Version tested: Xbox 360
Alan Wake is best when it's ending. That's a compliment. The game hits an aesthetic high whenever one of its episodes draws to a close, with a stark title screen and a cut of music that's perfect for the moment. I savour those few seconds when the text ("End of Episode Five" or what have you) slinks on-screen in tendrils of smoke, and I love that the song makes everything you just played feel like a grand journey.
So at the conclusion of the new downloadable episode The Signal, when the closing sequence came up on my screen with another spot-on song selection, the whole game once again became profound in retrospect. Alan Wake has a pernicious ability to burnish itself in memory. All its finer trappings - the rich darkness of its American Northwest setting, a well-rounded supporting cast, the stabs at emotional complexity - make it a wonderful thing to reflect on after the fact. I wish I could fall into that same reverie while actually playing The Signal. It might turn an inconsistent episode into the transcendent experience it aspires to be.
Although not much of the story is clear-cut in the messy seventh chapter of the Alan Wake saga, it's reasonably well established that the action takes place in the imagination of tortured novelist Wake. Sinking deeper into the mysterious Dark Presence, Wake conjures a funhouse version of Bright Falls that you traverse as his mind attempts to save itself. One misplaced thought from our hero makes the street collapse in on itself; another grows a nightmarish forest of flickering street lights.
Hovering above this mess are the author's precious words - typewritten spirits like the ones that appeared near the end of the main game. Shine your torch on the ghostly word "tools" and a cache of batteries and ammo appears. There are evil words, as well, like "possessed", which spawns one of those angry magic refrigerators to delight us with its wobbly, Wake-assaulting hi-jinks.
This wordplay is the most interesting new layer that The Signal adds to the Alan Wake template. As silly as it sounds, the Courier Bold poltergeists make for some interesting battlefields, like the furnace room where every oven contains a "blast" waiting to char enemies with a stream of hellfire. It's a flamewar brought to life. (But trolls take note: In this arena, your words can burn you, too.)
Not every fight benefits from such a clever setup, though, and as a result, the limits of the torch-and-gunfire combat design show through. The Signal makes an obvious effort to step up the difficulty, mainly by throwing more shadowy ghouls in Wake's direction. It's a misguided effort, like trying to top 100mph in a rental sedan - this rig was never designed to go that fast. There's often no way to work your torch and pistol quickly enough to survive.
When the enemies swarm, you can either pop flares and struggle to fend them off, or you can run like a frightened cat. (Given that this is Wake we're talking about, it's more like an out-of-shape, wheezing cat with no fashion sense, but the principle remains.) The coward's way out is quite effective. I made a half-dozen attempts to shine, shoot and sneak my way through the aforementioned streetlight forest; then I decided just to book it through the whole damn thing. I only had to try that once. You can tell that The Signal is trying to evoke a fight-or-flight response, which is a smart idea for a thriller, but too often "flight" wins the debate hands down.
All this running brings Wake closer to the titular signal, which in practice is the same yellow mini-radar dot that was present throughout the original game. Without revealing whether Wake reaches the signal or not, I will say that nothing much happens on the way there. This episode serves as an exploration of character more than story. And as we delve deeper into Wake, he becomes even more of an unpleasant tool than before.
Wake is angry. When he's not feeling sorry for himself, he's sniping at every person - real or imagined - that he encounters. Dive-suit-wearing benefactor Thomas Zane makes a desperate effort to rescue Wake, and the writer responds, "This is bull****."
Later, agent and best friend Barry shows up and offers his thoughts on a floating-word puzzle. "I'm thinking the solution probably has something to do with those words," Barry says. "Really," Wake sneers, "Ya think?" That's a bit rich coming from Alan Wake, the ultimate stater of the obvious, a man who has graced us with such observations as, "The door was locked. I had to find a key to open the door."
Dude's in a bad way, plunging into a pitch-black madness, I get it. We're not catching him in his best moment. Still, Wake is worse than a flawed hero. He's a brat. And while the character has always been peevish, in the original game he at least showed an interest in solving the mystery of his missing wife. The Signal has a mystery, too - namely, what the damn hell is going on here? - but Wake doesn't care. He's too busy raging and kicking the ground to sort things out, leaving the hapless player to make sense of his metaphysical morass. I felt like grabbing Wake by his lapels and screaming, "Hey, pal, it's your freaking head we're stranded in. How about a little insight?"
Thank goodness for the genuinely funny Barry, who serves as a proxy for the player's more vengeful side by taunting and deriding Alan throughout the quest. In a sidelong way, Barry sometimes mocks the game itself, mostly by riffing on the fact that the thin plot makes practically no sense.
Too bad Barry isn't around to comment on The Signal's lowest moment, when Alan turns his torch toward the word "phone" and a heavily branded Verizon cell phone fills the screen. The product placement is embarrassing enough when the cinematic manages to show three Verizon logos in as many seconds. But when Zane's voice comes on the line to greet Alan with Verizon's advertising slogan - "Can you hear me now?" - dignity walks out the door and hails a cab. It's often hard to take The Signal seriously, and a gaffe like this doesn't help. [Editor's note: John's based in US. This advertising, for a US phone network, may not appear in the European version of The Signal.]
Amid its shortcomings, however, The Signal still has the formidable assets of its parent game: adult themes and a gorgeous visual style. The game explores the nature of language and creation with only fitful lucidity, but those patches of clarity are stirring. So I'd rather play an erratic instalment of Alan Wake than a highly polished cover-shooter clone, because even when it fails, the former gives me something to think about in the ensuing days. Put another way, The Signal gets better the more I don't play it.
6 / 10