-Solid combat mechanics
-Some intriguing storytelling
-Some impressive atmospheric moments
-Major lack of atmospheric focus
-Some awkward storytelling
Alan Wake is a strange beast. Billed on its own boxart as a “psychological action thriller,” Alan Wake is a solid action/horror experience built on some solid gameplay mechanics. It tells a clever, twisting story that managed to hold my interest until the end. And, at its finest, it does garner some atmospheric merit. But while Alan Wake does many things well, it never manages to jump off the page in any meaningful way. The result is a game that is fun to play, but ultimately, rather unfulfilling. Read on, and I’ll explain.
Alan Wake often draws comparison to Quantic Dream’s interactive thriller, Heavy Rain. The only real reason for this is that both games share an emphasis on storytelling. Alan Wake is (or attempts to be) a psychological thriller, filled with all the mystery, intrigue, and plot twists that you’d expect. The premise is quite basic, and quite familiar: Alan Wake is a struggling writer, hoping to enjoy a quiet vacation with his wife, Alice Wake, in Bright Falls – a quaint (read: absurdly fucking creepy) little mountain town. Unfortunately for Mr. Wake, things go wrong mere moments after he checks into his cabin. Alice is assaulted and thrown into an icy lake to drown. Alan dives after her, but quickly blacks out. He wakes up a week later, with no memory of what’s occurred in the last seven days – the last thing he remembers is the drowning figure of his wife. From there, shit just gets crazy, for lack of a better phrase. Alan soon discovers that the events unfolding around him are the living manifestation of a novel he wrote – with himself as the main character.
I won’t discuss specifics any further. Credit must be given where it’s due: Alan Wake’s storytelling has some real merit. The concept is quite clever indeed, and it’s a mystery that’ll keep you guessing until the end. Unfortunately, though, as clever as the plot may be, the execution often falters. While playing Alan Wake, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons to several other comparable stories – Silent Hill, Shutter Island, The X-Files, Secret Window… the list could go on, frankly. It’s actually somewhat vexing, as is the game’s liberal use of tired, clichéd horror conventions. Sure, the horror genre is built on certain conventions, but Alan Wake seems to go out if its way to include each and every one of them. Creepy little resort town with a dark secret? Check. Old woman with cryptic, forboding words that come true later? Check. Missing wife? Check. Dudes with chainsaws? Check. Check, check, check, it’s all there. I promise.
Now, as we all know, a story doesn’t have to be particularly original in order to succeed. What matters most is how well it’s told. Are the characters robust? Is the pacing efficient? Is the scripting strong? Does it build a cohesive atmosphere? These are the questions to be asked, and when it comes to Alan Wake, the answer is “not quite.”
Alan Wake is an entertaining protagonist, and he’s characterized well during the game. However, he’s also the only character in the game that’s developed to any extent. Nobody else is given any meaningful attention, and that includes Alice, Alan’s missing wife. It’s kinda difficult to give a damn about her, or her grim fate, because the game devotes absolutely no screen time to her.
Something that really annoyed me throughout Alan Wake was the absurd amount of pseudo-foreshadowing that never paid off, and never made sense. I’m referring mainly to the radio and TV transmissions that you can listen to/view during the course of the game. On the radio, you’ll usually hear an excerpt from some talk show, and the subject matter is so vague and pointless that you can’t even tell if it’s even supposed to be foreshadowing. On TV, you’re generally treated to scattered episodes of a horror show called Night Springs. Obviously an homage to The Twilight Zone, the show always tells the tale of something weird and supernatural. But again, while it’s clearly supposed to provide some sort of insight or foreshadowing, it’s never clear what that is. I spent an substantial amount of time during Alan Wake standing still, watching TV or listening to the radio. And, after beating the game, I’m still not sure why.
The most damning flaw, though, is this: Alan Wake gravely suffers from a lack of focus when it comes to setting and atmosphere. The game can never quite decide if it wants to be a Silent Hill-esque psychological thriller or an X-Filesy supernatural action flick. One moment, you’re walking through the woods, shrouded in darkness, flinching at every sound. The next, you’re cruising around in one of the game’s several bizarre vehicular sequences, mowing down zombies in a way that’d make Woody Harrelson proud. The next, you’re having epileptic visions of futuristic space-men in makeshift Big Daddy costumes. (I’m being dead serious.) What this grab-bag of plot elements does is ensure that Alan Wake never manages to reach the level of atmospheric genius that it occasionally teases. Also, as you can probably gather, a lot of it is simply ridiculous in its own right. I rolled my eyes more than a few times.
