When a video game spends over five years in development, chances are that there are two possible causes. Basically, itís either because its development team has taken the time to meticulously craft a masterpiece for the ages or, in a regrettably more likely scenario, something has been going wrong. Its gestation period may have paled in comparison with everyoneís favourite mythical being, Duke Nukem Forever, but Alan Wake, the latest offering from Max Payne creators Remedy, was certainly under construction for a long, long time, finally seeing the light of day in May last year. But into which of the two categories does it fall?
Before we examine Alan Wake under the microscope, letís establish one thing that will form the crux of this review: the preview footage looked great, perhaps even tantalisingly so. Not only were the graphics a wonder to behold, but the tight, Max Payne-esque narrative and the gloomy, foreboding atmosphere all appeared to come together to form the exclamation point on what was looking increasingly certain to be one of the barnstormers of this generation of console gaming.
Itís a pity, then, that so much of that potential went to waste. Oh, donít take it the wrong way; thereís nothing inherently offensive about Alan Wake. Itís just that its reluctance to truly think outside the box and its excessive fondness for is own sense of familiarity make for an experience that never quite manages to do justice to its fantastic premise.
Let us start at the beginning, though. Are you sitting comfortably? Good, because Remedy certainly must have been during those five years.
The gameís story puts the player in the shoes of the titular Mr. Wake, an eminent novelist struggling to overcome a particularly inhibiting case of writerís block. In an attempt to re-establish the regular flow of his creative juices, Wake decides to take a break to an idyllic, picturesque mountain paradise called Bright Falls, along with his long-suffering spouse, Alice. It quickly becomes clear, however, that things arenít quite as they seem, with Alice mysteriously disappearing as darkness begins to envelop the resort. Wait, so the luscious, welcoming setting might actually play host to a sinister tale of woe and suffering? Well, I never.
Having apparently dismissed the idea of alerting the official local authorities, Wake sets out to uncover the secrets of Bright Falls, ultimately hoping that his efforts will help reunite him with his estranged wife. Not content to venture completely alone, however, Wake enlists the help of the portly agent and long-time chum, Barry, whose primary purpose appears to be to whine incessantly and lead poor, naÔve old Alan even further astray. Still, a story needs characters to drive it forward, and Wakeís underlying lack of foresight and common sense forms the basis of many of the events to come.
Sadly, though, what follows is a convoluted plot that meanders in every possible direction without ever really settling itself down. As Alan trawls through a series of dark, harrowing forests, his progress is compromised at regular intervals by hordes of surreal, ethereal beings known as the Taken who, despite displaying the ability to hurl axes at Wakeís head with admirable aplomb, are vulnerable to the source of light emanating from Alanís trusty hand torch, providing the player with ample opportunity to blow them away with one of a modest selection of firearms. In between such showdowns, Wake encounters a series of manuscript pages lying on the ground, all of which recount the passage of ever more bizarre events that bewilderingly come true mere seconds later in the Ďrealí world. Itís a reasonably sound plot device on paper, but itís also one that almost single-handedly eliminates any element of suspense, tension or surprise from the game. Put it this way: being menaced by what would appear to be a phantom tornado sounds rather pulsating, but its potency canít help but be a little stifled when youíve read all about it a few moments earlier. This isnít just a one-off, either; itís a recurring trend that ends up making a mockery of what could so easily have been a vast cavalcade of memorable set-pieces.
Thatís not the only thing that dampens the gameís atmosphere, either. One would think that a late-night stroll through a dark, misty wood might be almost impossible to find mundanity in, but Remedy has somehow defied the odds. Wading through the merciless, obliterating abyss, armed only with a small torch whilst towering, shadowy figures emerge from the darkness seems like a terrifying proposition on paper, but the gameís insistence on focusing on said figures in slow motion before forcing you to engage in combat with them only serves to render any attempts at subtlety and precise pacing redundant. And thatís not to mention the all too clichťd incorporation of Ďscary musicí into these scuffles, the efficacy of which is further compromised by the fact that the music stops after all of the enemies have been duly dealt with. Wouldnít it have been slightly more effective to keep the music playing, even after the coast has been cleared? Would it have hurt to take out the slow-motion shots? In a genre in which panic, doubt and unpredictability are so crucial to a gameís sense of ambiance, little things like these can mark the difference between success and failure.
