Alan Wake is a game with a lot to live up to. After a long development history with little revealed of the game until fairly recently, there was a bubble of hype surrounding its release. With the initial free roaming sandbox style abandoned at some stage of the development and the PC version cancelled due to suspected Microsoft wrangling, there was a lot of pressure for the title to really deliver. So, 5 years after the initial announcement, has it been worth waiting for?
Taking place in the quiet, rural town of Bright Falls and the surrounding area, the game’s story follows successful horror writer Alan Wake and his wife Alice. Suffering from writer’s block they take a holiday in this sleepy idyll but it isn’t long before things take a darker turn. Instead of collecting a key to their booked cabin, a sinister lady hands them a key to an island retreat sat on the incredibly deep Cauldron Lake. All seems well until darkness falls and Alice disappears. Alan regains consciousness to find he has lost a week of his life and has no recollection of what has happened. With the discovery of pages from a book he doesn’t remember writing, sinister dark forces and a spouse to rescue, the story covers a lot of ground.
With such an important narrative drive in the game, it is very important for the plot to be interesting and engaging and thankfully this is excellent on both counts. While Wake’s character is a little bland and depressed you do begin to get attached to him and as the story twists and turns you find yourself eager to press on. Thankfully there are some great support characters, including Alan’s geeky New York agent Barry Wheeler and a pair of ageing, insane rock stars, to provide some light relief which surprisingly had me chuckling a few times. The game is divided into 6 episodes, similar to those you would usually find in DLC packages, with each section covering a different key chapter in the story. This presentation didn’t always seem necessary and did break up the flow of the game with a song playing between chapters. However, as each section ends at a pivotal moment and has a quick recap this doesn’t spoil the enjoyment. The split also lets you gauge your progression and feels rewarding, usually motivating you to at least complete an episode in a gaming session.
Alongside a strong story and characters, Alan Wake’s production values are equally refined. The visuals are hauntingly impressive with really outstanding lighting throughout the whole title. There’s some nice variety in the settings you find yourself in, with some episodes beginning at dusk or during the day. Despite much of the game taking place during the dark, the graphics impress with dark fog swirling atmospherically and water glistening with the moon. It’s appropriate and evocative stuff which really helps to create an atmosphere as you wander through the back woods battling your enemies. Sound is similarly impressive with one of the best game soundtracks I’ve heard in a long while. Including both licensed music and a striking score it’s always memorable and fits in perfectly with the title.
However, the most important element of any game is how well it plays and Alan Wake does have a few slight issues. The majority of the gameplay involves third-person shooting with some interesting new mechanics. As the enemies, or “the Taken” as they are called by Alan, are all tainted by darkness you must initially fight them with light. Each enemy has a layer of darkness coating them which must first be removed by burning it off with a flashlight or anything bright enough to do the job. Once this blackness is gone you can then damage the enemies with gunfire and finish them off. This is initially both fresh and unusual and some of the weapons are very satisfying to employ. Igniting a signal flare drives any attacking foes backwards and can buy you extra time if you need temporary respite from a tough battle. A flare gun acts as a kind of rocket launcher, being powerful enough to kill groups of foes in a single shot and Special Forces-style flashbangs perform a similar role. Despite some nice light-based weaponry, the standard arsenal of guns is limited to only four weapons which is a little restricted.
To begin with each encounter with the Taken feels exhausting and tense, as it really is a battle for survival. Yet as the game progresses the enemy types never really change and you find yourself battling the same limited groups where you soon adopt appropriate strategies for each. As such the combat tends to feel a little repetitive as each encounter is usually signposted in advance by the positioning of extra items and some subtle in-game signals. With a few more enemy types to add a greater variety the game would feel more intense and you would be forced to adopt more strategies. The highlights of the combat came late in the game with large groups of enemies attacking, leading to tense and desperate survival encounters where you would be forced to use all of your skills. At times it was also a lot easier to cut and run, using flares and flashbangs to make it to the next checkpoint.
While the combat does get a little monotonous, it never feels like a chore thanks to an intuitive control system and an easy to use dodging mechanism which is essential on the harder difficulties. Similarly, the pacing of the title is very well managed with the combat broken up with a few small puzzles and some daytime and dusk sections to help expand the narrative. At first you’d expect the title to be more of a horror game with the setting and story, but Alan Wake never really scares being more action orientated. This isn’t especially a criticism as it certainly works, but don’t go expecting any frights.
The title doesn’t have much replay value, other than a positive slew of collectibles scattered throughout the levels. While some of these provide a few cryptic hints at the story such as radio and television shows, others have a more direct bearing on events such as the manuscript pages which often reveal future plot points. However others seem to be there for achievement purposes, including coffee flasks and can towers which are a bit of a slog to collect. Having to replay the game on the hardest difficulty to collect some of the pages may also frustrate some, but it’s a nice incentive to uncovering more of the plot.
Alan Wake is certainly a polished and intelligent game and there is a lot to entertain action and adventure fans. The story and its conclusion won’t be to everyone’s taste, as it is both unusual and a little undefined but personally I enjoyed this. The restricted enemy types and somewhat repetitive combat are the biggest drawbacks, but these are only a minor frustration in an otherwise highly recommended title. With a tantalising post-credit sequence and an incoming DLC pack it seems that this story has plenty more chapters left in store.
Alan Wake (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.