Finnish developer Remedy first officially announced Alan Wake at E3 2005 and now after 5 years the game is finally in our hands. Billed as a psychological thriller and taking place in the pacific northwest, Alan Wake seems to have a lot in common with some contemporary horror films and television, the setting however, is almost completely untried in the videogame space.
By using a unique darkness mechanic and splitting the narrative into episodes, Alan Wake also attempts to set its gameplay apart from the pack and with a proprietary engine backing it all up, Remedy seems to have set themselves up for success. So how did it turn out? Join us for another edition of Three Reviews in One to find out, as Jason, Tim and TJ voice their opinions on Alan Wake.
When I first popped in Alan Wake, I was taken aback by the presentation. The lip-syncing is terrible but the character models look fine and the environment that this story revolves around looks great; and when the eventual darkness takes over the innocent Bright Falls, it is truly a sight to see. Heavy fogs set, strong winds blow, and even the largest of trees in this game shake in the night as you guide Alan Wake through town in search of his missing wife Alice.
If anything captured me almost immediately when I started this game, it was the atmosphere; the contrasts between Bright Falls during the day and then at night are drastic, often giving you only a flashlight and some batteries to explore the area at night. Yes, you can run out of batteries if you are not careful, and yes it does make the game that much more difficult; primarily because of the enemies you must often fight through in order to get from checkpoint to checkpoint.
The enemies are covered in 'darkness' that you must remove by shining your flashlight on them in order to damage them properly with the variety of guns you eventually get. Without removing the darkness from your enemies results in them taking many more shots from your gun thus using up the scarce amount of ammo you have to begin with. Alan Wake provides you with enough instances to keep your ammo full but if you don't take advantage of using the flashlight early on, ammo becomes a problem quickly. Tim? TJ? What are your thoughts?
I, like Jason, was completely overcome and enamoured with the atmosphere of Alan Wake. The lighting system in particular does such a great job of putting you in the space. The only thing that detracted from my experience was the HUD. Like many other people have stated, it just doesn't feel integrated or needed at all. In the age of elegant HUDs; in particular the HUD from Dead Space; you would think that they could come up with a much better solution. I am harping on it a little bit, but really, any creepiness or spookiness; which are handled brilliantly by the game engine; are immediately undermined by the fact that you always know exactly where you need to go.
It's not that it's that hard to figure out anyway, the game is linear to begin with, the only purpose the waypoint serves is to make a linear game seem even more linear. Unlike Jason, ammunition was never a problem for me; in fact more often than not I couldn't pick up most of the ammo in the environment; too much ammo was more of a problem than not enough. The game did cater to my playstyle however, being that if there are too many enemies around, or I'm just not feeling the combat, I'm able to just run past the enemies to the next checkpoint.
This brings me to the combat itself; I didn't particularly like the combat in Alan Wake, I found it to be a serviceable enough third-person shooter, but it was never what kept me coming back to the game. The camera felt off to me, whether it was the height or zoom I'm not sure, I never felt like I had enough of a view of where I was aiming. The story and atmosphere are what kept me playing Alan Wake, during the few times you're allowed to explore without fear of attack, the game comes to life and intrigue takes over. I'm curious to see what sucked TJ in so much that he wanted to play through this game, as adverse to so-called scary games he is; TJ?
Yeah, yeah, I'm a wuss when it comes to scary games; which is why it's a bit surprising that I actually beat this game. The thing is though, as the game went on, I started liking it in spite of itself. Let me explain. I agree with Jason and Tim that the atmosphere is truly superb and at the beginning actually almost made me quit playing. I didn't have the ammo problem that Jason had; that was the first step to me getting over my fear of the game's atmosphere. Knowing that I had the ammo to effectively eliminate all of the enemies, I was more inclined to face them every battle. It was taxing at first because every time a group would appear I would start freaking out and started to strategize how I could kill them without dying, thanks in no small part to the fairly borked dodge system (pro obvious-but-not-to-me tip: instead of standing there like an idiot and dodging at the last second, continuously move and then hit RB to dodge more effectively).
