Version tested: Xbox 360
"It's ready when it's ready." Developers must love being able to say that. It means they're so rich and successful they don't have to worry about trivialities like release dates. The publisher will wait patiently for them to hand over the finished product, and won't dare bang on about seasonal purchasing trends in the meantime.
It suggests they've risen above the situation of most developers, who, on being asked when their game is out, must either lie or reply, "It's ready when the publisher says it's ready / when it's cost so much money we can't afford to buy toilet paper for the office / when the movie's out, even if we haven't finished the final level and none of the cars have wheels."
Remedy Entertainment doesn't fall into that category. Extensive research suggests the studio never used the phrase "when it's ready" exactly, but all the same, it's been five years since Alan Wake was announced, and you can bet development began some time before then. Remedy even had the luxury of nine months just for polishing.
So has it been worth the wait, or should Alan Wake have stayed in bed?
Ask the titular character that question and you'll probably get an answer in the affirmative. Alan is a best-selling thriller author who suffers from writer's block. He decides to take a holiday in a bid to clear his head. And how does Alan choose to get away from it all, do you think? By spending a fortnight in Rio, drinking pina coladas by the pool? Or by visiting a tiny, rainy Pacific Northwest town inhabited by hilarious simpletons and frightening weirdoes, where the only available accommodation is an ancient log cabin in the middle of a haunted lake?
Alan is accompanied on this jolly holiday by his wife, Alice. She sets the cause of female videogame characters back 10 years by being afraid of the dark and mewling like a kitten with a broken leg whenever the lights are off. Knowing this, Alan should probably have picked a nice hotel rather than a cabin powered by a generator in a shed at the end of the back garden. Needless to say, within about 12 minutes of arriving in the town of Bright Falls, Alice goes missing in mysterious circumstances and Alan embarks on a quest to find her.
Standing in his way is an army of zombie-like enemies known as the Taken. These are people who have been possessed by a dark force and turned into homicidal maniacs. Some have scythes, some throw axes, but all have a nasty habit of appearing out of nowhere and attempting to hack Alan to death.
The good news is they're repelled by light. Our hero takes advantage of this, using one hand to point his torch and stop them in their tracks while shooting with the other. Streetlamps create safe havens for Alan, pools of light which protect him from the Taken and instantly fill up his health meter. He can also ward off enemies using flares, flare guns and flash grenades.
The combat system works well. It requires you to multi-task and think tactically, particularly when facing several enemies at once. Often you find yourself flicking both torch and gun between multiple targets, trying to defend and shoot and back away all at the same time. Other times, and with increasing frequency as the game progresses, you'll decide it's easier just to chuck a flare and leg it. Not so much running and gunning, then, more running and running some more.
Legging it is an especially useful option when you're running low on ammo and torch batteries. That doesn't happen too frequently though, as plentiful supplies of both are littered throughout. The citizens of Bright Falls also like to leave loads of weapons and torches for you, which is handy as Alan isn't very good at hanging on to equipment from one level to the next.
You'll also come across collectable thermos flasks everywhere. These are a bright, shiny blue and don't do much for the game's attempts to create an atmosphere of brooding intrigue. Never mind the mystery of Alan's missing wife - who left all these thermoses lying around? Why is Alan supposed to collect them? And where does he put them all once he's picked them up?
Of course, this isn't the first videogame to feature implausibly abandoned equipment supplies, silly collectables and a main character with pockets more capacious than Mary Poppins' handbag. The problem is Alan Wake spends so much of its time pretending not to be a videogame that such niggles grate more than they otherwise might.
This game really wants to be a film, preferably one based on a Stephen King novel. This is apparent from the opening cut-scene, where a camera sweeps over gloomy pine forest. There's a melodramatic voiceover which begins, "Stephen King once wrote that nightmares exist outside of logic..." and ends, "My name is Alan Wake. I'm a writer." The influence of David Lynch is obvious too, in everything from the game's setting to the songs on the soundtrack.
Once again, this isn't the first videogame to take inspiration from movies. But there's a difference between paying homage and making subtle references versus the wholesale lifting of well-established clichés.
Take the cast of characters, for example. All your old favourites are here - faceless hitch-hiker, mysterious woman in black, earnest local sheriff, over-zealous FBI agent, creepy psychiatrist, nutty old lady who might just be the only person who knows what's really going on etc etc etc. There's even a wacky sidekick complete with loud Hawaiian shirt, brash city-boy mentality and limitless supply of wisecracks. He is as much fun as he sounds.
