Review: Alan Wake

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Like Stephen King? Twin Peaks? If so, you’ll love Alan Wake – the game ITSELF even tells you that! Quite literally, the words “Stephen King” are the first you’ll hear in the game and they immediately set the tone of what’s to come: creepy stuff is about to happen, and you may not fully understand why. Ever. As King believes that explanations make psychological horror weak, so too do Remedy, developers of the game.

I’m going to go out on a limb right now and tag this review with “Game of the Year, 2010″…even if it is only June. Keep that in mind as you read on – I may not be as impartial as I should.

First up, the plot (of which you’ll notice I don’t get into much; this is purposeful). Long story short, Alan Wake (not italicised; I’m talking about the character) is a best-selling author who travels to a small town with his wife to try to get over a bad case of writer’s block. As he struggles to come up with a new novel, his wife goes missing and Alan blacks out only to wake up a week later, finding mysterious goings-on occurring all around him. As Alan travels through the small town trying to find his wife, he comes across manuscript pages he’s apparently written that describe macabre acts and murders that play out before his very eyes minutes later. Alan is forced to continue his rescue in the pitch-black night, fending off aggressors with the power of light (thanks Energizer batteries and conveniently placed flashlights!) while investigating if he’s responsible for the dark turn the town has taken.

The hot: Where open world game environments are becoming the norm, Remedy (of Max Payne series fame – look out for references all throughout Alan Wake) went out on a limb and made you play through a story exactly as they crafted it. There’s no choice between good or bad and you won’t get a different ending the second or third time. You absolutely will travel in a straight line all game towards the next objective that will forward the plot…and all of that doesn’t matter because the twists and turns of the plot don’t let the game feel linear. Without spoiling anything, the story is insanely good and you should play this game simply to experience it if nothing else.

This game has been in production for years, and really feels like it. The environments were researched in painstaking detail — Remedy is based in Finland, but you’d be convinced they’re from a small logging town in the USA — and are reproduced so well that you can’t help but be immersed in your surroundings. The supporting characters in this game are amazing and further help build the world. Barry Wheeler is a character you will either loathe, or want to marry; it’s that simple. Fans of Twin Peaks will certainly get a kick out of the Lady of the Light, this game’s version of Peaks’ Log Lady.

This is Twin Pe...I mean, Bright Falls.

Alan Wake is an everyman. Whilst he does have freakishly good aim with a gun for a writer, he does play in every other way as a regular guy. He can run for a bit, then gets tired, and then needs to slow right down, wheezing in attempts to catch his breath. He doesn’t do flips around the environment, or spout bad-ass one-liners…he just freaks out as the inhabitants of Bright Falls descend into darkness around him and try to take off his head with axes or train cars (yes, train cars) – just like I did.

The combat at Normal and Hard levels is enjoyably challenging; gamers shouldn’t find too much trouble with Normal and will have fun learning when to use the flashlight to take out a bad guy’s darkness shield before pumping him with bullets, or when it’s just easier to take groups out with a flare gun shot or flashbang. Just like he’s not a marathon runner, Alan isn’t a superstar fighter either; it feels like you’re just getting by through dodging, running, and blindly firing your pistol through the night. When you manage to pull off a superhuman feat with your everyman, the world will go slo-mo and make you feel VERY cool.

The meh: There is none. I told you I’m not that impartial for this game — it’s either great, or in big need of improvement.

The cold: Facial animations of the characters are creepy and wrong, and really prove that the game has been in production for five plus years – they look old and sloppy. While this is apparently being fixed via future DLC, I don’t think Remedy can do much about the ugly and plastic-looking models of the supporting characters; sure, they’re rich and three-dimensional, but they look like crap.

The game’s hardest mode, Nightmare, is essential to 100% complete this Xbox 360 exclusive game. The mode is a bitch. Whereas Alan’s shortcomings make the game challenging in lower modes, his failings make portions of the game extremely frustrating. Fighting multiple super-enemies with limited resources and half the light sources that you were used to in other modes means you will be loading up the same check point time after time after time. Be warned.

Some didn’t like finding out what was going to happen in the game via the manuscript pages, but I became anxious and unsettled when I read what I was about to face, almost deciding to turn off my Xbox at times because I didn’t want to have to do what the pages described. As you start playing the game and read through the first couple pages, I’d make a conscious decision then to either collect the pages, or not. It’s that simple.

Finally, product placements completely throw you out of the rich game world, and harshly and abruptly at that. If you can make it twenty minutes without noticing a reference to Energizer or Verizon, I salute you.

As far as the bad goes, that’s it. This game is rewarding as hell to play and finish (yes, even on Nightmare), and the ending does provide resolution while leaving the door wide-open for a sequel. You WILL want to talk about the ending for days on end as well, as it is VERY to interpretation. Just like King attests, there really is no fun if everything’s explained to you.

Do yourself a favour and pick up this game – it’s definitely an On Fire!. Before you start playing however, go and check out the 6-episode webseries Bright Falls (at http://www.brightfalls.com). That, plus the game, make for a truly unique game experience and left me desperately wanting more. Thankfully, anyone who purchases the game gets a free code for the first DLC available in late July, and a second DLC pack shortly after that. Until then, I’m left to watch Twin Peaks – a series I had never had any interest in before – to get my fix of well-written, WTF-style psychological thrillers.