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.