Alan himself is no fun at all. Physically he's a bit of a weed. He jumps like there are eight-year-old girls either side of him turning a rope, can't climb over anything more than waist-high and moves at an irritatingly slow pace. He can sprint, but only for a few seconds before he is reduced to a wheezing, shuffling mess. This is no good in the aforementioned legging-it situations and highly irritating when there's a pack of axe-wielding homicidal maniacs right behind you.
Personality-wise, Alan takes himself very seriously. He has one tone of voice and no sense of humour. He also suffers from some kind of narrative Tourette's, which forces him to comment on what's happening almost constantly. On seeing a flock of birds a short distance away Alan will remark, "Birds." You wonder if he goes through life like this, and walks down the street going, "Bus, tree, postman, Tesco Metro..."
When he's not busy telling you what's going on Alan likes to hammer home the pop culture references, just in case you didn't get them. At one point we see him backed up against a wall while an enemy hacks through a wooden door with an axe. "Like Nicholson in The Shining." Thanks Alan.
Exposition also takes place via the manuscript pages Alan finds littered about wherever he goes. To read them you have to press the back button to pause the game, which doesn't do much for the pacing. The pages describe what's been happening to Alan or, in many cases, hint at what's about to happen. The problem is this often ruins the dramatic tension. Having read a sentence about hearing the sudden roar of a chainsaw, it's neither surprising nor scary when a chainsaw-wielding enemy looms out of the darkness 60 seconds later.
That's not to say there are no chills and thrills in Alan Wake. Environments are suitably spooky and there are a fair few moments that make you jump. But as the game progresses the environments start to look awfully similar, and the scary bits become predictable. For example, it's a pretty safe bet you're about to encounter a huge horde of enemies when you find a large pile of batteries and an unlimited supply of revolver ammo, so there's no sense of shock or terror when you do.
A familiar pattern emerges within a few hours. Your mission is always to get from point A to point B, defeating enemies, picking up ammo, collecting manuscript pages and kick-starting generators along the way. Alan's lack of jumping and climbing skills means there's little in the way of exploration to be done and levels are generally linear. There is only a handful puzzles, and all of them are of the "find out how to get over there so you can make the red switch go green" variety.
There are a few of driving sections, but these are almost entirely dull and seem likely to be leftovers from the days when Alan Wake was going to be an open-world game. The cars handle fine but the engine noises are rubbish and many of the driving bits seem extraneous. At one point you're just driving down an open road, no enemies or other cars in sight, with nothing to do but cruise along and wonder why your truck is making a noise like a bear having a wank.
Despite all this, it's hard not to feel sorry for Alan Wake. (That is to say, Alan Wake the game - it's easy not to feel sorry for Alan Wake the character, with his melodramatic disposition, endless blathering and silly conviction that the best thing to do when your wife goes missing isn't to just call the police.) Remedy has worked hard to produce a polished game, one with impressive visuals and a new take on combat. On those fronts it's succeeded. Had Alan Wake been released three years ago, it would have been easy to recommend the game as a solid, polished action-adventure.
The genre has moved on since then. Games such as BioShock have shown how compelling and original storylines can be told in innovative ways. The likes of Uncharted 2 have offered up not just lush visuals but diverse locations and varied gameplay. With Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream broke the rules of game narrative and forced the player not only to think before pulling the trigger, but to feel.
By comparison, Alan Wake is tired and derivative. Everything about it feels dated, from the linear level design to the red-green switch nonsense to the visual stylings (surely not even J Allard has attempted the hoodie-with-jacket combo since 2005). There are plenty of fancy cut-scenes, dramatic voiceovers and cinematic camera angles, but even when Alan Wake does a good job of pretending to be a film you just feel like you're watching a really bad film. That's particularly true when it comes to the ending - without spoiling anything, let's just say you're left thinking, "You mean I kick-started all those generators for that?"
All the same, there's a weekend's worth of fun here for action-adventure fans who aren't too bothered about innovative concepts and varied gameplay, and don't mind a lot of repetition. Alan Wake is an accessible, undemanding game with a neat combat mechanic and decent visuals. It's just not a very original game, it's certainly not an exceptional one, and it's a shame it wasn't ready a few years ago.
7 / 10