The long wait
Years ago, when the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 were brand-spanking new, I was debating about whether I should get a 360 or stick with Sony and get a PS3. I had a lot of built-up loyalty to the PlayStation and the game franchises that had been exclusive to that console: Silent Hill, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, Ace Combat, Devil May Cry, Grand Theft Auto, God of War, Gran Turismo, and so on. But as time went one, more and more of these game franchises jumped to being multi-platform, chipping away at my justification for saving up for a PS3 instead of the cheaper 360. But when it all came down to it, I knew I would still be able to get all those games on the PS3, and there would still be a few of them that would remain exclusives (Metal Gear Solid ended up being the only one on the list that stayed exclusive and is worth a damn any more). But there wasn’t anything on the 360 that specifically jumped out at me. I kind of wanted Ace Combat 6 and Forza, and Star Trek Legacy looked interesting. But neither one wowed me enough to buy a whole console. I wasn’t into Halo or Gears of War, or Fable, so none of the big-name Xbox exclusives really pushed me over the top.
But there was one game that kept the thought of purchasing an Xbox 360 at the back of my mind. That game was Alan Wake. I tracked it on the internet for years, waiting for its release. Its gorgeous, scenic visuals and promise of a psychological horror story set in a small, mountain town had me captivated. But the game kept getting delayed. The fact that it was supposed to be on PC, and the lack of a firm release date, eventually caused me to give up on purchasing an Xbox. Eventually, the game was released to critical acclaim, but I missed it, since I was waiting for the PC port that eventually got canceled.
Well, I recently bought an Xbox 360 for my sister’s birthday, and one of the things I picked up for it was Alan Wake. I finally got a chance to play this game that I’ve been wanting to play for over four years.
So is it worth the wait?
The basic setup for the game is that a writer named Alan Wake goes on vacation with his wife at some small town in the mountains called Bright Falls to “get away from it all” and hopefully find some motivation to get over his recent writer’s block. Unbeknownst to him, his nyctophobic wife has arranged to have him checked into a psychiatrist’s clinic. He gets into an argument over this, and during the argument, some magical force grabs his wife and pulls her to the bottom of the lake outside their cabin. Wake passes out and wakes up in a crashed car on the side of the road to find pieces of a manuscript that he wrote scattered around the environment that are somehow capable of predicting the future. Apparently, a week had passed since his wife disappeared, and he wrote the manuscript during that time, but now can no longer remember it. The rest of the game has Wake exploring the town and surrounding area trying to fill in the missing week and figure out what happened to his wife by finding as many pieces of the manuscript as possible and dealing with the inhabitants of the town that have been possessed by some strange “darkness” that causes them to attack Wake on sight.
Alan Wake provides breathtakingly scenic vistas.
Like a stroll through a real haunted forest
The idea of a main character with amnesia is nothing original, nor is the idea of a book that describes the future. What makes Alan Wake unique is its setting. The town of Bright Falls and the Northwest lakeside alpine mountains around it make for some of the most gorgeously scenic visuals in any game I’ve ever played. Much of the game is played in lush, forested areas in the mountains, along rivers and creeks, through a national park, and along roads that snake around a serene lake in the center of it all. The ground in the wilderness areas is covered in realistic underbrush and foliage, and the effect of trees and shrubs blowing in the wind is very immersive. Walking through the forest trails of this game feel more like walking through a real forest than a video game level. The game combines light, darkness, fog, and wind to create a setting that at one moment is the most peaceful place you could imagine, but at the next minute is a haunting forest of doom.
The town of Bright Falls is also a quaint little town that will doubtlessly remind a lot of player of the short-lived David Lynch series Twin Peaks. Particularly the diner. The place may look like Twin Peaks, but the townspeople don’t have the intrigue and soap opera quality of Twin Peaks’ colorful cast of characters.
Your peaceful strolls through the forest will often be interrupted by ghostly, pervasive fog and frequent attacks from enemies. Your enemies are townspeople who become possessed by a strange darkness that envelopes and protects them as a shield. In order to break the shield of darkness, you must shine light on them to weaken them enough for you to be able to harm and kill them with a firearm. This means that the game provides some interesting options for weapons. Flare guns, lampposts, searchlights, flashbang grenades, and car headlights can all be used to attack the enemies or protect yourself from their attacks (since they are afraid of the light). This provides the player with some opportunities to find fun and creative ways to injure or dispatch the enemies. The traditional guns in the game are all guns that have very low ammo counts, such as revolvers, shotguns, hunting rifles, etc. They usually only hold 2 to 12 rounds before needing to reload (which is done in real time). The low ammo capacity, combined with frequent ambushes and the enemies’ innate talent for hiding in the darkness makes most of the encounters in the game very frantic, frightening, and tense.
