Alan Wake super review

  • Deep mystery story with multiple layers and meanings
  • A memorable - and lovable - cast of characters
  • Flashlight beams have never looked so good
  • Enemies and environments too repetitive to be scary
  • Obvious, obtrusive product placement
  • The confusing lack of closure

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.

Alan Wake, anti-hero

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.

Small town surreal

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.

A meta mystery

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.

Let there be light

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.

The monotony of monsters

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.

Out of the woods, back into the woods

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.

This game brought to you by…

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.

Is it better than…

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.

Just for you, Metacritic!

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

More Info

Available Platforms: PC, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Published by: Microsoft
Developed by: Remedy
ESRB Rating:
PEGI Rating:
Charlie Barratt

I enjoy sunshine, the company of kittens and turning frowns upside down. I am also a fan of sarcasm. Let's be friends!

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  • thelegendaryX - November 20, 2013 5:26 a.m.

    Amazing game. Immersive atmosphere, intriguing story, addictive gameplay.
  • Alucard918 - May 19, 2012 9:55 a.m.

    Although the enemies are repetitive and aren't very scary the story is amazing and if you play on nightmare difficulty it is really intense and seams less repetitive.
  • danny-stuivenberg - May 9, 2012 9:53 p.m.

    Although it might be confusing, Alan Wake has a great ending.
  • BertTheTurtle - August 4, 2011 12:45 a.m.

    I know this is really late, but I wanted to defend this game since it is my favorite. Personally, I like this game more than the games I have that scored a 10. The story is one of the best I've experienced. The animations are smooth, the camera is amazing, the lighting is astounding, the pacing is perfect, the voice acting, the level design, the controls, the atmosphere, the setting, the attention to detail, the character development is all wonderfully done, and the soundtrack is one of the best I've ever heard. Also, I found this game to be one of the scarier ones I've played, and the DLC is outstanding. Personally, this is the best game I've played so far.
  • thelegendaryX - March 29, 2014 7:25 p.m.

    I agree! I can only think of three flaws. I FEEL it gives you too much ammo in many areas, the facial animations are pretty bad, and the driving physics are awful. But these are very minor issues (especially the last two). All in all, I enjoyed this game immensely. From gameplay to atmosphere to story. Really awesome, easily in my top 10.
  • MrQuatloo - January 18, 2011 2:20 a.m.

    Man, I love that game. It has made me fear the dark all over again.and the Cthulu reference was hilarious.
  • DrKiss - June 4, 2010 6:56 a.m.

    If I shine a light at my imaginary friends will they become real?... Then try to kill me
  • FVHound - June 2, 2010 10:37 a.m.

    Graphically it was the ugliest Game I had ever seen. The voices tended to not fit the movement of their mouth, which was minimal anyway, And just the terrible textures... I've played 2 hours, it's worth playing for the story, and perhaps wanting to know the characters, the gameplay is interesting, but repetetive.
  • thelegendaryX - March 29, 2014 7:26 p.m.

    I think the graphics in this game are amazing, all except the facial animations. Really beautiful game, IMO.
  • SausageLozenge - May 19, 2010 7:37 p.m.

    I find forests repetitive too.
  • RebornKusabi - May 17, 2010 9:57 p.m.

    Two things: Firstly, You're right, the enemies in Silent Hill: Homecoming didn't make ANY sense... however that is not the case for the earlier games, especially the first three games. Silent Hill 1's enemies were all completely based on the fears of Alessa Gillespie, some even from books that she read as a child. Silent Hill 2's enemies were all based on James Sunderland's personal ****ed-up thoughts... with the exception of two enemies (one is a human boss and another which was based off another characters father and what he did to her). Silent Hill 3's enemies are based off of both Heather and Alessa's memories, again some of the enemies being based off of literary monsters. Silent Hill 4's enemies are based off of Walter's fears and memories (as well as those dumb-ass and annoying as Hell Ghost Victim enemies) and Silent Hill: Origins enemies are based off of Travis's memories as well as Alessa's (again...) fears that she had as a child. Just a minor pet peeve of mine, but I hate when people (NOT YOU... you're awesome lol) bitch about the series' enemies when they really have no idea what the **** they're talking about. All you said was that the enemies were "weird for weirds sake" which is a completely fair criticism of the series' enemies in my book. Lastly, the first half of your review had me intrigued instantly (plus I'm a big fan of the Max Payne series and hearing they were involved was interesting)... too bad all of the [valid] complaints you had kind of turned me off of the game. I'll rent it first thought because the Survival Horror genre is really REALLY in the need of some new and relatively original games lol
  • JD_Method - May 10, 2010 12:15 p.m.

    Why do people talk about this like eight is a bad score? It's not. Eight is a great score.
  • LIKEUCARE - May 7, 2010 8:24 p.m.

    I was greatly interested in this game from announcement till the day it was confirmed as a XBOX 360 exclusive. Sucks bad, but its reality... and well, I refuse to buy a console solely for one appealing game for me! However, if the alleged rumors are right and there is a 360 slim on the way, then I might get one, ONLY IF its well rated and better built than current craptacular 360 that fails every months or so... Till then, I'll be more than busy with RDR, thank you very much!
  • blairjacobs - May 7, 2010 3:12 p.m.

    remedy makes quality games although the repetitiveness of wake mentioned in this review is kinda off putting... il stil pick this one up though... after red dead...
  • oryandymackie - May 6, 2010 4:39 p.m.

    I'm not ready to deal with this yet. I'm off to play Saints Row 2.
  • Mechamorbo - May 6, 2010 3:32 p.m.

    I was hoping for blown away reviews, but since I'm primarily interested in the story anyway, I'll still be picking it up
  • The_Tingler - May 6, 2010 6:24 a.m.

    If it was on PC I'd still get it... oh well.
  • Tochy - May 6, 2010 3:14 a.m.

    fail reCAPTCHA:marimba expression lol
  • Rob0727 - May 6, 2010 2:12 a.m.

    cant wait great review charlie but i think i might like it a bit more then u but still great