Remedy's Sam Lake wants us to understand that Alan Wake isn't a horror game. Alan Wake is "a psychological action thriller that contains elements of horror". I don't want to split hairs, but it takes a little time to get comfortable with Lake's definition, because initially at least the "elements of horror" are pretty dominant: an axe-wielding madman, a satanically creepy landlord, and a wife who disappears with a blood-curdling scream all feature during a white-knuckled hour at the controls.
And all of this is before you start firing your gun at shadowy figures who burn up when you shine a torch on them. But in fairness to Lake, the supernatural elements are aimed more at building tension than horrifying or shocking the player. There's the feeling, as Wake tries to deal with monsters calling out to him from the murky woodlands of Bright Falls, that a lot of his problems may be products of his imagination.
Even before novelist player-character Wake and his other half have picked up the keys to their holiday cabin by Cauldron Lake, the player has been terrorised in a pre-credit dream sequence by one of his literary creations. Wake then arrives in Bright Falls with a chronic case of writer's block; he's on the run from his publicist and wracked with doubt over whether his talent has dried up. He argues with his wife after she unveils her plan to help him by bringing a typewriter on their vacation, and he storms off into the woods.
Later, he finds himself regaining consciousness in car-wreck. He stumbles through the darkness, coming across pages of a manuscript for a thriller he doesn't remember writing. The next thing he knows he's set upon by figures wielding hatchets and knives. Their bodies are encased in shadows that have the consistency of ink dripped through water.
If you were to tick off the influences, Stephen King and David Lynch would be near the top of the list. But Remedy keeps the game fresh with compelling level design and presentation. The way the developer toys with the player's emotions is impressively frightening; as Wake picks up the keys to his cabin from a diner, the entire mood of the scene spins on a dime from friendly and folksy to chilling.
It's also a testament to the storytelling that Alan Wake himself is a man of substance. He's a bruised, conflicted individual; intelligent but also prone to violent outbursts. What makes him compelling, however, is less that he's flawed, but more that he knows he is and that he's trying to resist the weaker side of his personality. He's already facing a fractured marriage and writer's block, but the game suggests his problems run a lot deeper. Wake's fallibility also enhances the gameplay, which puts a premium on light as a weapon.
Remedy's sense of economy and level design craft also permeates the run-and-gun action. At one stage, the player has to navigate from a car crash through a darkened lumber yard to a well-lit petrol station in the distance. The structure is loose but linear, even though the gorgeous environment suggests the player isn't restricted at all. Between the car wreck and the petrol station Wake comes across a couple of useful items like a flare gun and a spotlight (read: gun turret). He also discovers batteries, flares and ammunition, which players will want to ration.
Aiming and firing is your standard left and right trigger setup, but unlike most everymen in videogames who turn into a crack shot the moment they pick up a weapon, Wake's not a natural gunman, and the gameplay has been tweaked to this effect. Switching from running to taking aim feels a little slow, and while a quick reload is available, a mistimed tap of the button can slow this down as well. Not every shot is on target, aiming skill only increases with familiarity, and sometimes the best option is to cut your losses and leg it.
To compound this, Wake's enemies understand self-preservation. If you're staring down multiple opponents, the moment you draw a bead on one of them the others fan out. There's a dodge move, but the quickness of Wake's opponents and their ability to blend in with the darkened woodland is disorientating. Since it only takes around three or four well-placed hits to be killed, you're advised to put as much distance between yourself and attackers as possible.
Alan Wake will never be mistaken for Max Payne, then, but it remains exhilarating and dramatic. You often find yourself running out of bullets, and the gap between Wake and a pack of enemies closes fast. At one point you turn and see a generator next to an unlit outside light, and charge towards it while shadowy attackers hiss and snarl behind you. But when you reach the generator and hit the requested face button, it merely sputters. It takes another attempt to get it going, bathing Wake in glorious yellow light and destroying an attacker only inches away.
Meanwhile the presentation is stunning, caught in a beautiful twilight between ethereal and realistic. The game's story, gameplay and atmosphere all creep into the player's periphery at an elegant pace, but the visuals win you over before you pick up the pad. Remedy's latest adventure is set in the Pacific North West and every item in the environment looks and feels authentic: there's not a vehicle model or a style of building or a piece of vegetation that looks out of place. The team also boasts that the weather, lighting and even the animals on the soundtrack are region-specific, as are the clothing styles and accents of the townsfolk.
The game also has a trump card in the way its camera blends functionality with cinematic flare, because rather than being glued to every tiny movement the camera is staggered by a split second. This is hardly noticeable when the player is engaged in mundane activities like fiddling with a jukebox or investigating the interior of an unlit house, but when the action kicks into gear it becomes a little more pronounced.
The way Wake almost seems to duck out of shot as the player reacts to a rapid attack feels as though the action on-screen is being filmed by another person. The camera also occasionally unhooks from behind Wake's shoulder to hurtle forward for a reveal shot or a slow-motion close-up track on a hurled weapon. It then returns to its original position swiftly and intuitively with no break in the action.
If a sporadically roaming third-person camera sounds like it might be a pain though, don't worry. Judging by the sections we've played, Remedy doesn't front-load its cinematic effects; if you die, you won't have to sit through a series of pre-programmed scenes before you get back into the action. Rather the game's camera responds to the player's sense of timing; ducking out of the way of a spinning axe at the last minute rewards the player with a slow-motion steady shot, for example.
Alan Wake still has a lot to prove, having gotten lost in the release date woods so frequently that it's impossible to approach it free of scepticism, but the small 45-strong team at Remedy's Helsinki HQ looks to be justifying the slow pace of development. Even after an hour in Wake's company, the game burrows into your head and stays with you long after you've stopped playing it. The more you think about it, the longer its list of accomplishments becomes, and the further away that May release date starts to feel. "A psychological action thriller that contains elements of horror"? It should be worth finding out.
Alan Wake is due out for Xbox 360 on 21st May in Europe.