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Renew Review: Alan Wake


Stephen King once said "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." Stunningly, this dryly-worded quote spectaculalry fails to make an appearance in Alan Wake, though just about everything else King wrote in novels and short stories does. But Alan Wake isn't 500 pages long, so it's got that going for it, which is nice.

By law, eponymous characters must have names suited for a career either in writing or supervillainy.

Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Xbox 360: Microsoft Game Studios
Remedy Entertainment (NA)
Microsoft Game Studios (AUS)
Nordic Games GmbH (EU)
E Frontier (JP)
Platforms: XBox 360, Microsoft Windows
Xbox 360: May 2010
Windows: Feb-March 2012

Alan Wake is the story of a young successful author (pause for ironic laughter) who--for reasons unknown and never explained--is suffering from a two year stint of writer's block. At his wife Alice's behest, Alan visits the serene town of Bright Falls, Washington to see if he can reclaim his talent. When Alice is taken by supernatural powers, Alan is drawn into a battle against a supernatural force slowly taking over the town.

Gameplay: Alan Wake is a 3rd-Person shooter in the same vein as Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space. It borrows liberally from many "Survival Horror" titles in books, games and movies; the most obvious being the works of Stephen King, the video game Alone in the Dark, and the TV series' The Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks.

Survival Horror is my favorite genre, but if you've played others you've pretty much played Alan Wake, too. It stands on the left side of the Survival Horror scale: ammo and resources are are plentiful even on higher difficulties. The game justifies this by having a crazy doomsday prepper who has been scattering caches of goods throughout the town for the past forty years. The "survival" aspect is more about fighting waves of supernatural foes, in the same vein as Dead Space and Resident Evil 4.

The core mechanic of Alan Wake--one borrowed from Alone in the Dark, mind you--is the tactical use of light. Enemies in the game are invulnerable to damage while they are cloaked in living darkness, which can only be burned away over time using flashlights, flares and flashbang grenades. Deprived of their protection, enemies can then be taking with a judicious use of lead. Battles can be intense, as the enemies are not the slow-moving zombies and do not attack one-on-one. They move quickly to flank and surround you, chase you down with surprising ease, and hurl bladed weapons from afar. Popping flares just to hold them at bay is almost a necessity when combat begins.

J.J. Abrams presents Alan Wake.

Gameplay is a two-edged sword. I found its default controls either too sensitive or unresponsible. At first this feels atmospheric, Alan is untrained for combat and the twitchy controls give the impression of running on adrenaline and reflex rather than disciplined skill. The novelty wears off very quickly, however and I kept getting killed because Alan seems to be actively resisting my attempts to move him. Using flares or attempting to dodge--two very important tactics--are hindered by this. If Alan hits an object while dodging, he's liable to just come to a dead stop and stand perfectly still, allowing the enemy to corner and overwhelm him. The enemy is lethally good at this tactic, using speedy flanks, projectiles and surprise attacks to hit you from every direction, and you're never given any indication where the attack came from until you accidentally run into the culprit, who proceeeds to slice off a few choice slabs of Alan Steak for your trouble. The dodge feature is also all but useless when the darkness starts possessing inanimate objects the size of cars (sometimes actual cars) and either hurls them at you poltergeist style or brings them to life like Christine to run you down. Consdering your average combat zone is about 40 square feet and things like farm threshers take up 20, you're gonna die a lot before you finally get lucky and the thing traps itself in a corner long enough for you to look at it to death with your flashlight.

My biggest issue was shifting perspective: the camera constantly switches from Alan's left to right shoulder, creating blindspots or turning your focus towards empty air even in the middle of a battle. Hitting a button returns it to the angle you prefer, but it never stays there for good. On top of that, the game seems to have no faith in your ability to notice important details, so it yanks camera control away from you and towards the newest threat. Though the action goes into slow motion, you're still in control of Alan while the camera is elsewhere, so when the game finally decides you've recognized the new threat and you're given back control you might find yourself all turned around, unable to react in time to the very threat the game was so insistent you notice. To make up for the lack of a targeting reticle, Alan has something of an auto-aim function, but his ability to decide immediate threats seems to be based on random variables like shirt color or how much they remind him of his father, because attemting to shine my flashlight on an approaching enemy sometimes had Alan physically turn away from my intended target to aim at another, more distant one.

In terms of resources, Alan is a little better off. Your flashlight needs batteries, but unlike other horror games where a battery's lifetime is measured in commercial lengths, Alan's constantly recharges itself. Holding down a button creates an intense, darkness-burning beam that drains flashlights power, and swapping batteries brings its energy back up quicker than waiting for it to recharge. Flares, flashbang grenades, and an immensely powerful flare gun round out Alan's arsenal of magic missiles with which to attack the darkness, but these come with their own drawbacks: a lot of intense light that can end up blinding Alan as well as his enemies.

An interesting choice of gameplay is the lack of healing items. Instead Alan must seek out soothing light emitted from street lamps, which are strategically placed throughout a level and usually denote auto-save checkpoints. Standing under a light regenerates Alan's health, and has the added benefit of causing any pursing enemies to vanish entirely. Stepping out again may cause them to return, however. Some of these spot lights also burn out shortly after you discover them, leaving you in the dark again.

