Remedy may not create a lot of games, but when they do, they turn in stellar work. Their newest title -- in production for several years -- is finally available and you shouldn't miss it. Alan Wake's beautiful nightmare has begun.
The Story Comes Alive
Alan Wake is a psychological action thriller played from the third person perspective. You will play as Alan Wake, a successful thriller fiction novelist. But in the last two years, Alan's had a hell of a case of writer's block and his usual inspiration -- his wife Alice -- just hasn't been enough to get him writing again. So, the two decide to leave their New York apartment for a vacation in the northwest United States. They visit Bright Falls, a small country town that celebrates something called Deer Fest and that is surrounded by forested mountains and, at times -- strange occurrences.
The story of Alan Wake is its most compelling feature. It's captivating from the moment you start until the very end. Since it is such a huge part of the experience and I know how much I hate it when someone spoils a good story for me, I will do my best to avoid dropping any spoilers. That said, I will add that for as captivating as the story is for the duration of twelve and half hour campaign -- it may have been a little too convoluted or complicated for its own good. To be honest, it can be very hard to follow, which I presumed was intentional until late in the game (during the final episode) when it felt like the plot was quickly tying up lose ends.
When everything came together, or was supposed to, it really didn't for me and I was left a bit unsatisfied and lost when the credits began to role. However -- the experience was thrilling enough that I'm eager to make time to replay the entire experience and relive the story again.
A powerful story is only part of what Alan Wake brings to the table. You'll also be wrapped up in combating The Taken and trying to discover just what the hell is going on in the mysterious town of Bright Falls. The Taken -- shadowy human figures out to kill you -- are engulfed in darkness and can only be combated with light and lead. Before you can shoot The Taken with a pistol, hunting rifle, or
shotgun, you need to remove the protective veil that the darkness provides. Alan uses a flashlight (there are three different types) to burn the darkness right off of The Taken, making them vulnerable to gun attacks.
While the flashlight is the most common method to burn the darkness away, there are other ways. Light from the environment, like a utility lamp or street lamp powered by a generator, work wonders, as do your flares and flashbang grenades (oh how I love the flashbangs). The point being, you can only hurt The Taken with light, and they own the darkness.
In Alan Wake, there's nothing as comforting as locating one of the numerous 'safe havens' -- these brightly lit areas that act as checkpoints. In these small areas, your progress is saved, your health is quickly restored to full, and your flashlight charges up its current battery. The flashlight only drains when you hold down L2, which boosts it, allowing it to more quickly burn through the darkness. It's also the best way for Alan to aim his firearm at the enemy he's lighting up. You can just barely tap L2 to aim, and not boost your flashlight, but that's easier said then done when you've got three or four Taken ready to eat your lunch. Thankfully, Alan can not only carry a good amount of batteries, he can also change them out quickly. I got the "Changed Batteries 100 Times" Achievement around the halfway point of the game if that tells you how many I went through.
Alan discovers batteries and ammo all around Bright Falls. Often times, there is a stash of supplies located in Emergency boxes that are next to safe havens. Other times, you'll find supplies laying on shelves and tables. There are also hidden stashes of supplies that are conveniently available to you -- left by whom and for what reason you'll find out late in the game -- but with a sharp eye you can find these from the very start of the adventure (i.e., when Alan gets his flashlight). I thought Remedy did a nice job of making these extra supply stashes a fun part of the game. When a stash is near, you will notice markings in yellow paint scrawled on rocks, trees, and walls, whichever is most appropriate for the area you are in. You never have to go too far off course to find these stashes and they're always helpful.
The hidden stashes are but one of a few collectibles in Alan Wake. There are no less than 100 coffee thermoses to find too. I managed to find 67 by game's end, and for as thorough as I thought I was being, I'm surprised I didn't find more. Admittedly, while it's neat to find and pick up a thermos bottle, it doesn't do anything for you except pad your play time a little and give you another reason to replay the game. While that's nice, they seem out of place and I didn't think they helped the dark and brooding atmosphere of the game. I mean, just imagine running through this spooky forest and way off in the distance you see a blue thermos that is bright and glimmering -- it's kind of jarring to the atmosphere and immersion.
