America - Front
America - Back
By Miles Taven 14th May 2010 | 11,625 views
First things first, the delay. Clocking up six years of development time, if Alan Wake is to win any awards this year, it’ll certainly snatch the “Longest development for a game that isn’t shovelware and actually turned out pretty good” gong, (Duke Nukem Forever? Forget it. It isn’t coming). So after years of being thrown tidbits, I believe I speak on behalf of everyone when I say it was a relief to finally see the fruits of Remedy’s hard work at E3 last year (perhaps not PC gamers). With the curtains shut and the lights turned off, I jumped into the world of Bright Falls. Alan Wake has arrived... fashionably late.
If you didn’t know already, Alan Wake is 50% story and 50% actual game. That’s not an over-exaggeration either. Much has been invested into making this not only a unique tale, but one told in an original, fresh, never-before-seen-in-a-video-game way.
Successful novelist Alan Wake is deceived into taking a vacation to the sleepy town of Bright Falls, Washington, by his wife Alice. Ok that’s probably a more cynical twist. She has his best interests at heart. Alice believes the beautiful setting Bright Falls exhibits may be able to cure a nasty case of writer’s block Alan has unfortunately developed, since she knows he’s capable of some truly great novels. He knows it, and it seems the town’s folk of Bright Falls do too. Naturally, being a psychological thriller, it’s not long before things turn sour. During a dispute between husband and wife, an eerie presence creeps in. Alice is then seemingly kidnapped, thus Alan begins his journey to find his wife, all the while figuring out why exactly the townsfolk have transformed into obscure shadow-like spirits known as the Taken.
You might be thinking, “huh, this doesn’t sound like a remotely original story.” You’re half right. While the core storyline is easily grasped, this doesn’t begin to describe the overall script of the game. Prepare yourself to be pleasantly confused. The story is broken up into six TV-like episodes, including flashbacks and some brilliantly chosen licensed music to end each episode. Alan Wake’s influences include Twin Peaks and Lost, to name just a couple, though having not seen an episode of Twin Peaks in my life, I can’t comment on similarities. As far as Lost goes, it follows the same moreish pace. As each episode ends, you’re left with more questions than answers. I could never keep up with Lost for this reason, but thankfully Alan Wake is divided up perfectly and never feels like it’s a headache. I tell no lie, it was very difficult to put the controller down and stop playing for the night come episode 3. I want to be vague about what actually happens in the story - you’re only going to get to play through Alan Wake once without knowing every detail. It’s best to savour every little piece yourself since that really is the heart of the game.
A suspensful thriller storyline isn’t the only thing Alan Wake touts though. The internet buzz on Alan Wake has clearly revolved around its amazing graphics and whether they can top anything else currently on the 360. Yes it does. Graphically it beats out Gears of War with relative ease, quite the accomplishment given they had to integrate additional colours into the game other than red, grey and black.
I never thought the atmosphere of Alan Wake could beat out BioShock, but for me it has. There was a key difference between the two though. After the initial 10 minutes and the odd scene set in the dark, BioShock wasn’t that scary and I never felt the need to have my wits about me, unlike in Alan Wake. Throughout my entire 12+ hour playthrough, if I wasn’t inside a secure, lighted room I was running for the next street lamp or lighting up a flare for fear of being stabbed in the back (literally). It doesn’t quite reach the remote feeling the Silent Hill franchise managed to capture, but then Bright Falls isn’t a ghost town and its inhabitants are more forthcoming. If they see you, run (or shoot)! The atmosphere is enhanced with music in whatever situation is occurring. The true star of the show though is the flashlight, or the lighting effects to be more precise. On my second playthrough they still wow me. This really is an impressive feat for Remedy, one that won’t be bested for a long time to come. The environments, the character models, and the incredible lighting effects all add up to make Alan Wake an absolute beauty.
I mentioned earlier that each episode ends with a licensed song, and this decision was not made merely for the sake of it. Each song fits with the mood of the game and bridges the gap nicely between episodes. You can skip these but it gives the player time to reflect on the most recent cliff-hanger. Why you would you want to skip? They’re really good songs! Voice acting is realistic for the most part, save for some cheesy clichéd lines that do feel rather out of place. The frequent exchanges between Alan and Alice are electric, giving a feel of a very natural couple. It’s Barry who takes the honours though; his unintentional humour is most likeable and by far has the best dialog in the game.
The core of Alan Wake’s gameplay revolves around light vs. darkness and although I took many opportunities to either run and gun, or just... run, it’s mostly better to just fight back. Obviously it was never going to be that easy. Before you can even begin to think about destroying the evil-doers you need to learn how to use your flashlight, and use it correctly. It took me the better part of the game to figure out how to optimize my battery life and ammo. Just focusing the torch on an enemy won’t likely give you enough time to launch a successful attack on him. The best results come when you focus your torch on an enemy. A circle will form and minimize over a period of about 5 seconds (more for tougher bosses). Once they’re vulnerable, you strike, landing as many blows on them as you can. They then disintegrate into a satisfying pile of sparks. This game mechanic adds another aspect to fighting enemies; suspense. Simply taking my advice won’t keep you alive, you could be focusing on an enemy for more than 10 seconds, all the while being vulnerable to up to five other Taken.