Letís not get too vitriolic, though. The game is, at least from a technical standpoint, up there with the very best of this generationís console releases. Its sound effects are crisp and pulsating from top to bottom, reining in a bittersweet cacophony of gunshots, terrified footsteps and the eerie rustling of surrounding foliage to bring the player right to the heart of the action.
Let us not forget the graphics, either. Despite allegedly running at a sub-720p native resolution, Alan Wake is a veritable aesthetic stunner. Utilising some of the most ingenious lighting and mist effects, Remedy has succeeded in overcoming the gameís supposed shortcomings in terms of raw graphical power through sheer artistic style and attention to detail. The environmental textures are rendered beautifully and, amidst the truly dynamic visual contrast between light and dark, youíll be convinced that you can inhale the smoke and fog that lingers mesmerisingly in the night sky. Yes, it really does look that good Ė at times.
The rest of the time, though, itís not quite the same success story. For the sake of plot advancement and in a somewhat poorly executed attempt to avoid repetition, Remedy has made the decision to set a fair proportion of the game in the daytime, and itís during these segments away from the clutches of the darkness that some of Alan Wakeís blemishes start to become apparent. Although the impressive environments on show during the night-time sequences generally transfer effectively over to the gameís sunlit scenes, the bright, blazing sunshine makes Alan Wakeís occasional screen tearing issues significantly more apparent and, as a consequence, significantly more irritating. More harmful to the immersive experience, however, are the character models. Ranging from unnatural to downright hideous, many of the characters in the game resemble disfigured inflatable dolls, only with even less convincing lip syncing capabilities.
Quite how the game manages to leap from serene picturesqueness to a Picasso cast-off from one scene to the next certainly is alarming, but the gameís Jekyll and Hyde nature doesnít end there. Remember the outstanding sound effects I mentioned earlier? Well, the same canít be said about the voice acting. Unlike its spiritual predecessor, the morbid, gripping Max Payne, the cast of Alan Wake does little to add to the suspension of disbelief thatís such a vital component of a great video game, and one can seldom shake off the feeling that the charactersí lines are being uttered half-heartedly from within the confines of a makeshift, isolated recording studio. Furthermore, the dialogue itself isnít likely to rake in the awards either, with many of Alanís ongoing monologues feeling unnecessary and almost self-indulgent, as if heís speaking solely out of an unhealthy love of his own voice. Wordsworth it most certainly isnít.
Alan Wakeís bipolar tendencies are never more apparent than in the combat, though. The aforementioned shine torch-shoot enemy formula is simple, intuitive and original enough to bring about a refreshing change in the survival-horror conventions, but itís also a procedure that the game is far too reluctant to shy away from. Basically, almost every encounter with the Taken is dealt with in exactly the same way, and it doesnít take long for the process to become overly familiar and mindlessly repetitive. And, once again, the potential for the creation of a genuinely horrifying atmosphere is compromised as a result. I may be no expert on the finer intricacies of the human mind, but itís one of the most basic lessons of the conveyance of fear: the unknown spawns terror; predictability kills it.
If you think this review seems a tad harsh, youíre probably right. Alan Wake acts as a reasonably entertaining weekend filler and clearly has plenty going for it. The criticism, however, stems from the inescapable impression that what ended up as an approachable, upper-mid range title could so easily have been a masterpiece in the gaming industry. As a parent of a child prodigy could surely attest, itís easy to be more critical when you know that the potential for unrivalled excellence is not being realised, and thatís exactly the case with this game. I suppose, then, that Alan Wake is best approached with a lowered sense of expectation rather than a pig-headed focus on what might have been.
By all means, give it a test drive, but donít expect donít let the Ferrari coat of paint fool you into thinking youíll get anything more than a pleasant afternoon excursion.