For the last few years, Alan Wake's been more of a rumour than an actual game: an early next-gen proposition that surfaced briefly to let rip with a shower of moody screenshots before subsequently going quiet for a little bit too long. Every so often, gossip about its fate would bubble up from the deep - idle chatter variously suggesting that it had been cancelled, that it was looking spectacular, or that it had been transformed into a hillbilly water sports game called Alan Wakeboarding - but the stories always dissipated fairly quickly after breaking, and they left nothing behind apart from a few hints of narrative.
And that handful of early images. Focusing on a moody brooder knocking about in his winter wardrobe, and set against a craggy, backwoods environment, they made Remedy Entertainment's project look dreamy and intriguing, an arty experiment shrouded in fog and classy mystery. In other words, Alan Wake didn't really look like the kind of game in which you'd have to fight off a possessed digger. In fact, however, it's exactly that kind of game.
What was probably most surprising about the latest, and most substantial, sighting of Alan Wake, shown at Microsoft's E3 briefing, was how fast-paced it all is. Rather than glumly wandering around in a cardigan, Wake's picking through the shattered ruins of a house, ducking falling trees and flying axes, and fighting whole legions of spectral hillbillies as well as the construction vehicles they've brought with them. Behind closed doors in the Microsoft booth, we're given an extended viewing as a developer plays through an early part of the game, and the sensation remains the same. This is Steven King rather than David Lynch, then - pacy, smart and fairly slick as it sends you blundering around in dark woods, and waiting for monsters to lunge at you out of the damp leaves.
Wake's storyline unfolds in a trendy episodic format, taking the shape of discrete chunks that seem to clock in around the hour mark, topped with a brisk recap and tailed with a cliff-hanger. A handy borrowing from Alone in the Dark - and please don't borrow anything else - it's one that dictates the game's pace, allowing for a nice blend of exposition and fighting, while simultaneously creating a smooth pipeline for any future DLC to slide down.
Beyond this structure, the plot itself is charmingly potboilerish: Remedy's calling its game a psychological action thriller, and that seems to translate into a narrative in which every major event is swiftly followed by a mysterious repercussion that can only be truly expressed in italics. Alan's taken a holiday...but his wife has gone missing! He's finally gotten over his writer's block and finished another novel...but he can't remember writing it, and now his fictional events are starting to come true! He's decked himself out in a lovely tweed jacket...but he's wearing it on top of a hoodie! What's he thinking?
All of which eventually comes down to pottering about the wooded coastal town of Pride Falls (never holiday in a spot called Pride Falls) trying to unravel the whole ghastly mystery while taking on swarms of murderous paranormal locals. Much of the success of Alan Wake will presumably revolve around the twists and turns of the story, then, and the strength of the world it conjures up - there's a fairly large cast of characters, by the looks of it, and regular intrusions of voiceover from Alan to drive events forward - but that's hard to get a real sense of so far, and for the time being, most of what we're shown revolves around combat.
And combat itself revolves around light. Spookily reanimated diggers and cars seem to be palette cleansers for Wake, with the bulk of his enemies coming in the form of "Takens", local unfortunates who have been transformed by a malevolent darkness into depraved, murdering zombies. Open up on them with Wake's spectacularly loud handgun and they stagger on regardless, as if you'd tried spraying them with Glade - light from his torch, however, makes them look like they've just swallowed a Catherine wheel, as ghostly flesh sizzles and sparks, weakening them up for a final bullet in the head which sends them scattering into the air in speckles of flashing gold.
The one-two punch of the combat is complex enough to keep you in a multi-tasking panic as waves of enemies get closer, but it appears to walk just the right side of being unnecessarily fiddly. On top of that, the old survival-horror classic of making room for yourself and controlling a crowd is livened up by a couple of extra weapons, one of which is a flare gun, which cuts a blood red swathe through your attackers, while the second comes in the form of carefully placed generators, jump-started with a mini-game, which allow Wake to spark dormant streetlamps into life, blowing nearby baddies to pieces, simultaneously allowing him to progress through the darkened woods, one pool of light at a time.
Elsewhere, some Hollywood staging is on hand to keep things moving, alternating sandbox woodland arenas with set-pieces which see Wake crossing a ravine on a rather shaky cable car while being dive-bombed by nasty black birds, or cowering in a house until a construction lorry barrels through a wall to spoil his fun.
Besides ducking vehicles, you'll also have to drive them, and our demo ends with Wake escaping a pitched woodland battle, and hitting the road to uncover a batch of manuscript pages hidden at a nearby lighthouse. Behind the wheel, and with a break from the carefully staged combat, it's suddenly apparent just how special Remedy's game might be. There's something uniquely promising about tooling around a mysterious mountain town, with firs wreathed in mist, and nasty things lurking in the darkness. Foggy moonlight trailing through the trees brings back all the right memories of eighties Spielberg, while the narrow tracks with their flickering streetlamps and rocky tunnels seem perfect for exploring. It's a setting that's rather standard when it comes to slasher films, but for a videogame, it seems fresh and faintly sophisticated, and ensures that, despite some pretty traditional survival-horror encounters, it's very hard to confuse Alan Wake with anything else.
And, of course, with the end of the episode approaching, it's time for the developers to lay on one last surprise, and they don't disappoint. Arriving at the lighthouse, Wake emerges from his car just in time to see a gigantic tornado ripping through the woods towards him. Vivid and unexpected, it's a pretty good cliff-hanger, both for the level in question, and for the wider game: despite having seen a good deal of Remedy's mechanics in motion, there's apparently still quite a lot we don't yet know about the strange town of Pride Falls, and the dark treats it has in store.
Alan Wake is due out for Xbox 360 in spring 2010, and hopefully still on the cards for PC too!