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While I realize that video games are personal experiences and a great game for one man is a piece of crap for another, reactions to certain games still often amaze me. The consensus may be that a particular game is great but most critics can't look past a certain flaw, or maybe it's the other way, the greatness of the game overcomes any and all of its problems.
One such game is Microsoft's Alan Wake, developed by Remedy Entertainment Ltd., the studio behind Max Payne and Max Payne 2 – The Fall of Max Payne. And while I wasn't a big shooter fan when the Max Payne games came out, which means I didn't really play enough of either to know whether I liked them or not, I played, completed, and enjoyed the hell out of Alan Wake.
And although critics have generally agreed that Alan Wake is a good game, most are pretty reserved about it. They say the shooting is boring by the end, the developer didn't take enough risks, the facial animation is poor, and/or the game is too linear. For them the flaws are significant, and the buzz has therefore been somewhat muted.
Alan Wake is a combat focused action adventure. The game play cycles between storytelling, exploration, and combat, and it does a great job of never wearing out one of those elements before bringing you back to another. It uses light as a weapon, so the protagonist, Alan Wake, uses flashlights, flares, and flash bang grenades to combat his foes.
And although there are times when light alone can take down a foe, most of the time it only makes the enemy susceptible to gunfire. So while Wake carries a flashlight in one hand he also carries a gun in the other. This mechanic of using a flash light and a gun is used throughout the game, although there are variations which give the game quite a bit of variety.
Outside of combat there's a well told story. It's a tale with fully fleshed out characters, all enjoyable to watch and interact with. There's of course the game's namesake, the burnt out writer Alan Wake, but there's also his wife Alice, his overly excited but well meaning and loyal best friend and agent Barry, and others, such as the revengeful FBI agent and the helpful Sheriff.
As the game unfolds and new characters are introduced, you start to see that the game's setting, Bright Falls, isn't the nice, little town it's supposed to be. There has been trouble in this town before and its inhabitants know this. They don't necessarily talk about it, but they know there are deep, dark secrets lurking beneath the surface.
Fortunately the protagonist, a pawn in all of this, is a victim better equipped to survive this particular menace better than any other. And the game does a great job of giving you, the player, what you need to help him solve the mystery, with plenty of weapons, a variety of flashlights, and other props which are generously sprinkled throughout six long chapters.
First there’s the idea that the game is repetitive. I personally didn't find Alan Wake’s combat any more repetitive than in any other game, and let's face it, games are all generally repetitive. In fact the concept of game play is built around teaching the player how to perform a series of actions and then offering interactivity that requires the repeated use of those actions.
Alan Wake is of course no different. Its game play consists of many things such as a number of context sensitive commands that allow you to do things such as "pick up ammo" or "open the door". It has environmental objects which aren't context sensitive (meaning there is no visible command on-screen) but allow you to interact with them in some manner, which you can then use to your advantage. And it has equipable items such as the flashlight, guns, and flares, which help you to combat enemies.
The game play in Alan Wake is consistent with many combat focused action adventures and provides the player with a broad range of interactions and plenty to do during the rather lengthy campaign. Since the game relies on surprising and even scaring the player, combat is often frantic and can be challenging and difficult, even on the easiest difficulty level.
As far as Remedy not taking risks, I'm not sure what that even means? I realize that as gamers we often feel we can do a better job designing a game then the developer ever could but I'd be interested in hearing how Alan Wake could have been a better game. What about it was safe and what risks could Remedy have taken to make it better?
As it stands Alan Wake is a game long in development and what the developer delivered is a very refined experience that entertains, scares, and surprises the player. It looks and plays great, offers a story that I for one looked forward to see unfolding, and now that it's over, I can't wait to see what new downloadable content is delivered in the future.
Next up is the facial animation. While the visuals can look a bit clunky here and there, especially during some of the cut-scenes, overall the art design is simply stunning. 99% of the time you will be floored by the incredible visuals and sound and I personally don't see those ugly bits as detracting from the game experience in any significant way.
Last but not least is the game's linearity. This surprises me because even though Alan Wake is a directed experience with an on-screen indicator to show you where to go next, it also offers large areas with plenty of things to discover. The game has many collectible items, hidden caches of supplies and weapons, and a great risk/reward system where you are welcome to explore but have to decide if you are willing to risk running out of batteries and ammo and therefore dying in hopes of finding something cool.
So while Alan Wake is fairly linear and travel is generally from point A to point B, there’s usually a fair amount of real estate to cover in-between. You are welcome to wander through it and explore and there is plenty to find, which means your exploration is usually rewarded.
If you love action adventures and enjoy a game that is scary without being gruesome or disgusting, and you don't mind it being combat focused, you should check out Alan Wake. It offers a narrative that is entertaining and disturbing but also accessible; it also offers gorgeous visuals, awesome sound design, great controls, and a lengthy campaign that does a great job of wrapping things up while leaving room for the forthcoming downloadable episodes.
It other words, critics be damned! Alan Wake is a game well worth your time and money.