Thankfully there’s more than one way to skin a Taken from his darkness. Flares can help immensely in taking down a group of Taken. Giving you enough time to recharge, weaken their defenses, reload and aim for the head. Flash bangs and Flare guns can instantly end a showdown, ammo for these is scarce however, so you need to know when is best to unleash them. The dark force isn’t only taking over the local townspeople. In classic poltergeist fashion, a myriad of objects throughout the game become possessed. Given only a few seconds to focus the light on said object, you could find a tractor tire or something much, much worse hurtling towards you. Battery life isn’t infinite; you’ll have to seek out extra power whenever you can and upgrade your torch to stay one step ahead. Just like the music, the light vs. dark theme adds to the gameplay better than I could have hoped, adding suspense to combat, which is something I have rarely experienced in a video game.
The arsenal of guns is kept intentionally low, not only to keep a realistic feel to the game (because you’re not going to find an RPG in a remote cabin are you?) but to help give the game a vibe of survival horror. Along with the standard revolver, there’s a shotgun and a hunting rifle. The ammo for the latter two are hardly ever in plentiful supply though, and I found at times I was ammo-less (this is when you run... fast). Despite the lack of choice in firepower the weapons never get old or boring, mainly because at the start of each episode you’re likely to be stripped of any belongings you acquired previously. This helps to set a steady pace throughout the game, rather than just building up your gear and becoming overpowering.
There are various safe points in Alan Wake, such as a floodlight that needs to be manually powered up before switching on. Usually when you get within 3 feet of one of these an oncoming attack is imminent, meaning you have to be precise under pressure. One false move and you won’t have enough time to try again, and will have to kill all the Taken. If you get it right fast enough, though, it provides a safe haven. The light also accelerates your health regeneration, and the Taken can’t attack you without the darkness. Helpfully placed floodlights can also be hijacked to weaken the Taken.
Remedy have talked about which movies and TV shows influenced the story in Alan Wake, but there’s a certain game that seems to be almost identical to Alan Wake in more than a few instances. It isn’t Silent Hill, or even Resident Evil, but Grand Theft Auto IV. Being a third person shooter, the hud, and even the running animations (getting worn out and slowing down), all feel like an enhanced copy & paste of some of the latest GTA features. This is a positive, though. You don’t rely on the hud to get around (it doesn’t flag enemies up either), but if you’re ever stuck it’s a helpful tool to have there. Running from the cops and slowing down in GTAIV was a pain, but at least you had a car nearby to hijack. No such luck for Alan, I’m afraid. If you’re out of ammo or low on health, it’s vital you find a safe haven and you’ll need to run if the Taken are hot on your heels. Even at full running speed it seems they’re faster than you, so when you’re limping along like you’ve taken a Falcon Punch, you’re seriously in dangerous territory. That street lamp in the distance is so close yet so far as enemies attack you from behind. Alan does have the ability to dodge, resulting in a slow-mo maneuver from harm’s way but many a time I didn’t make it. If you do, it’s a great feeling to be free and clear, almost.
For the collector fiends out there, worry not. Coffee thermals and manuscript pages (akin to diaries in Bioshock) are scattered across Bright Falls. It’s worth collecting the manuscript pages just to add to the overall story. They’re narrated for you and intertwine with the story, sometimes giving you a glimpse into the future. There are also Radio stations, Bright Falls monuments, and the TV show, Night Springs, a spookier send-up of Tales of the Unexpected.
Just running and gunning won’t get you through the game. The torch, the dodge move, and knowing when and what ammo to use are all integral to how efficiently you play the game. When you’ve nailed it, taking down a foe becomes a lot more pleasing. It’s also a nice change to have gameplay you have to learn as you go along, rather than simple shooting. It’s simple, yet more complex than other shooters on the market. On my second play through, my fears of boring gameplay (or should I say gunplay?) were eradicated. The gameplay beautifully compliments the storyline and pacing.
It’s evident Remedy wanted you to feel the fear judging by the lowest difficulty being normal. Nightmare mode unlocks after playing through on normal or hard. Each hour I spent became consecutively better than the last, the story becoming deeper yet still being left in the dark until the very end. I haven’t had that moment of clarity and I’m still trying to work out the conclusion to Alan Wake. With a promise and a great platform to launch DLC in the shape of further episodes, the story will continue, and I’m sure it will lead to yet more questions than answers.
Alan Wake is one of those rare games you look back on when the current generation has ended. It’s up there with the likes of Bioshock and Mass Effect. It has set the bar for thrillers and it might just be one of the best stories to be told in a video game so far on the Xbox 360. Scary as Alan Wake can be, my only fear now is that Alan Wake won’t get the justice it deserves.