Genre: Action Developer: Remedy Games Publisher: Microsoft Classification: TBC Release Date: To be advised (future release) Platforms:XBOX360
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I didn’t think much of the whole ‘Alan Wake’ idea. The whole concept sounded too much like the unintentionally hilarious ‘thriller’ from 2004 “Secret Window”. Every time I heard a new detail about the game concept all I could think of was John Turturro saying “You stole ma story”.
This is one of those moments where I’m happy to have been wrong. After knocking out the nine hours or so it took me to finish Alan Wake, I’m a convert.
A little background on the story for the newcomers - Alan has been dragged to the town of Bright Falls by his caring wife following a half-decade-long writers block episode (you’re starting to see the Secret Window connection, aren’t you). A best-selling author of thriller novels, his wife Sarah hopes the seachange can shake things up for him. And then his wife goes missing.
We begin with Alan (the titular hero) having just survived a car crash - and he’s quite confused about where his wife has gone. Leaving his car behind, he decides to go into the woods at night. Horror story tropes be damned, I think.
As Alan traipses through the forest, lighting effects and atmospheric use of sound create a outstanding sense of unease. He stumbled across a page from a manuscript - it’s from a book he appears to have written about a character in an eerily similar situation to himself.
It talks of a man wrapped in shadows, impossible to make out. The only thing clearly visible is the blood on the man’s axe as he raises it to the moonlight. Ninjas don’t wield axes, so you can tell he’s a psychopath.
Moments later you encounter the same imagery, and things start to get downright scary. The axe wielding psycho is surrounded by dancing shadows as he raises his axe while the background music thunders ominously. Like the lead character in any Alan Wake thriller, I traipse onwards towards the threat. Because I’m an idiot.
The axe-wielding psycho remains ever present through great use of special effects - voices dance around the balance, your focus is drawn to certain areas just as shadows flicker movement in others - and the interesting gameplay mechanic adds even more tension.
Thanks to the rise of action horror games like Resident Evil and the Condemned games, it’s implausible to create a thriller/horror game these days and still slap on the old tank turning horror mechanic - well, it is if you want the game to be good.
And yet the “Oh god, they’re getting closer” factor is still one of the best ways to deliver a sense of terror not restricted to the cheap monster closet staple of the genre. To deliver the sense of unease then, the game throws its enemies at you by forcing you to destroy their shadow shield (my name for it) before you can actually kill them.
This means you aim your torch at them first, bathing them in light, before you can bust a cap in their ass. The mechanic also allows for a targeting assist option - your torch uses no discernible battery power except when you focus the light on your enemy with the Left Trigger (which also auto-targets your closest opponent).
Throw in a little cinematic bullet time (it is Remedy Entertainment after all) when you take down the last bad guy and a reloading mechanic where you furiously mash a button to reload faster and you’ve got yourself gameplay fit for an Action Horror game.
The only bad part in the gameplay comes with the vehicle action -
Alan finds himself behind the wheel on some occasions and the vehicles slide around like the roads of Bright Falls are paved with black ice.
Strangely for a horror game, you actually team up with others at times. Various characters will help you (or you’ll help them) as you try to work your way through the mystery of the story - and I’m happy to say the AI is fantastic. They don’t help all that much, but they never hinder you either, avoiding the dreaded escort trope of previous Action Horror games (I’m looking at you, Resident Evil 4 and 5.)
The pacing of the game is spectacular - though by the end of the game it’s definitely an action horror game. Actually, my largest gripe with the title is the amount of ammunition it throws at you - even on normal mode I never once came close to running out of ammo, except when the game took my weapons away.
This is the game’s other huge mistake - at the end of every chapter (and a few spots in between) Alan Wake apparently throws away all his weapons. I understand the need to create challenge and everything, but perhaps if the town of Bright Falls wasn’t littered with ammo like the set of a John Woo film you wouldn’t need to rob me of my weapon constantly.
Unfortunately the predictability of the combat begins to ruin any feeling of terror. If you see gas bottles hanging around an otherwise empty logging yard, you’re about to fight scary guys. If you see a searchlight sitting around looking out of place in an abandoned junkyard, you’re about to fight dozens of scary guys.
The need to provide an exemplary gameplay experience ironically robs the game of the experience it should be providing - balls-to-the-wall terrifying. Ironically this drags down the gameplay - negating the purpose of giving out too much ammo in the first place.
The way the story is written will keep you playing despite the gameplay’s slight case of Assassin’s Creed Syndrome. There’s no real twist at the end of the game - the twist plays out at the end of the second last chapter - but it’s easy to see that people will be analysing the story for months to come.
I’m filled with questions after playing - happily not plot-hole related, even if they are spoileriffic. Like the Max Payne games before it, Alan Wake is peppered with amusing and quirky self-referential humour by way of television shows like “Night Springs”.
The twists and turns of the story and the depth of the world created for Alan Wake far outweigh any gripes I have about its failings as an actual horror game. It’s not a thriller either - too many scares and too little mind****ing robs it of that description.
What Alan Wake is then is an outstanding piece of writing. The replayability will come from your drive to find all the manuscript pages you missed previously - you’ll need to put together each element of the story. You’ll want to just get lost in Alan Wake - and if you decide to pick it up, you’ll find it hard not to.