Alan Wake Review
Alan Wake is an XBOX 360 exclusive title that mixes action and survival horror with a good story and rewarding gameplay.
Alan Wake is a writer who is on vacation with his wife in the seemingly peaceful small town of Bright Falls, Washington. During his vacation, Alan awakes in a crashed car with no memory of the past week and finds pages of a book he doesn’t remember writing… a horror story that is coming to life.
In Alan Wake you are given a flashlight and a gun to fight off crowds of “Taken”, enemies whose bodies have been possessed by a dark shadow presence. The gameplay boils down to using your flashlight to strip the shadowy shields from the baddies before capping them in the head. When firing, the flashlight beam serves much like the laser sight in Resident Evil 4, in fact much of the pacing and style of the fighting reminds me of that game. This is both good and bad, as RE4 was undoubtedly one of the most popular games on the Game Cube, beloved by fans and critics alike, but I always had trouble aiming in third person (too much FPS experience I guess). You also get a dodge button (left bumper) that allows you to perform a Matrix like slow-motion escape of an attack if timed properly. You WILL need to use this when surrounded as even with a road flare burning next to you, it’s almost impossible to cover all angles of attack and the baddies are good at flanking you in the dark.
Your flashlight can be upgraded to a heavy-duty variety (think Maglite) or to a lantern (basically a handheld floodlight). You only burn battery power while “boosting” your beam (left trigger) which stops the bad guys in their tracks if you catch them in it, otherwise your battery recharges automatically. In a fire fight though, you may need to swap batteries when you get low. Don’t worry though; battery packs are plentiful in the game (likely due to the obvious sponsorship from Energizer).
Your weapon can also be upgraded from the basic revolver to a break action shotgun, then to a pump action shotgun, then to a hunting rifle, and the big daddy of them all, the flare gun (useful for taking out crowds, much like a rocket launcher in a more traditional shooter). You will also get road flares which you can use to set up a perimeter and give yourself a few seconds of reprieve while you reload your weapon and flashlight batteries. Finally, you can also make use of flash-bang grenades, which are harder to come by, but incredibly devastating to groups of taken.
Driving me crazy
There are times in the game where you are given a vehicle to drive (sponsored by Microsoft SYNC, subtle). Jimmy, I do not like when non-driving games give you a driving level, they never get the controls quite right, and Alan Wake is no exception. The right analog stick for some reason becomes the loosest look control you’ve ever seen; merely touching it causes your field of vision to whip around like you’re in the fucking Gravitron at the carnival. Damn near made me sick, I had to remove my right thumb from the controller altogether to fight the urge to use the stick while driving. Luckily these scenes are usually pretty short and you don’t encounter too much resistance along the way.
The story of Alan Wake is one of its strong points, and it’s told in a several different ways. The game is divided into episodes, at the end of which you get a cinematic with some nice licensed music and a pull back into the Alan Wake logo and “end of episode 1” screen. All cinematics are skippable, but I’d advise that you watch them as the story is quite good. Then, as you start the next episode, you are treated to a “previously on Alan Wake” recap of what happened in the previous episode. This is a little unnecessary if you’re playing through multiple episodes in one sitting, but it does give the game a kind of TV-drama feel.
You will also find pages of your manuscript lying around the game world. As the events of this book are coming to life, these pages can provide valuable insight as to events that are about to happen. There are, of course, achievements for finding all the pages too, but unless you’re just playing for the gamer score or are obsessive compulsive, you probably won’t care.
There are TVs and radios around that you can switch on to get some weird message from yourself or watch a spoof of the Twilight Zone called “Night Springs”. Be careful though, one of the TVs plays a Verizon commercial. (Seriously Microsoft, do you need the money?)
Graphics and Sound
The graphics engine of Alan Wake seems to be stuck in the past. Not surprising since the game started development over 5 years ago (we got our first glimpse at E3-2005) and was planned to be an XBOX 360 launch title. This is not to say the graphics are bad, just that they look dated compared to some of today’s better looking games. The character models suffer from some unnatural looking mouth movements that don’t work with the voice-overs, this is normally not a problem when playing the game as you’re not getting a good look at faces, but it can be a bit jarring in the cutscenes.
The sound design is quite good with appropriately foreboding music queuing up when you’re in danger and lighter fare during the day (get it, lighter?). Alan Wake also makes use of licensed music during the end of episode cinematics and credits. Notably Poe’s Haunted and David Bowie's Space Oddity are still ringing in my mind.
Completing the game on Normal takes about 8 hours if you suck at third person shooters like me and unlocks the Nightmare difficulty mode, though there isn’t much reason to go through it again except to get the achievement and pick up some manuscript pages that can only be found in nightmare mode. The game’s outdated look means you probably won’t be playing it to show off your system to your friends either. This is probably the reason that a code for Alan Wake’s first DLC (The Signal, which releases July 27) is included in the box.
You can view any cinematic or TV broadcast you’ve watched in the gallery as well as re-read any of the manuscript pages you’ve found in your journeys. There is also a statistic viewer that tells you how many kills you have with each weapon type and how close you are to certain achievement objectives. (I missed one goddamn TV… one. FML.)
Remedy has taken the tired third person shooter survival horror genre and given us a game that somehow, in spite of being previewed for five years, feels fresh, even if only for 8 hours.