Don’t get me wrong: Alan Wake is an entertaining yarn. But for every clever twist or shocking revelation, there’s an equally stupid tangent or senseless revelation to make sure the story never reaches the level of narrative mastery it strives for.
The storytelling may be all over the map, but Alan Wake’s gameplay is based on some very simple, very solid mechanics that make it an oddly fun game to play.
Gameplay is straightforward enough. You make your way through dark, creepy environments with a both a flashlight and a weapon in hand. Creepy shadows known as Taken attack you often, and in order to defeat them, you must first focus your light on them, and then shoot them.
Alan Wake is oddly combat-intensive. At times, you’re up against close to a dozen enemies at once – and your arsenal of weaponry can become quite robust. Pistols, flare guns, shotguns, and flashbangs make for some explosive combat sequences. It’s an odd thing; these bombastic combat sequences seem rather out-of-place in a survival-horror game, and yet, they’re some of the strongest moments Alan Wake has to offer. Taking down a hoard of Taken with an assortment of flashbangs and bullets can be extremely satisfying indeed.
But, while blowing away zombies is well and good, Alan Wake is missing that crucial element of helplessness. Simply put, the game far overpowers you, and because of this, it’s just not that scary. In a good survival-horror experience, the emphasis should be on conservation and survival. Bullets should be scarce, enemies should be overpowering, and there should be a constant, gnawing sense that death is close at hand. In Alan Wake, you don’t get that feeling, because you spend 90 percent of the game decked out like a nerdy Rambo. Ammo is absurdly plentiful; I can recall one, and only one instance, in which I actually ran out. And, while you’d think the addition of a flashlight would only make resource management more of a challenge, I never ran out of batteries. Ever. Probably because the damn things recharge, for whatever reason. (Not even the Energizer Bunny can do that, Remedy.) I found many creative ways to slay zombies in Alan Wake; but I never once feared for my life.
Alan Wake’s gameplay also suffers in that it tends to be quite repetitive. Mission variety is sorely lacking; rarely is there an objective aside from “travel from point A to point B.” And it’s the same every time – walking down dark path, pausing to slaughter the occasional hoard of Taken, and then resuming dark path-walking. Occasionally you might have to power a generator or open a gate, but that’s about it. There are a few notable exceptions – Alan’s escape from a mental institution comes to mind, as does a very tense gameplay segment involving bear traps. But, overall, Alan Wake tends to be a very repetitive – and thus, predictable – experience.
Alan Wake is a fun game to play. Combat is satisfying, and the night-shrouded environments are fun to explore. But, as a survival-horror experience, it just doesn’t work. Unless you have a serious aversion to the dark, Alan Wake probably won’t scare you in the least.
Alan Wake looks really good in motion. In-game environments are gorgeous. Sure, they’re all dark and shadowy, but Alan Wake makes the night look both beautiful and unsettling. Most of the time, your path is illuminated only by the flashlight you carry, and the effect is really quite mesmerizing. By necessity, the lighting effects of the game are flawless. The beam from your flashlight behaves with remarkable realism. Dramatic lighting effects such as the glow from flares lights up the screen in a spectacular fashion.
Alan Wake has a lot of technical wizardry behind its in-game graphics; unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the cinematics. Alan Wake has a lot of cinematics, and by modern standards, they’re pretty damn ugly. Character models are washed-out, low-poly, and poorly detailed. Animations – particularly facial animations – are absolutely laughable, and really detract from some of the dialog scenes. Also, for whatever reason, many of the cinematics suffer from dramatic artifacting.
In short, Alan Wake looks good during gameplay. Once the cinematics start rolling, things get ugly.
Alan Wake really could have benefited from a more intricate sound design. It’s hard not to recall 2008’s Dead Space, and its masterful use of sound to build its atmosphere. Alan Wake has no such mastery in its sound design; in fact, none of it really stands out. On top of that, the voice acting isn’t particularly strong, and the music is mostly forgettable. None of it is bad – it’s just regrettably mediocre.
Alan Wake is frustratingly middle-of-the-road. It’s a solid, but unamazing interactive experience that always feels like it’s on the edge of brilliance. But, strive as it may to reach that goal, it’s hindered by a lack of focus, and an inability to break the mold in all but the smallest of ways. The game is a classic example of a missed opportunity for greatness, as well as an example of undeserved over-hype. The ending to the game implies that sequels could follow, and I’d really like to see Remedy take another crack at things – but, sadly, I don’t think that’s going to happen.