in a month or so, so I’m hoping that fills the void that the story left open.
I started this review off by talking about atmosphere. Remedy hit that nail square on the head with Alan Wake and the gameplay reflects it as such. The game banks on a classic human fear: the fear of darkness. It takes the concept of darkness and turns it into a tangible, dangerous, and manipulative thing. Where in real life darkness can make normal things appear sinister, in Alan Wake the darkness takes normal things and just flat out makes them sinister. As a result, like a frightened child in his room at night, you will be clinging to your flashlight for dear life.
I mentioned the role of light earlier in the review, but it’s in the gameplay that it really comes around as a mechanic and not just a pretty effect. The enemies of Alan Wake are people and objects being manipulated by the darkness, and naturally the one thing that can hurt darkness is light. The only way to defeat the enemies in this game is to shine your flashlight on them to “burn” away the darkness; only then will you be able to dispatch them conventionally with your gun.
This style of combat is interesting because it plays in very well with the scary atmosphere and feel of the game. You can really only focus your flashlight on one enemy at a time, and most of the time there will be several coming at you from all directions. Also, focusing your flashlight causes the battery to drain and swapping out the batteries while guys with axes and chainsaws rush at you makes for tense moments. Sadly, you won’t find yourself fighting against much more than guys with axes and chainsaws. There are a few possessed objects that attack you, a bulldozer for one, but the number of visually different enemies in the game is pretty low.
Thankfully, the repetition of enemies never really gets boring due to the outstanding feel of combat. Even though it’s a story-heavy thriller, Alan Wake is very much a third-person shooter. Remedy knows a thing or two about third-person action games, thanks to Max Payne, and the great feel of combat shows this. The guns sound and feel great (I know I said it once already). You can tell they have some power behind them, and they seem to do just the right amount of damage to an enemy (once you’ve burned the darkness away, of course).
Some might argue at first glance that the flashlight mechanic in combat is too gimmicky and would get old before the game is over. I assure you that this isn’t the case. Gimmicks traditionally seem interesting for a while and then get old, but the use of light in Alan Wake is much more a mechanic than a gimmick. Just like Dead Space, where dismemberment was an interesting and fresh approach to combat, the use of light here keeps on delivering. It doesn’t hurt that the action is varied by giving you unique light sources to mix things up all the way until the end of the game: flare guns, flashbang grenades, giant high-power searchlights, and even the lights of a music stage.
The game also keeps your interest by splitting itself up into episodes, of which there are six. As long as you take your time and search everywhere for collectibles (there are many), each episode can take you about two hours to complete, which clocks the game in at a pretty decent length for an action game. My one complaint is that you can’t save in between episodes; you simply have to watch the beginning of the next one so that the quicksave at the beginning of gameplay can happen. The game would have benefited from a save prompt at the end of an episode so you could stop and start the next one when you came back. Regardless, nearly every episode ends with a cliffhanger reveal and will keep you wanting to return to find out what happens next.
The game makes attempts at other things to keep the gameplay mixed up and it does so effectively. There are times when you’ll walk around during the day to continue your investigation, and there are times when you’ll drive around while using your headlights to burn away at enemies before running them down. The driving sections feel good, and while the cars handle a bit sluggishly, their segments are usually rather short so it doesn’t wear on your patience; they do their job of breaking up the action quite well.
It always seems like horror games have some of the best replay value, and that trend certainly continues with Alan Wake. Beating the game unlocks nightmare difficulty, and it’s only on this difficulty that some of the keys to the story can be uncovered. You’ll likely want to play through the game again anyway to try and pick up on what collectibles you might have missed. I mentioned earlier that there are several, including Coke can pyramids to knock over, posters to read, coffee thermoses to find, and TV and radio shows to watch and listen to. Alan Wake will likely have you coming back at least one extra time. The replay value will only increase in a month or so when the new DLC comes out as well.
Alan Wake is a game that attempts a mixture of various genres. Survival horror, third-person shooter, even serialized thriller TV (the Twin Peaks references are layered on thick). Often when games try to be hybrids of a few different genres, all the parts just come out weak. However, Alan Wake succeeds in delivering an engrossing story, tense atmosphere, and superb action like few games before it have. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, it will no doubt hold your attention from start to finish.