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A Week With Alan Wake

By on May 22, 2010 in Reviews, Videogames with 3 Comments

Alan Wake has been a long time coming for me. Given that its major influences are Stephen King (my favourite author), The X-Files (my favourite television show of all time) and Twin Peaks along with a smattering of Lost for good measure, this is the game that could have been designed just for me.

After five years in development (three of which were remarkably silent publicly from Remedy Entertainment), a change to a single platform and assorted trailers we finally have the game itself.  While I have always said that Resident Evil 2 is my favourite game of all time, I add a caveat that Silent Hill 2 is right up there with it, and on a purely story level alone it trumps Capcom’s slice of survival horror perfection.

From the first moment I saw Alan Wake I got the Silent Hill vibe from it (before Konami started farming the franchise out to anyone who would pitch an idea for a sequel) and became very excited.  Small American town, idyllic perfection which all goes to hell when the lights go out?  Count me in.

But I have to confess that when I finally started playing A.Wake I felt a little bit underwhelmed.  Why had what appeared to be a rather run of the mill third person action game been in development for five years?  Clearly Alan Wake has been a long time labour of love for the relatively small development team of 45, but where was the hook?

It didn’t take long for me to stop being such a nit picking moaner and start enjoying the game, because the real star of Alan Wake is the story, the characters and the setting.  One of the greatest criticisms of the game from the early reviews was that towards the end of the game the action got in the way of just wanting to learn more about the story.  This is a testament to the writing and storytelling from Sam Lake and the team at Remedy that the story is more engrossing than the action at times.

Let’s talk about the action for a moment, because I want to get my minor moans and niggles out of the way right up front here.  The action is very well crafted but it very quickly gets very dull and repetitive.  There are perhaps only five enemy types (The Taken, posessed by the darkness/black presence) so enemy variety is not so much on the menu.  A typical encounter will find you faced by between three and five enemies, two will attack you straight out and the other three will flank and try and, for want of a better phrase, take you from behind.
It’s alright for the first couple of chapters, but the action soon gets repetitive and while things do become more tricky when objects in the world become possessed (anything from barrels to diggers), the core mechanic never really changes.

As you would expect weapons change up as you progress from the standard hand gun to shotguns, a hunting rifle, and my favourite, the flare gun.  You also have supplemental secondary ammo such as flash bangs and flares (distress rather than the fashion variety).
Yes Alan Wake is all about light and dark.  In the light you are safe from the monsters, but in the dark you are in their playground.  Wake carries around one of three different lanters/torches/flashlights (pick one depending on where you live in the world), going from standard, heavy duty and then up to a lantern.  You use the light to burn off the darkness from enemies before you can use your firearms.  Flare guns, flashbangs and other light weapons can do this, or just outright kill your enemies.

As an action game, Alan Wake is solid but not outstanding.  Remedy have taken the unusual approach these days and have not included an easy game mode.  Normal, Hard and Nightmare are your three options and the difficulty level doesn’t bow down to inexperienced players.  I played through the game on Normal and save a couple of daft mistakes I never found the game to be too hard a challenge, but I can see that inexperienced players may put down the controller and walk away in frustration.  This would be a shame because they would be missing one of the finest narrative driven psychological adventure games in years.

For while the story in Alan Wake is pure pulp stock shlock Stephen King fayre, it is without a doubt in my mind the best game of this type that I have played since Silent Hill 2.
When you start to delve into the small town world of Bright Falls you see where the love for the game and its characters the creators at Remedy have, and why it has been in development for so long.

Wake himself is actually not the most likeable of characters in the early stages of the game, a sulky novelist suffering from writers block.  He swaggers and pouts around like a sullen teenager while his wife tries to make him cheer up and get back his creative spark.  When she pushes him a little too far that’s when the story kicks off properly and the mystery of Alan Wake starts to unfold.

I am deliberately not mentioning the story in any detail here because I feel that anything I say about the plot would spoiler it considerably.  But suffice to say as the chapters progress, and Wake meets more characters such as the town sherrif and the superb comic relief manager character Barry, things rapidly pick up from what feels a bit like a nature ramble through the woods (with killer light fearing enemies, naturally).

Alan Wake is broken up into TV show like episodes.  At the start of each episode you see a “Previously on Alan Wake” plot retread, and while this works far better than it did in Atari’s Alone in the Dark, the episodes are between two and three hours long each (depending on how much you are ambling around the game world looking for collectible thermos flasks and manuscript pages) as opposed to the 42 minutes of a standard US network TV show.  I ended up playing the first couple of episodes/chapters in one sitting and then taking the rest of the week to play through the game, usually taking two days to complete one section.

Alan Wake’s six episodes are split into multiple chapters, so there is a fairly lengthy game here (some may say a slightly too bloated one), albeit one with an ambiguous and rather rushed ending.  When the credits rolled I was taken completely by surprise with a “Is that it?” sensation as the achievement unlocked for completing the episode.
But this particular adventure for Alan Wake is being closed out properly by the free downloadable content episode that is coming in July.  So there’s a couple of months wait before discovering the final part of this particular mystery.

I am also extremely glad for once that I preordered the special limited edition version of the game, which comes with a soundtrack CD, a bonus disc containing lengthy documentaries, trailers (one unreleased), exclusive avatar items and dashboard themes as well as unlocking a special video commentary feature for the main game.  This is one thing I feel probably should have been included with the regular version as well, as after installing the commentary you can watch a DVD/Blu-ray style video window commentary from various members of the Remedy team at specific parts of the game.  But as it is laden with spoilers you certainly wouldn’t want to watch it on your first play through of the game, and they tell you this right up front.

I often feel a sense of apathy towards certain game genres when I play too many of them (especially first person shooters) but just recently I have become a third person action game junkie, and despite having spent over forty hours playing Splinter Cell Conviction, I had no qualms about playing through perhaps a dozen hours of Alan Wake.  Nor do I mind starting the game again and going back for the atmosphere, the characters and the collectibles.  Those damn fine cups of coffee thermos flasks aren’t going to find themselves…

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