Alan Wake: review

It’s been a tough old ride for Alan Wake, having first been revealed at the E3 show of 2005 and originally being slated as a PC title. Mimicking events within the game, earlier this year it vanished under slightly vague and mysterious circumstances only to be found stumbling out a dark wood a few weeks later as an Xbox 360 exclusive, mumbling something about PC intimacy.

The game begins with you stepping into the shoes of the aforementioned Alan Wake, troubled novelist suffering from life threatening writer’s block, as you experience one of his nightmares in which he is hunted by the victims of his crime stories. This nightmare serves as the game’s tutorial, preparing you for things to come as Alan and his wife set off for a vacation in a lone cabin near the mountain town of Bright Falls. Hands up everyone who thinks that was a good idea.

Particularly in recent years, there is the strange assumption that in order to be scary a game requires copious amounts of blood and gore rather than something more substantial. It is like a breath of fresh air then, that Alan Wake relies less on these easy go-to options and more on atmosphere and setting.

Darkness is something you will become acquainted with right from the very start as it serves as the main enemy you will encounter. Much like Silent Hill giving life to a town, Alan Wake gives life to the dark. A sinister presence within the darkness takes control of those around Alan, turning them into Taken and after the opening moments, steals away his wife.

Perhaps obviously then, your main weapon is light. Alan is armed with a trusty torch and this is needed to burn away the darkness surrounding enemies, in order for more conventional weapons to actually wound them. Don’t let this fool you into thinking the darkness just serves as a means to make enemies stronger however. It takes many forms which we won’t go into, but needless to say the atmosphere it creates is one of making you constant twitch at any slight movement around you.

Where suspension of disbelief is required is in the torch itself. It seems to have unlimited batteries when shining normally, but burns through batteries you use as ‘ammo’ when you intensify the beam to burn Taken. It’s a necessary lapse from a fairly realistically toned game (regenerating health when standing in light and supernatural overtones aside) to add to the tension. Trust us when we say that if you burn out your last battery while fighting one of the larger Taken and haven’t managed to clear all the darkness protecting it you will panic.

The screenshots here may not do it full justice, but this game is very good looking at times. Generally settings get more care and attention than characters though, but that’s because setting is really the more important of the two here.

What also helps create a largely believable psychological thriller atmosphere is a mixture of excellent sound effects, lighting, music and acting. By and large the standard is high, though there are still some iffy lines every once in a while (mostly from Alice). It may not help that Alan also sometimes looks and sounds like someone doing a poor Alec Baldwin impression.

For the most part you’ll be brought along for the ride as the mystery unfolds and the story reaches a fairly satisfying conclusion. It’s very out there as far as plots go, but that’s in keeping with what clearly influenced this game (there are numerous references to Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock for example).

Where Alan Wake may stumble blindly into a ditch by some people’s standards, is in what replay value there is. If you ignore the challenge of harder difficulty levels and can’t be bothered with three or four types of hidden collectable then there isn’t really anything else here. It’s quite brave in a way to present just a nicely put together single player experience rather than try to tack on extras, but that may make the asking price questionable.

Alan, it's behind you. Seriously. I'm not kidding. Turn around!

Especially when compared to recent games of the same category, Alan Wake feels like a prime example of survival horror done right. Yes you have guns and yes you can fight back, but enemies are numerous, intimidatingly quick and attack from all sides. It doesn’t take much to take Alan down and often you will find yourself running blindly at full speed through blackened forests, dodging axes from one side and scythes on the other desperately trying to find any kind of safe haven, mimicking countless classic scenes from horror movies.

If we were to poke at any real fault it would be in the presentation of the story. The plot is broken into six episodes (each taking up to a couple of hours on average) and as you reach the conclusion to each they generally end with some cliffhanger or revelation. After a fade-to-black and musical interlude you are then presented with “Previously, on Alan Wake…” and then you must sit through a recap as Alan narrates what just happened.

Trying to present the game like a controllable TV show drastically took away from the atmosphere it works so hard to maintain. Plus you will probably feel, as we did, that we don’t need to hear about what just happened – because it just happened! It comes across as cheesy and why Remedy thought presenting in this tacky manner was good is mystifying.

Annoying end of episode recaps and occasionally iffy dialogue aside, Alan Wake is still an excellent addition to the survival horror genre. It perhaps doesn’t quite manage to reach the heights scaled by the original Silent Hill or other trend setters of yesteryear, but it’s made the best attempt in quite some time.


9/10

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Written by Ian D

Misanthropic git. Dislikes: Most things. Likes: Obscure references.

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