Alan Wake Reader Review
Seeing as though Remedy took their sweet time in getting Alan Wake to the gaming crowd, I decided to take a leaf from their book and take my time in getting around to playing it! So what are we looking at? The game revolves around the protagonist and it's titular character, Alan Wake, and sees him pit against a series of weird and wonderful occurrences all whilst trying to stay alive. Yes, if you had somehow missed the hype and marketing regarding this game, it is in fact a survival horror. The latest round of consoles haven't been overflowing with titles from this genre but there are a good number and the competition is stiff, there are the likes of classic series such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill as well as newcomers like Dead Space. So how does it stand up?
Alan Wake is a best selling writer, you meet him happily heading off on vacation with his best gal by his side in an attempt to shake off a case of writer's block and recharge his batteries. It isn't long before things seem amiss and Alan is plunged into a nightmare scenario that frequently skips between dream sequences, past memories and the present. Initially the game seems a little cliché, references to Stephen King, a girlfriend afraid of the dark, quaint little mountain town with eerie mist, etc. It isn't lazy story-telling, its an homage to classic horror and all of the stereotypical nuances. There are also further links though, the girlfriend being afraid of the dark isn't just a 'girls are wussy' statement it actually causes you to wonder if she knew about the evil lurking at Bright Falls in some manner or had some previous experience with a similar phantasm. It is no co-incidence she is afraid of the dark and the entire games revolves around light and darkness. Its small little touches like that which make the game come alive and sucks you into it.
Needless to say, I can't reveal a lot more about the story without spoiling it and since that is the main motivator behind the game, to find out what the hell is happening, I'll give it a rest there.
Some really nice tricks are employed by Remedy to cater for the gamers who just want to have their heart pounding and those who prefer a little extra narrative. There are various TV and radio stations that you can tune into, each adding a little ambience and information to the proceedings, likewise many attractions and some signs can be read. There are also the collectible manuscript pages that you have the option to read if you like. These all add extra immersion and understanding to the events that are unfolding around Alan and will keep anyone that likes more than just running and shooting very happy.
Strictly an over the shoulder affair, Alan Wake offers an intuitive and basic control system familiar to anyone having played FPS or action titles. One stick controls camera (and the torch), the other direction, then you can jump, use, dodge and shoot via the buttons and bumpers. Switching weapons and misc items is done via the directional pad.
There is no snap to cover system, this game doesn't need it. It'd be hard to hide behind a barrel if the dark presence just lifts it up right in front of you. Likewise there is no zoom on any weapons, even the hunting rifle and the throw mechanic for flashbangs isn't too fantastic. Again, they are not required due to the enclosed environment that the darkness forces on Alan Wake. In fact one of the nice touches is that often you do have quite a lot of choice and open space with regards to manoeuvring about in battle, which can often mean you get to choose if you want to try and run for it or find a tactical location and make a stand.
Death in Alan Wake isn't too painful, regular checkpoints make for limited backtracking upon death although some of the trickier points in the game can have set pieces and/or a lengthy run-up to the conclusion. Having said that, the balance seemed about right. Remedy also got the balance right for the enemies. On normal difficulty they present a challenge but won't cause too much of an issue for your casual gamer and on Nightmare then you really have to pick your fights and be prepared to die often. What little of nightmare difficulty I did play was mostly spent running from enemies. They are twice as tough (four instead of two revolver shots) and ammo is much more scarce.
Some gripes I had were the sometimes seemingly unresponsive controls and the slow recovery time after taking a hit (i.e it was a couple of seconds before you regain control), and his poor fitness in terms of sprinting length, but I couldn't honestly say that overall I didn't enjoy the playability of the game. It felt right, this guy is a writer not a soldier, athlete or god. Whilst at times frustrating it was undeniably true to reality, in a sense.
Be prepared to jump every now and again too, the 'taken' sneak up on you or pop out quite often. Some hulking enemies tend to shout (and some things they say are great) but others are quite quiet and so you have to try and not always focus on a group in combat otherwise you will get flanked!
I think Alan Wake hits all the checkpoints that I'd expect from a survival horror. It has genuinely scary moments, constant eeriness, engaging story lines and plenty of ambient events. Remedy breaks the game into episodes, just like a mini TV series, complete with recap and poignant tunes at the end of each one. It was an interesting choice but one that works very effectively, particularly as there is another 'horror' series shown throughout the game called 'Night Falls'. Again the near cliché of 'it was all a dream' or 'it was just a TV programme' have massive relevance to the story more than just being put there as homages to the genre.
The audio visual part of the game is as you'd expect, eerie, dark and full of weird sounds, sharp string instrument crescendos and the like. The audio is great, there is a lot of vocal work (all the manuscript pages are vocally recorded too) and some clever use of embedding what looks like actual video (fmv) into some of the TV displays.
The graphics on the other hand could at times do with some work. Due to the dark format of the game it isn't often you get the opportunity to gaze for miles, but when you do it delivers with stunning environmental backdrops. If anything it is the close up work that needed attention. The faces were not particularly detailed, clothes lacked focused detailing and don't get me started on the hair. One scene when Alan is talking to Alice all I could think about was how lazy it was that her bun of hair was disappearing into her jacket.
Perhaps it was just that the game took too long to bring to market but compared to some of the character models out there (Final Fantasy, Gears of War 2, Borderlands) it makes the characters seem terribly bland. A little more attention to adding distinguishable features to outfits, faces, etc would have been icing on the presentational cake. Despite all the efforts of the story, the episodic format, the ambience it was something as irritating as a poorly detailed or animated character model that shattered the whole illusion that draws you into the game.
The main focus of the game being light vs darkness it was fitting that lighting took centre stage in the special effects department. The torch and lamp lights are great, illuminating only their specific area and quickly fading beyond that focal area. There are points where you stand in light and it blinds your camera view, realistic it could be argued, but at times irritating. Likewise when setting off the amazingly beautiful flares or shooting the flare gun, there is definite slowness as the frame-rate plunges for a couple of seconds. Minor points and to be expected in most games where explosions occur at point blank range.
Alan Wake is the best survival horror game I've played since Dead Space. It isn't my favourite genre, in fact I slept with the lights on last night! Still, the game kept me engaged. Initially I planned to only play in the daytime (to negate the need to sleep with the lights on), but at half past eleven at night I was still playing and just had to continue. Engrossing, powerful, thought provoking and a joy to play, the game certainly delivers an enjoyable experience. With the main story taking approximately twelve hours I was happily entertained and not unimpressed with the campaign length. I found there was little incentive to go back and play again on a harder difficulty though, like most films with a twist, once the magic is released then I find it hard to revisit them with enthusiasm.This could cause an issue for achievement junkies though if they feel the same way as there will be a lot of revisiting for collectables.
Although technically possible to gain all achievements in two playthroughs I wouldn't recommend it. The first playthrough should be just enjoying the game for what it is, which means you are unlikely to get a number of the collectible achievements. Completing the first playthrough unlocks nightmare difficulty (some collectables are only available on that mode) but the difficulty makes going for non-nightmare collectibles on a second playthrough very tough and probably frustrating. If hunting for all of the achievements you will end up replaying most, if not all, chapters at least once, if not twice on normal before attempting a nightmare run-through. Whilst the manuscripts, tv shows and radio shows were great narrative enhancers, the coffee flasks were a pointless collectible. So you guessed it, achievements for all those things exist...good luck!
So a lack of re-playability (for me), no co-op or multiplayer options and a standard 12 hour campaign means that if buying at full retail you may feel a little short-changed. If you love horror and replaying after you know the story is still fun then this will not disappoint. A definite purchase if in the bargain bin though!