ALAN WAKE (2010) – REMEDY SOFTWARE
The announcement of Quantum Break, the latest project from Max Payne creators Remedy, was intriguing for the reaction it created – a day later, creative director Sam Lake appeared in a video and apologised that the team was not working on a sequel to its last game, Alan Wake (which received critical acclaim but did not sell enough on the Xbox 360 to encourage a sequel). The side effect of this was that Alan Wake was offered as part of a weekly Humble Bundle; it was through these means that I recently played through the game for myself to see what I missed out on three years ago.
Alan Wake is a self titled ‘psychological action thriller’ which is split episodically like a television drama. It follows the titular character, a popular author who has been suffering from writer’s block for two years, and his trip to the sleepy town of Bright Falls in Washington with his wife Alice to relax. However after moving to their cabin outside of the town, Alice is kidnapped by a mysterious dark presence and Alan falls unconscious, only to awaken a week later in a car crash of which he has no memory. The rest of the story deals with Alan fighting back against the darkness, which is being formed and guided by the plot of a book that Alan hasn’t even written yet. The game takes a lot of inspiration from Stephen King’s novels (even going as far as to namedrop him in the story), and there are plenty of moments inspired by the likes of The Shining and Hitchcock-fare like The Birds. It’s a pretty deep story, so taking it one episode at a time is recommended.
The general atmosphere in Alan Wake is pretty top notch. The game was in development for an awfully long time (I can remember seeing the first footage on a PS2 demo disc around 2006), and you can tell that a lot of effort was put into making Bright Falls; it can flip between the beautifully serene and the overtly menacing in seconds. Remedy did a top job in making the world feel quite real – outside of some very obvious product placement for batteries and phones, as Alan moves around he can find radios which he can turn on to tune into the late night show and also find TV’s which play a five minute episode from a creepy show called Night Springs (all written and acted out by the folks from Remedy). My only criticism of the setup is that the plot starts to wane a bit in the final chapter, but up to that point it is one of the more finely tuned videogame tales of recent times. I wouldn’t describe the game as a shock-fest; there are too few memorable moments for it to be a genuine horror game, but stumbling around in the dark definitely makes for an oppressive ambience.
So how does Alan fight the darkness then? With light of course! Alan Wake controls from a third person perspective, with Alan having limited movement to jump and run about (he is just an average guy remember). To defeat his enemies who are shrouded in darkness, he must shine his trusty flashlight at them to dispel the dark using the right stick and then finish them off with weapons including revolvers, shotguns, rifles or flare guns. Bigger and more threatening enemies will be covered in more powerful fog, so Alan can also boost the strength of his flashlight by holding the left trigger; this uses up battery power however, and takes time to recharge. Enemies can also be evaded by performing a tactical dodge before they strike with a quick tap of the right bumper, and the game will briefly enter bullet time to observe Alan escape from being hacked to pieces. Alongside combat, there are puzzles to solve in order to progress, and a series of collectibles including manuscript pages to be found (these pages spell out the plot that Alan is fighting through, so it adds a bit of drama to proceedings reading small sections of what is yet to come).
The gameplay is solid enough, but once you’ve mastered the basics there is little else to learn and by the end of the game combat becomes a chore, with little changing in enemy design apart from them getting bigger and taking more hits to finish off – although the addition of poltergeists means that at one point you will be duelling with a possessed JCB digger which is…unique I guess. If you keep your eyes peeled for boxes and hidden crates, you never really run the risk of running out of batteries or ammo, and safe havens (streetlights Alan can stand under to regenerate lost health) are plentiful. The occasional bit of driving that you get to do is also let down by sloppy controls. If you don’t mind a bit of repetitive combat then its worth it for the rest of the package (in particular for one amazing sequence at a farm in the fourth episode), but the often slow pace will put off fans of more dynamic action games like the Uncharted franchise.
While the world of Alan Wake is chock full of impressive lighting effects and is really quite beautiful even in the dark, presentation is let down at times by some strange animation – it doesn’t help that the motion capture for Alan and Alice was done by separate people to the voice actors, so speech sometimes appears a bit offset. That said, the voice acting is generally pretty strong; Alan is a likeable enough protagonist and gets involved with some pretty funny banter with his manager Barry, and the soundtrack is fantastic; a mixture of an original score and lots of eclectically picked licensed music from Roy Orbison to Depeche Mode. I mean, any game that features ‘Coconut’ by Harry Nilsson has got to be good, right?
A sequel for Alan Wake (not including American Nightmare, which also came with the Humble Bundle and is on my list of games to play) might not be in Remedy’s immediate future, but there would be good reason to return to the writer’s story. It’s quite a compelling game to play through at times, and I’m sure fans would love another dose of the well crafted narrative. A few tweaks to the gameplay to make sure it isn’t all quite so samey, and I’ll be on board as well.
P.S I was playing the PC port of the game. It seemed like a pretty good conversion with little to no glitches or graphical problems at all