Alan Wake begins with a nightmare.
Chased by a ghostly hitchhiker he thought he'd just killed with his car, the titular protagonist is running and stumbling through the woods when suddenly, with a panicked start, he wakes. The writer is safe next to his loving wife, the sun is comfortingly bright and the two are on a relaxing vacation together in a peaceful rural town. Everything's okay… okay, that is, until their cabin comes alive, the wife is swallowed by an evil lake and the writer wakes up again, dangling alone over the edge of a dark cliff and wondering desperately which, if any, of these experiences is real.
Playing Alan Wake, you'll face the same confusion. The game's greatest strength lies in masterfully blending truth with fiction, mixing darkness with light and shifting backwards and forwards through time until you don't trust your own perception, let alone your hero's. Sadly, the recurring nightmare metaphor can also be extended to how you'll ultimately feel about the game; while half of Alan Wake is an original, compelling and brightly intelligent mystery story, the other half – which you'll sink unwillingly into over and over – is a murky, mundane slog through repetitive settings and recycled enemies.
But first, the outweighing good.
He's not another soldier. He's not another superhero. Most importantly, he's not another bland, generic videogame protagonist designed to look cool on the cover or serve as an empty vessel for the player. Alan Wake doesn't need to accommodate and reflect your personality – he has his own.
It's a complex one, too. He's a celebrity novelist, as famous for punching out paparazzi as he is for writing best-selling crime books. He's wealthy, intelligent, charming and handsome (a dead ringer for Christian Bale), yet in spite of these blessings – or possibly because of them – he's selfish, moody and troubled as well. Alan yells at his wife. Alan drinks too much. Alan can be cruel to both his friends and fans. Consequently, however, his journey is way more interesting than someone like Master Chief's, whose only goal is to save the galaxy. Alan must also save his soul.
Both helping and hindering him in this mission is the town of Bright Falls, Washington, a setting somehow more eccentric than the protagonist himself. Visit the local diner and you'll meet a pair of geriatric mental patients who claim to be forgotten rock gods. Wander towards the restrooms and you'll be ambushed by a woman wearing a black funeral veil. Head over to the sheriff's office and you'll find a concerned citizen obsessed with changing light bulbs and a psychiatrist who specializes in treating "creative" individuals… like Alan Wake. Huh.
Though Bright Falls is incredibly surreal, developer Remedy Entertainment has done a great job of keeping the town believable, too. Billboards and banners celebrating the upcoming "68th Annual Deer Fest" are everywhere, and after you meet a radio talk show host on the ferry ride in, you can listen to snippets of his call-ins and interviews whenever you find a radio. Alan Wake even has its own in-game television series – Night Springs, a badly acted Twilight Zone rip-off that eerily mirrors the events and themes unfolding around you.
But best of all is out-of-towner Barry, Alan's agent and best friend from New York. His transformation from frantic, Deliverance-fearing city slicker to capable action sidekick is possibly the most entertaining development in the game, and his well-worn, well-written banter with Alan is downright hilarious.
At this point in the review, you might be a little confused about Alan Wake's actual plot. That's okay. Explaining the story in any clearer detail would not only require many confusing and difficult paragraphs on our part, it would ruin the experience and enjoyment on your part. The less you know, the less you expect, the better.
What we can say is that this game will make you think. Yes, about the mysteries of Bright Falls and Alice Wake's disappearance, but also – as the line between Alan's reality and Alan's fiction grows increasingly blurry – about much bigger ideas, like the power of creation, the nature of free will, the meaning of sacrifice and even (seriously) the existence of a God or the Devil. The game also takes a cue from BioShock and Batman: Arkham Asylum, manipulating the player through scattered pages from a manuscript Alan doesn't remember writing. These collectibles don't break the fourth wall, but they do play with your perception of time, describing scenes that are minutes away from happening and thus setting you up for a creepy sense of déjà vu.
Despite all the layers within layers, however, Alan Wake's story is so easy to digest that we could easily imagine it being adapted for film or television. Maybe it's the strong writing, the well-directed cutscenes, the convincing acting or the Hollywood-ready soundtrack. Or, more likely, it's the clever structuring, which splits the game into six episodes, complete with cliffhanger endings and "Previously on Alan Wake" introductions. Ironically, while this same approach felt forced in 2008's licensed Lost adaptation, it works perfectly here.
Another contributor to Alan Wake's cinematic vibe are the graphics. You won't necessarily be blown away by the texture detail of the world or the facial animation of the characters, but you will be in constant awe of something that's arguably more important to the survival horror genre – the game's lighting effects.
They're captivating… and alive. Street lamps cast warm pools of light, beckoning you in the suffocating night, only to flicker and die as soon as you reach them. Red highway flares explode like supernovas, offering you a too-brief flash of the dangers that surround you. Alan's flashlight beam is almost a character in itself: projecting shadows that stretch and twist dynamically on the walls or floor, diffusing realistically as it cuts through blankets of fog and blinding other characters, forcing them to cover their eyes whenever you shine it into their eyes.