Alan Wake's combat consists mostly of shining flashlights at bad guys, then shooting them with a revolver or shotgun
But the combat mechanics are also not perfect. The idea of using a flashlight to weaken an enemy may seem original and unique at first, but once you get used to it, it really isn’t any different than any other game in which enemies have some kind of shield or force field that you must disable before being able to defeat the enemy. I was also frequently irritated by the placement of the dodge button on the left bumper. I usually hold the triggers with my index finger, so the dodge button’s placement on the bumper made it very difficult and uncomfortable for me to use it. And the dodge is used constantly in battles. Enemies are fast and hard-hitting, and if your dodge-reflexes aren’t fast enough, you’ll end up restarting from a lot of checkpoints.
The combat is tough, but it is not overly so. I was able to get past a majority of conflicts without dying, and the times I did have trouble usually did not take more than one or two retries for me to pass them. The possessed birds and telekinetic debris towards the end of the game did give me some more frustrating moments though. But despite its problems, the combat manages to do an excellent job of striking a balance between fun, fright, and challenge.
The thick foliage looks nice, but its not always practical
The biggest problem with playing the game comes more from the camera. Remedy did not bother to include transparency for objects that come in between Wake and the camera. So the realistically cluttered bushes, trees, logs, and other foliage and underbrush in the game’s environments will often times obscure your visibility of Wake or the enemies around him. There is also no “look behind” camera that I was aware of. This makes running away from the enemies (something that you may end up doing more often than you’d like) a lot harder than it needed to be. It rarely got me killed, but I took a lot of damage while trying to get far enough away from the action to be able to reload my gun or reaffirm my bearings.
The thick foliage and underbrush at ground level can sometimes block visibility and interfere with combat
There are also a lot of times when the game goes into slow motion, and the camera pans around the environment to show upcoming ambushes or challenges. This is nice the first few times it happens, but after a while it starts to get irritating. It takes a lot of the suspense and anxiety away from the game when it reveals an upcoming ambush to you before it happens. But it doesn’t happen all the time, so there are also plenty of occasions when I felt perfectly safe walking along the path, and then I suddenly get an axe to the face with no warning. It creates an awkward unevenness in the game’s atmosphere and pacing.
Fortunately, the progress of the story is very well paced. Levels are fairly linear and there actually is a wide variety of environments and locations to spice up the visuals a bit. The game is broken up into chapters, each of which has its own licensed music that plays during the break, and each has a recap to catch you up on what happened when you left off. This makes the game satisfactory for short game sessions that last two hours or less, or for longer sessions. There are also occasional driving segments that work fairly well and benefit the game, as they break up any monotony they may have built up from the repetitive combat. Sadly though, the nifty chapter recaps are utterly unnecessary, since
- a.) There's no opportunity to save and quit in between chapters, so you just start the next one whether you wanted to or not, and
- b.) once I started the game, I didn’t want to put it down.
In an attempt to add some replayability to the game, Remedy added some collectibles. As you explore the areas of the game, you'll come across four types of collectibles. The first type is the manuscript pages that will provide you with hints or warnings of what is to come, or solutions to some puzzles that you may encounter. Some pages are only present in the Nightmare difficulty, which means you'll have to replay the game in order to find them and obtain the entire manuscript.
The second type of collectible is isn't really a collectible, but is just ammo and supply caches that have been hidden in many areas and marked to special paint that only shows up when illuminated with the flashlight.
Both of the above collectibles are useful (and logical) within the context of the game, as they provide Wake with assistance in progressing. But the third type of collectible is coffee thermoses - dozens of them are scattered throughout the game locations - which do absolutely nothing in the game. These coffee thermoses can often be hard to find, but serve as nothing more than "achievement bait", as finding certain threshold numbers of them unlocks some Xbox Live achievements, but provides no in-game utility that I'm aware of. They don't increase Wake's health or stamina, unlock special paths through levels, unlock alternate weapons or costumes. They do nothing at all. Achievements are nice and all, but if you're going to include something like that in the game, at least make it worthwhile to find; otherwise, it feels like a waste of the player's time.
The fourth and final type of collectible isn't really a collectible, and it also has no impact on the actual game, but is far more interesting than coffee thermoses. Every so often, you'll come across TVs which you can turn on in order to watch an episode of a fictional TV series called "Night Springs". Each episode is a short (two minute or so) Twilight Zone-like story complete with narration. It's a fun little addition that adds some personality to the game, and can give the player (and main character) a few minutes to unwind and relax in between getting ambushed by zombie lumberjacks.
Yes, we get it. He's a writer. He really likes coffee. And yes, we understand that you were heavily influenced by Twin Peaks, and all the characters in that show really loved coffee. But could you have made it more than just "achievement bait"?
Yes, it was worth it
I was somewhat disappointed that the game did not include any kind of open-ended sandbox segments that allowed the player to explore and investigate occurrences in the town of Bright Falls and the surrounding areas or get to know more of its citizens. But I can’t really complain because the game has a very controlled a well-defined narrative, and casual, open-ended exploration would not have fit very well with the tense and objective-oriented gameplay that the game focuses on.
Given the years of build-up and anticipation for the game, I was expecting a bit more considering how long it spent in development. However, in the end, Alan Wake proved to be a well-polished and thoroughly enjoyable experience that I would recommend to just about anybody.