Alan Wake Review

By Abbie Heppe - Posted May 04, 2010

Alan Wake is the story of a once famous writer who descends into the eerie realm of his own novels when he takes a trip to the Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls. With solid gameplay and beautiful lighting and sound that build tension from start to finish, Wake is a welcome entrant into the annals of suspense/horror games.

The Pros
  • Fantastic atmosphere created with aesthetics and sound
  • Running away is just as satisfying as fighting
  • Intriguing characters, story and location
The Cons
  • Wake can control clumsily at points
  • Some pointless achievement based collecting
  • Some major plot moments lack a strong payoff

For over six years, Remedy has been tinkering away at Alan Wake, the Finnish developers’ follow-up to Max Payne 2, resurfacing intermittently at different E3s over the years. For such a lengthy development period and ambitious subject matter, is Alan Wake worth the wait? Undoubtedly. It’s a game that effectively uses strong narrative, detailed visuals and art design, and subtly sublime audio to create one of the most eerie atmospheres seen in some time.

Alan Wake

Narrative

Stephen King-esque Alan Wake is a famous novelist who can't get a handle on his next book, his relationship or himself. Fearing the worst, his wife Alice plans a trip to the remote Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls for a relaxing getaway only to find that it’s the ideal setting for a real life horror novel. Alice disappears from the lake cabin they've rented, and it's up to Alan to discover what happened.

Alan Wake quickly establishes itself as pseudo-linear survival horror game. It’s not quite the open-world experience Remedy initially hinted at (and then subsequently denied), but it’s loaded with large areas to explore and extremely satisfying third-person combat. Wake’s tension comes from the way that you must dispatch The Taken, light-sensitive entities that have taken over the bodies of townspeople. You’re armed with a flashlight in one hand, which dissolves their protective shield until you can shoot them with the gun you tote in your other hand. He’s also armed with other luminous projectiles, like flares and flash grenades, both often the best weapons in your arsenal. The combo flashlight/gun mechanic relies heavily on auto-targeting and works exceptionally well. That doesn’t mean the game is shooting for you, but it’d be insanely difficult to play with a more complicated system. The camera often pulls out into a wider shot to avoid overwhelming the player with shadowed and terrifying enemies looming in from all sides.

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Leitmotif

Since darkness is the core of Alan Wake's horror, the game finds the balance between daylight hours and the impending terror of nightfall through the pairing of great art design, dramatic tension, and great visuals. Daytime represents safety and normalcy, but Alan Wake truly shines in the dark. The ever-shifting shadows that shroud the nighttime scenes are spectacular, creating an environment that seems to live and breathe on its own. Light is used impeccably; shadows play all the correct tricks on the eye and the lamps that beckon the player towards safety are always just far enough away to induce panic.

On par with the quality of light, the sound effects and original music complement the visual splendor as the camera pans out over the sweeping mountainsides and as the encroaching darkness fills the forests with shifting fog. It’s a game that truly runs a good surround sound system through its paces. Every creaking piece of wood, tingle of a wind chime or lurking enemy is audible, yet none betray the next scare or let the player escape the persistent tension. Licensed tracks theme each episode and tie the game together. They all make for pleasant surprises.

Alan Wake

Citation Needed

Remedy’s greatest challenge on display is the creation of a horror game that envelops almost every cliché of the genre without being completely cliché itself, not to mention writing a game about a writer. There are many nods to Stephen King, the game quotes him, incorporates music and poetry as his novels often do, follows the oft-formulaic horror staples of uncertainty, dream states, subjugation of the experience and sublimely transplants the foggy and desolate corners of the Northeast into their Northwest counterparts. However, it never fails to deliver its own distinctive experience. Though early comparisons to Twin Peaks were made, it’s better compared to The X-Files, seeing as flashlights are the weapon du jour, the content is episodic and is neatly tied up into one package that will prompt questions as to what did or did not happen. All in all, every referential comparison is acknowledged in the game, though it seldom feels like Alan Wake is ripping any one off.  Despite an rough introduction to the character himself, Alan Wake can be light-hearted, much more than the heavy-handed Max Payne games. It’s most apparent through the comic relief character Barry, Alan's agent, but also in some of Alan's dialogue, elements of the setting, commentary about video games and the members of Remedy that show up in live-action TV segments in the game.

Table of Contents

It’s the impeccable pacing in the game allows the player to take in the scope of what Bright Falls has to offer. While it sometimes feels like Alan Wake is built on the now-trimmed foundations of a game far greater in scope, there is still quite a large area to explore with benefits and consequences in doing so. There are ample lures to pull you off safe paths, from hidden caches of weapons and ammo to signs that speak to the town’s history, opportunities to briefly listen to the local radio station and TVs that play episodes of Night Springs, a comically ridiculous Twilight Zone-inspired show. The game is also littered with collectibles, ranging from trite Achievement bait like coffee thermoses to the far more intriguing pages of manuscript from the book Alan can't remember writing; the manuscript narrative is a great device that speaks to past, current and future events.

Falling Action

With such great attention to details in world-building, presentation, and tense ambience, it’s a shame that Alan is so clunky to maneuver at times. As fluid as the combat is, he controls somewhat clumsily, stumbling where he shouldn't and continuing to move after you’ve let off the left stick. It's mainly problematic in places where Wake is asked to jump, traverse narrow walkways or pick up items. It can lead to accidental (and inconvenient) deaths. For a game that has been in development for so long, it’s a shame to see such an unpolished element.

There’s also a sequence in the game that betrays the lengthy production time as it’s something seen in two of 2009’s major releases.  Granted each game is different, but had neither come out last year (I’m not revealing them, lest it become obvious), Alan Wake would have better for it. Sadly it renders a great set piece cliché.

Alan Wake

Epilogue

Alan Wake isn't a long game -- clocking in at around 10 hours -- but it's the perfect length, well paced and high in replay value. Certain manuscript pages are only attainable in Nightmare difficulty, but don't let the name frighten you; enemies are a bit stronger but ammo is generous and the mode is completely feasible for anyone who's already beaten the game on normal. In fact, it's arguably a better experience, as the game seems more willing to punish you for straying and heighten the sense of desperation and fear. More often than not, and even in normal difficulty, you'll have to decide whether to fight or flee, with the latter being the more promising option. Kudos to a horror game that forces you to just run like hell from time to time.

After an exceptionally long wait, Alan Wake is many things it promised to be. It’s a well-written horror game that builds tension instead of cheap jump-out scares, and one that leans on today’s technology to provide the genre with a lively and eerie environment. Its flaws are evident the longer you play – the titular hero’s a bit unwieldy and a shocking moment would’ve been more shocking had the game shipped on schedule -- but its presentation and ambience are rivaled by few. For gamers who like to play alone with the lights out, Alan Wake hits the sweet spot.

Can't wait to play it? Why not rent it through Gamefly?