The driving sections suck. The less said the better.

We'll leave the light on for you.

Audio/Visuals: Alan Wake's audio is probably its most entertaining feature. The voice acting is actually quite good, outside of Alan's self-narration. Throughout the game you'll find radios to listen to Bright Fall's KBF FM radio with Pat Maine, and televisions that play episodes from the Twilight Zone-esque fictional series Night Springs. Both tie in to the plot of Alan Wake, but are arguably more entertaining than the somewhat copy-pasted plot of the game itself. I would not be surprised to learn the famous podcast Night Vale was based on the ideas found in Alan Wake or vice versa. I'm not saying that's the case, but it wouldn't surprise me.

The audio does suffer from Alan Wake's insistence on narrating the story, and his monotonous way of pointing out the obvious breaks the biggest law of any form of entertainment: show, don't tell. Alan Wake tells. It tells everything. Every time you need to solve a puzzle or learn your next objective, Alan will narrate it. Many potentially atmospheric scenes are ruined by this. A very early scene where Alan discover a manuscript he had has no memory of writing loses any sense of dread or gravity when Alan simply tells us what it is and why it's important. Bye bye suspense. Ironically, this Survival Horror game seems to be more enjoyable when Alan is fighting alongside others, including his friend and agent Barry Wheeler and local Sheriff Sarah Breaker. Their banter is entertaining and it falls on these characters to point out objectives and puzzles to solve. Sadly, these moments are few and far between, and we're back to Alan going on about how the Dark Presence is corrupting the town for the upteenth time.

Visually, Alan Wake is hit or miss. Bright Falls looks like a beautifully realized town, the environments--while not particulalry noteworthy--fit the theme of sleepy mountain hamlet surrounded by forests, camping trails, logging camps and the like. There is even an entertaining moment where Alan and Barry fend off hordes of foes using pyrotechnics from a heavy metal music stage, set up by a pair of hilariously memorable old musicians. Old Gods of Asgard forever!

The biggest problem visually is the character rendering. I will say that I prefer the look of Alan Wake's characters over something like L.A. Noir, but the characters have almost Hong Kong-level lip synching problems, and Alan's wife Alice appears to be wearing a rubber mask, though her voice actor salvages it for the most part and the animation problems seem to have been fixed later in the game.

With Sarah and Barry following me, I couldn't self-narrate without a barrage of "Spoilers, Alan! Jesus!"

Story/Setting: If you've read any novel by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, or their many imitators, then you've pretty much read the plot to Alan Wake. A writer (its always a writer) comes to a picturesque town, discovers not all is normal and gets caught up in the supernatural. The "Dark Presence" of the town isn't named or explained, which is a good thing, but the game's refusal to explain anything backfires as the entity becomes so generic as to be little more than a MacGuffin to keep the plot moving. The game attempts to play with the "maybe it's all in your head" theme too, but they handle it so clumsily that eventually its just abandoned.

While copy-pasting ideas from popular authors, Alan Wake also mimics ideas from Twin Peaks. Collectible coffee thermoses are a thing for no discernable reason, and Bright Falls has its own Bright Diner that mimics the layout of Twin Peaks' Double R Diner. Many characters are introduced to have quirky personalities, though only Odin and Tor (the aforementioned aging rockers) are the only ones that really made me smile while the others are too subdued to notice. Deadly Premonition, another game with heavy Twin Peaks influence, may have been less subtle, but Sigourney the pot-lady is still more memorably than Cythnia Weaver the lamp-lady.

Later in the game, the Dark Presence becomes all too prominent.

The trick of paying homage to all of these varied inspirations is in presentation. Take Dead Space for example, inspired by classics like Aliens and John Carpenter's The Thing, but the ideas were woven into something distinct and free to call itself different while still paying tribute. Alan Wake is so self-conscious that it downplays what it borrows to the point of being forgettable, yet is so devoted to respecting the source material that it refuses to jump on opportunities to be fresh and unique. The one aspect that stand out, and remains its most novel idea, is the bookending of the game's chapters. Instead of simply transitioning from one level to the next, Alan Wake creates cliffhanger endings and starts new chapters with "Previously, on Alan Wake" recap segments. While this is typical for television, its not seen often in video games and the effect was surprisingly charming, keeping me engaged in what is otherwise a predictable story.

Final Thoughts: For all of Alan Wake's faults, I have to admit that I enjoyed it. This may be due to my love for the Survival Horror genre, but it did enough to keep my playing and I'm glad that the bundle I bought it with came with Alan Wake's American Nightmare, which I intend to play next. And then Deadly Premonition, because I seem to be the only man who hasn't played that yet. I seem to be on a "small town with dark secrets" binge this September. If you're willing to be patient with its occasionally frustrating controls, Alan Wake offers up just enough pros to make its cons bearable.

7/10 (Flawed but Entertaining)
+ A solid Survival Horror shooter
+ Good voice acting
+ Entertaining sidebits like Night Springs

- Controls can be atrocious
- Driving sections can eat my ass
- Uninspired, generic plot

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About TheInternone of us since 3:57 PM on 07.16.2015

TheIntern is a fiction author that writes under the pen-name M.G. Gallows. He lurks on DToid to hang out with the cool people.