Far less obtrusive are the TV and Radio sets around town. There are something like fourteen TV sets to find and roughly twice as many radios. When you find a TV set, it plays a minute or two long episode of "Night Springs" a clone of The Twilight Zone. While the TV screen you and Alan are watching on screen is small, the quality is good -- it's full motion video, not in game graphics. These "Night Springs" episodes have a great, scary narrator and they often relate to themes and events in the game which only adds to the creepiness. The radio broadcasts are meant to keep you in the loop about events going on in Bright Falls. The host, Pat Maine, is an older gentlemen who has an all night radio show in which he takes calls from citizens and sometimes conducts interviews with locals. They're a nice touch, but are sometimes longer than they maybe should have been.
Finally, the fourth collectible is the most sensible and interesting -- pages of a manuscript. These pages give you details about the story, often times foreshadowing in detail what Alan is soon to experience for real. At first I didn't know how much I liked the idea of finding pages that reveal upcoming plot twists, but it worked out pretty well. I missed several pages, and couldn't get others because I wasn't playing on Nightmare difficulty, which gives me another reason to replay Alan Wake.
Playing Alan Wake
So what's it like to play Alan Wake anyway? Well, other than the very brief moments when you're standing in a safe haven, you're constantly on the move and always uneasy. It's a feeling that I hadn't felt in sometime, perhaps since playing Condemned. Even though you've got plenty of batteries and ammo, you still just feel like The Taken are just in front of you, and behind you, ready to make you
jump. And the game does a tremendous job of creating this uneasy atmosphere thanks to some impressive visual tactics. My favorite example of this would be when the sky closes and the winds begin to pick up and makes the trees sway and reduces your visibility -- it's intense!
Alan spends a lot of his time running (and a relatively small, but significant amount driving) through the haunted forests of Bright Falls, but he spends about as much inside buildings. Most of these structures are wooden, like mills and garages and cabins. Between the outdoor forest areas and the indoors, mostly wooden building areas, I would just about go as far as to say that some places look and feel familiar to one another. This certainly isn't a big deal, but it was just something I noticed while playing -- I just realized that, 'wow, I'm in another wooden building again.' As goofy as that sounds, it did restrict the visual appeal just a little bit for me. The constant HUD takes away from this as well. While the compass is certainly helpful, having it and the health meter up at all times is really unnecessary I thought.
Remedy didn't make many design decisions that I thought were anything less than great for the game. Yet, there are a few things I wanted to make mention of. First, the sheer number of generators and simplistic puzzles. I thought the "darn, device x has no power" puzzles were over done. Additionally, at many safe havens, players must turn on the generator. The generators are never hard to find and they all turn on the same way. A simple timing event is used to fire up the generators and by the fifth or sixth one of these you wonder if the formula will change -- it does not. Secondly, there are a few puzzles that require some switch hitting, and it's literally just that -- press the switch, maybe move the left stick, and you're done. I completely understand the simplicity of the puzzles if the goal was to keep the player moving and more focused on the survival horror or action aspects of the game, but something more engaging than switch pushing would have been great.
There are also two 'things' I thought were out of place: the product placement and some of the comedy. There is a full blown (optional, but still) Verizon commercial about 75% of the way through the game on one of the TVs. If you turn on the TV, you get an Achievement, but I still don't agree with in game ads (unless it's a sports title) or product placement. You'll notice Lincoln, Energizer, Verizon, and Microsoft product placement in Alan Wake. While it's not quite rampant, it's definitely apparent.
As for the humor in Alan Wake, it just felt out of place. At times I didn't know how seriously this game was taking itself any more. On the whole, these moments of uncertainty about the game's identity are by far outweighed by a consistently serious presentation, but I thought the narrative got too loose in spots.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge the two bits of Max Payne references I noticed during play. It was nice to see these (I won't spoil them for you, but if you played either game you'll recognize it) references to two classic games.
Will Alan Wake be considered a classic? I'm confident it will; what do you think?
To the summary...
Finally, it's here, and I think it was well worth the wait. It's not perfection, but it's a solid effort and an excellent game that 360 owners should be proud to have in their library.