Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Players are introduced to the eponymous lead Alan Wake, a famous writer who is holidaying in Maine and is struggling to overcome a bout of writers block after his most recent bestseller. Wake and his wife Alice ending up lodging in a cabin in Bright Falls which is filled with quirky and oddball inhabitants.
Alan Wake is a game that wears its inspiration on its sleeve. The game opens with a voice over from Wake and his first words directly mention Stephen King. Sure enough, the characters in Bright Falls feel as though they are lifted directly from the pages of a King novel. There’s the feisty local sheriff, a crazy old widower, an airheaded waitress at the local diner and a night owl radio deejay who hosts the midnight radio show. It’s no matter that these aren’t the most original characters by conventional horror genre standards, its still a far better effort at characterisation than you’d see in most video games and Remedy has done an effective job in making Bright Falls feel full of character and worthy of exploration.
Although Alan Wake is a thriller about an author who finds himself in a world where his own writing has come to life, the game itself draws greater inspiration from the medium of television. The game is divided into six episodes, each of which starts with a ‘Previously…on Alan Wake’ recap of whats happened so far. The game also has one of the finest soundtracks for a video game set in a contemporary environment, using licensed tracks from artists such as Nick Cave and David Bowie. These tracks add a tangible level of polish to the game’s atmosphere.
Once the opening cinematics have finished and the game begins in earnest, Remedy’s inexplicable slavish adherence to video game convention begin to spoil the otherwise well crafted atmosphere and presentation. For starters, there is a rather intrusive onscreen mission objective that is stamped on the screen at all times. Why couldn’t this be hidden away in a menu screen? Surely a game that aims to immerse the player in darkness cannot afford to have so much clutter on the screen.
The game also has a measure of self awareness but lacks consistency in this approach. Wake marvels at the convenience of having so many weapon caches lying around Bright Falls, an observation that deliberately calls to attention a common video game design construct that usually makes very little sense. Wake explains these caches as being the handywork of a well intentioned helper who is aiding him in his travels (and he doesn’t mean the game designer either).
This is all well and good but Wake then makes no acknowledgement of the hundreds of coffee thermoses that are mysteriously scattered around Bright Falls. Why Remedy felt the need to include a videogame collect-a-thon in Alan Wake is equally puzzling. Or for that matter, why they insist on placing these thermoses in prominent locations that break the game’s suspension of disbelief. For example, late in the game there is a tornado tearing through Bright Falls that dislodges and hurls vehicles around the environment. This would be a terrific visual effect were it not for the fact that there is a coffee thermos on the pavement that is apparently so weighty that it remains grounded while tractors and buses are sent flying. Surely there isn’t a single person playing this game whose experience has been heightened by collecting these things?
The game is also disappointingly limited in its scope. I was hoping for more opportunities to converse with the residents of Bright Falls, perhaps utilizing an interactive dialogue tree similar to Mass Effect or Heavy Rain. Instead the game is heavily focused on Wake’s combat with shifty dark figures called The Taken. You shine your torch on them and then shoot these fellas in the face. Rinse and repeat this process about 150 times and thats the game. There is no noticable change in the design or AI of The Taken from the first guy you fight in the game to the last. For the sake of variety, the game does introduce some evil puddles and evil gates in the third episode. As you would expect, they don’t much greater challenges than your every day puddles and gates. Considering Alan Wake took five years to make, it is astonishingly limited in its gameplay variety.
At the end of the day, your enjoyment of Alan Wake will be tied heavily into how invested you become in its narrative. It certainly won’t be the simple shooter mechanics that keep you coming back. Remedy are to be commended for trying something a bit different with Alan Wake and to their credit, I think they do some interesting things with the story and presentation. Unfortunately, like many games in this generation of consoles, Remedy run into the same problem that Rockstar did with Grand Theft Auto IV. They seem interested in creating a game with greater sophistication and characterisation but are unsure and lack confidence in creating interaction beyond the scope of shooting everything that moves.