Light isn't just for show in Alan Wake, either. Your primary nemesis in the game is literally darkness – referred to as the Dark Presence – and light is the sole weapon that can "kill" it. When a human hunter is possessed, for example, you must use your flashlight to dispel the darkness off his body before your gun's bullets can hurt him. If you're ambushed on all sides, a flare can instantly remove every enemy's darkness at once, while a flashbang grenade can destroy them in showers of sparks. Without these tools, your only option is to continuously dodge attacks… or run like hell.
Sounds scary, right? At first, yeah. Most of the monsters in Alan Wake are local townspeople who have been "taken" by the Dark Presence, and although this basically makes them zombies, their design is definitely original. Each is smothered in shadows, less human than a human-shaped black hole. And you hear the Taken before you see them, speaking in slithering, static hisses that sound as if they've been downgraded through ancient, broken audio equipment until all personality and individuality has been erased.
Once you've faced a dozen or so in the first level, however, you know what to expect and fear quickly changes to bored frustration. Run a hundred feet, fight a handful of Taken. Run a hundred feet further, fight some more Taken. Explore that abandoned building and… Surprise ambush! Oh, nevermind, it's just another group of Taken that look and act exactly like the last 20 or 30 groups of Taken.
Plus, don't expect much escalation or variation. Eventually, a few Taken upgrade their weapons from axes to chainsaws, and some learn how to teleport, but you can still dispatch these with the same flashlight-then-gun techniques.
As for other types of enemies, well… Do flocks of angry birds frighten you?
And as for bosses… Are you terrified by the thought of a poltergeist bulldozer? A satanic refrigerator? How about a homicidal pipe or barrel?
If not, you'll soon learn to dread the nighttime combat segments of Alan Wake. Not because they're terrifying, but because they're kind of boring.
Alan Wake's greatest flaw, though, is the exhausting sameness of its level environments. While the major landmarks of Bright Falls – places like the diner, the trailer park, the mental hospital and the Wakes' haunted cabin – are fascinating to explore and filled with fun characters, the wilderness in between is dull, dark, dreary and even more repetitive than the previously criticized enemies.
Above: Honestly one of the more unique areas in the game
Endless miles of forest paths are punctuated only by the occasional abandoned shack, empty lookout tower and closed facility yard. Beyond the combat, you won't be asked to do much besides unlock doors, turn on generators, ride elevators or run up and down hills. And you won't discover anything particularly surprising or unexpectedly creepy in these sections… just a lot of trees and a lot of Taken. Sometimes the game provides you with a car, but always briefly and always with a very linear path to drive.
Unfortunately, these slogs through monotonous enemies and environments do make up the majority of Alan Wake. Fortunately, the combat and controls are satisfying enough to keep you involved, and the mystery of the story is easily enough to keep you interested. Even when you come across buildings and clearings you could swear you'd visited before, you'll keep pushing forward, desperate to reach the next important location with the next important plot development.
Final gripe: Alan Wake contains a distracting amount of product placement. Energizer brand batteries for your flashlight, we understand, but massive Energizer billboards in a tiny rural town? And an Achievement tied to watching a Verizon commercial on an in-game television? Sorry, Microsoft… we know this game took a long time to develop and you probably want to guarantee some kind of return on investment, but c'mon. This crosses a line.
Silent Hill: Homecoming? Yes. Alan Wake is survival horror and, as such, is clearly influenced by the Silent Hill games. It's about a man searching a hellish town for his lost wife, for chrissakes. But the formula feels fresher here than in recent Silent Hill entries, and with Hollywood-ready characters and story sequences, more appealing to Western audiences. Plus, the enemies at least make sense and aren't just weird for weird's sake.
Dead Space? No. Isaac Clarke wasn't nearly as compelling a character as Alan Wake – hell, he wasn't even as compelling as his space suit – but at least he had interesting shit to see and do. Dead Space's environments are masterpieces of atmosphere and its enemies are disturbingly diverse. Alan Wake does have a far better story, however.
Max Payne? Maybe. The answer depends on what you're looking for in a game. You'll notice plenty of similarities between Alan Wake and Max Payne, Remedy's previous series – for example, slow-motion dodging has replaced slow-motion bullet time – but one is action and one is horror. In our opinion, the actual gameplay in Max Payne is superior, while the overall impact of Alan Wake will stay with you longer.
Like slipping in and out of a nightmare, Alan Wake is a mixed experience. You'll adore the game's well-written characters and grow obsessed with the deeply intellectual story, but thanks to repetitive action and uninspired levels, reaching the end and solving the mystery can sometimes prove a bit tedious.
May 4, 2010
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