Around the end of Episode 2 however, something was nagging at me. I started to notice that all the enemies were the same, entered the same way and were killed the same way. I also noticed that Remedy was resorting to the cheap "startle scares" rather than producing a legitimate atmosphere of fear which resulted in me being able to predict when enemies would appear. Then I watched Jason play and saw how annoyed and completely unafraid he was with the whole game and that's when it hit me: neither was I. This is when the game turned into an action game with a thriller/horror narrative, more akin to Resident Evil 5 or something. I viewed enemy encounters as chances to get the various achievements rather than events that built tension. It also didn't help that I eventually had enough various weapons and plenty of ammo to "Rambo" the rest of the game (the cool slo-mo death scenes never got old, especially if brought on by a shotgun to the face).
The story was pretty cool though it eventually felt a little too complex for its own good to me. It didn't help that it being narrated constantly reminded you that you're playing a story within a story, keeping you from getting fully immersed. Putting coffee thermoses and manuscript pages off the linear path also killed the atmosphere at times for me. Like Tim said the game is very linear, but I was already being pulled out of the experience with the narration that the HUD didn't bother me. At the end of the day I did like the game as an action game with cool characters and narrative, which I'm pretty sure was not the intent. So, did I actually like the game?
Overall for me, Alan Wake did it's justice in the storytelling aspect. Though like TJ, I also felt that there were too many layers of story being put on for its own good. As far as the combat goes, yes, I was annoyed with it after the first chapter. The dodge mechanic felt very sluggish especially when you have upwards of 6 'Taken' (Alan Wake's enemy type) coming at you at full speed. There isn't a very fast and effective way to dispatch many Taken at once unless you have a flare gun or flash grenades. Otherwise, prepare to get taken by the darkness on multiple occasions (no pun intended).
Also, whenever I found a new weapon, like a double-barrel shotgun, I would try to conserve its ammo for bosses and the like. Not too long after getting that weapon, I would finish the chapter I'm on, resulting in me losing all of the weapons I had previously picked up. The lesson I learned after playing this game, should I pick it up again in the future: Use your weapons! Yes, you have plenty of chances to pick up the different weapons throughout the six chapters but you never know when and for how long. At the end of the day, Alan Wake is a solid experience that will capture players with its atmosphere. Like Tim, atmosphere and the story were what kept me pushing through to the end. The combat, and psychological thrills, I will say are in the eye of the beholder. I however, found it lacking.
For a game that has been coming for so long, it's almost astounding that Alan Wake has turned out as well as it has. If you take the long development time out of the equation and look at the game as it is, you get an average length Third-person shooter with passable mechanics. The pièce de résistance is the atmosphere, and with a story that almost reaches the height of it's ambition; Alan Wake ends up being more than the sum of it's parts.
As a rental, it's just about perfect, though I find it hard to justify a full-price purchase. I really enjoyed the presentation and structure of the game, with an episode a night feeling just about perfect to me. Also the narration brought me further into the character and helped root the story in more filmic conventions. I'd recommend a rental of Alan Wake to just about anybody, in particular those of you who have a predilection towards films like Secret Window and TV shows in the vein of Twin Peaks.
I'm going for the rent approach with this game. Alan Wake's strongest suit is its atmosphere and, like we've already said, is the main thing that kept me going. With more than enough ammo for all your guns and plenty of flash bangs and flares (not to mention the incentive to use them all because you're going to lose them in a few minutes anyway), Alan Wake turned into more of an action game than the thriller/horror game the narrative makes it out to be.
No variation of enemies, recycled environments and annoying item collection are the core conceits of the game but they're counterbalanced with superb presentation. It's probably best that I was able to take the action route with this game rather than the horror one, else I would not have been able to complete it and would have missed out on the cool story. In order to get the full horror effect, make sure the lights are off along with your critical eye and allow yourself to get immersed in the atmosphere; you'll have a much better time for it.
So there you have it. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments and stay tuned for more editions of TRIO in the future.