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Stephen King meets Xbox 360: a hands-on preview of psychological thriller game Alan Wake

How’s this for a psychological thriller? You work on a video game for six years. It’s a brand new story, with a plot that is more like something from a movie or a novel. It has a different kind of game play, where it makes all the difference in the world as to whether your character is in the light or the dark.

As you wait for the video game to come out, you’re in a kind of limbo. Will the fans like it or not? That’s the situation now for Remedy Entertainment, the game company that is developing Alan Wake, a psychological action thriller for the Xbox 360. Microsoft showed off the game at its recent X10 event in San Francisco and I got to sit down with the game and play hands-on through its entire first level.

I had declared this game to be the most-anticipated game in June, 2009. Then Microsoft promptly announced it was delaying the game. But Alan Wake finally has a date with destiny; the game debuts on May 18 in North America and May 21 in Europe.

When it finally ships after six years of development, gamers will finally find out if there is a bait and switch going on here. You see, the plot of the game is fantastic. It’s like Stephen King’s Insomnia novel and the Twin Peaks television show, only better. The main character is Alan Wake, a bestselling author who has had writer’s block for two years. His wife arranges a vacation in the idyllic Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls. As he drives there, he slams his car into someone running on the highway. When he tries to see what happened, the body disappears. Wake blacks out, and when he comes to, his nightmare stars. His wife is missing and his latest novel is a thriller that he doesn’t remember writing. And the words are coming true right in front of his eyes. The horror story unfolds slowly; Wake finds that during the night, evil spirits possess the dead and animate them. The spirits even animate inanimate objects such as bulldozers or boxes; the only escape from them is to shine lights on them and then dispatch them with a weapon. So Wake has to move from one oasis of light to another, all the while searching for his lost wife.

For a video game, stories don’t get better than this. But the question for gamers is whether the game will play well. I’m happy to report that Alan Wake’s opening level truly lives up to my hopes for it. I played through the first level and saw a big chunk of another. The cinematic scenes where the characters are introduced and reveal the story are well done; I wasn’t tempted to skip them and move to the action. The voice acting is great and so are the visuals. You really do feel like you’re caught in the frigid night air of the Pacific Northwest. Normally, video game stories are so bad I just can’t wait to hit the skip button, and environments are just something that you notice briefly.

Playing as Alan Wake, you start out at the scene of the car accident and then spot a lighted gas station in the distance. You have to descend through a forest trail into the darkness, cross a river and a lumber yard, and finally make your way to the light. It’s a spooky trip, and you know that you’re going to run into things in the woods. You are, of course, aware that this is a video game and there are always bad things hiding in the woods. But the pacing is right. You travel for a time in the pitch black and notice a human shape that appears and then disappears. You start following it and you run into graffiti-like messages that warn you of what’s to come.

You also stumble upon the pages from your novel. You have to collect these and read them to get a sense of what lies ahead of you. From the very first page, you realize that this is your unpublished novel that you don’t remember writing. It’s ominous to say the least when you read that someone is going to try to kill you in the next moment, and then the attempted murder actually happens.

I started down the path and started picking up things like a flashlight. Every checkpoint that you cross, you find a very convenient emergency box with both flashlight batteries and ammo for your pistol. Eventually, you pick up a shotgun and then the real party starts.

The action is enjoyable, like a good third-person shooter should be. You have to be quick to take out everybody coming at your. The bad guys are these Zombie-like beings that materialize from thin air. Called The Taken, they try to kill you with axes and clubs. You have to take them out one by one. That’s not easy because it means you have to shine a flashlight on one of them, dead center. Then you hold the light there while you fire your weapon a few times. Since each one takes time to dispatch, you’re in trouble if you’re surrounded or facing several Taken at the same time. The cool thing is that when you shoot these poltergeists, they give off a shower of sparks which makes for a wonderfully vivid light show. Sometimes they squirm in slow motion and you see cool motion effects. The weapons are quite useful and quite fun because, contrary to popular belief, shining my flashlight on some demon and making it melt is just not my idea of a good time. I want to make those demons splatter.

During this introductory walk, you learn everything you have to do in the game. There is no training necessary. That’s a big plus, since breaking up the story to do some basic training would be quite boring and disruptive. You realize that the game has realistic physics and that the environment is something that you interact with. You can use the landscape of the game to your advantage. Along the way, you stumble into a lumber yard and find that you have to solve a puzzle. You have to operate some of the lumber yard equipment to create a path through your obstacles. Then you run into this fiendish guy, Stuckey, who has become one of the Taken. He’s kind of like the boss of the group, and isn’t as easy to take down as the other bad guys. You have to constantly worry about having enough batteries in your flashlight to keep the beam powerful enough to freeze your enemies in their tracks. You also have to constantly reload your gun. So the game forces you to be a kind of conservationist.

Looking for things in the dark leaves you in a constant state of paranoia. You’re vulnerable all of the time, and you’re quite thankful when you’re traveling in groups or even find another human being who isn’t trying to kill you. But the dark can be annoying as well. It’s quite easy to get lost, so your TV has to be calibrated perfectly so that you can see the shades of gray in the game. Remedy has nicely illuminated your walking path on the first level with moonlight on a rocky road. But if you stray from that road, good luck getting reoriented. I spent a considerable amount of time going in the wrong direction until a visual cue reminded me that I had better turn around. One of those times was when I found a page from the novel and then put it away. I had somehow changed my facing when I stopped to look at the page and I headed off uphill when I should have been doing downhill. You could argue that this sense of vertigo generates fear, and that’s an essential part of any horror story. But getting lost is an exercise in frustration for any gamer. Fortunately, the game is designed in a way so that it isn’t tool hard to figure out where the appropriate path lies. For instance, there wasn’t a maze in the middle of the darkness in the two levels that I saw.

Getting to the gas station gets complicated when a bulldozer comes after you and tries to take down the house you’re hiding in. Finally, you make it to the gas station and make your phone call. A Sheriff’s deputy arrives and then asks you if you’ve seen the owner of the gas station, Stuckey. You pause and think about whether you should tell this woman, who can lock you away in jail, that you’ve just vaporized him because he tried to take you and do horrible things to you.

The good thing about the game is that there are hints of humor laced into the nightmare. At one point, one of your colleagues (who has wrapped himself in Christmas lights to ward off spirits like garlic against vampires) makes a reference to Mordor, the land of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings. I looked at another level where you have the benefit of having companions who can help you attack the Taken. The enemies get tougher and the weapons you use against them are more satsifying. There are ravens that descend upon you like bats from Hell, and big giant spools that come rolling your way.

Flares are quite satisfying when you shoot them at the Taken and they go poof in a shower of light that is kind of like a Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon laser light show. Things like searchlights become a godsend against the minions of darkness. The feeling you get is sort of like the sense of dread you feel in old horror movies such as The Thing, like when you’re waiting with a bunch of other trapped people in the dark for the big bad dude to arrive and wreak havoc. It turns you into a survivalist. When you find a clean, well-lighted place in the middle of the darkness, you start to jump for joy. But the game plays tricks on you and you find that these tantalizing mirages are really just traps for your tormentors to lure you in.

It’s not a perfect game. But there is no bait and switch here. The story lures you in, and the game play keeps you playing. For Remedy Entertainment, the six years of nightmarish development have paid off. The thing I like about Alan Wake is that it has a combination of a story, fun action, spooky and tense pacing, and satisfying visuals. If the rest of the game is as good as what I saw, then Alan Wake could be one of the best games of the year.

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