A patronising yet compelling story is made stylish by some memorable combat moments…
If I were to meet Alan Wake in real life I think he’d annoy the hell out of me. Don’t get me wrong, his success in writing is obviously to be admired but he talks about the methods of writing horror as if they’re textbook. I don’t want to know what a horror story should do. I want to experience one and judge for myself. Still, Alan Wake works well as a thriller, even with the irony that the story is essentially about good writing and yet it still uses clichés. I mean, light versus dark? Come on. Nevertheless, unlike many ‘light versus dark’ or ‘good versus evil’ plots, Alan Wake‘s is incredibly engrossing.
Predictably you play as writer Alan Wake. In the past he’s had success as a novelist but over the last three years he’s dried up and has hardly put a finger to typewriter. So, feeling he needs a break, he and his wife Alice visit the secluded town of Bright Falls. Alice, though, has an ulterior motive. She thinks that Alan can use the time in their isolated Bird Leg Cabin, located in the middle of Cauldron Lake, to begin writing again. Royally pissed off, Alan storms out and leaves Alice alone. She’s kidnapped, taken by an evil located in the depths of the lake which wishes to use Alan’s talents to take over the world.
The way this story is told is especially impressive. Through real-time events, flash-backs and manuscript pages you find details out about the characters that you wouldn’t know otherwise. It’s a clever way of telling the story and is a pleasure to experience, even if the manuscript pages detail things that will happen to you in the future, negating the sense of shock that all horror stories should have. You’ll collect these pages as you progress through each of the six chapters, while all the while surviving the hordes of Taken looking to stop you in your path.
Initially the gameplay of Alan Wake comes across a little drab and boring. Granted, the environments are beautifully dark and incredibly detailed. But visuals can only go so far, and when you’re trudging through another endless forest trying to get somewhere, you suddenly forget all about that. Still, when an enemy does come along, there’s a very unique combat experience to enjoy. The Taken have been possessed by ‘The Dark Presence’, and to kill them you must use your torch to burn the darkness away. It’s then that you can choose whatever weapon you prefer to kill them permanently. It makes for satisfying combat, and with flash-bangs and the flare gun, you’ve got a reasonable arsenal to arm yourself with. Clever, unique combat, even if the first half of the game is repetitive and a little dull.
Get into the second half, however, and things really pick up. Amongst other similarly hectic moments there is one of the most enthralling gaming experiences I’ve ever had which came as a damn good surprise after the mostly mediocre gameplay up until then. You must defend a music stage while Barry uses the lighting equipment to blast away the Taken’s darkness. Fireworks, search-lights, your torch; there’ll be colours and explosions all over the place and it makes for an incredible spectacle as you use your shotgun to dispose of the darkness-filled bastards. I had a controller in my hand and essentially a load of programming on screen, and yet I felt this was the closest I’d come to being a rockstar.
Why? Well it was the music more than anything. While you’re killing your audience you’re also listening to a song called Children of the Elder Gods by a fictional band once the subject of The Dark Presence’s manipulation. It’s a catch and rocky tune that really fits in with the situation. You can always trust the Swedish to make good music! The same goes for the rest of the game too. There’s a good licensed soundtrack including a song from Poets of the Fall as well as some environmental music for the game-play. Like many horror films the moody and foreboding atmosphere is heightened by some subtle but tense music.
All these features make for one incredibly stylish package that is very exciting to play. In terms of things to do outside the story, though, you’re given relatively little. You’d have to be really bothered about the achievement to go around and collect the coffee thermoses scattered in hard-to-reach places as these offer nothing to the story or the gameplay. Manuscript pages, though, are a little more worthwhile, and there’s enough in the game for a second play-through in Nightmare mode to discover more of them.
Overall Alan Wake leaves you with a good and lasting impression once you’ve finished, especially as the story concludes in as dark a fashion as the rest of the game. Remedy seemed to have kept all the good parts of the game out until the second half, though, the first three chapters giving a good sense of story but a bit repetitive and predictable in terms of its gameplay. Apart from the clunky driving controls, Alan Wake is a neatly presented and easy-to-control game with plenty to offer any Xbox 360 gamer… and it doesn’t end there…
SPECIAL 1: THE SIGNAL
Does Alan Wake‘s first DLC The Signal make a significant improvement? No. This is much of the same Wake, which isn’t too bad a thing, but I still expected more. They’ve basically re-hashed many of the old environments of the last six episodes and made them a bit weirder. This may well follow the narrative of the plot but it doesn’t add anything to the game’s combat, and if anything it becomes a little more unforgiving. Tighter spaces mean for more sneaky Taken slicing you from behind. Still, The Signal‘s emphasis on using words in the environment to your advantage is a cool addition and it concludes with an interesting final boss. Not bad.
SPECIAL 2: THE WRITER
This is a bit more like it. The story of the first Alan Wake concludes here and as an experience it’s much more rewarding than The Signal. There are some gameplay set-pieces here that feel fresh and offer a variation from the original six episodes, sometimes even crossing over into the platformer genre as the world around you changes to echo Alan’s state-of-mind. The approach to the lighthouse towards the end is especially challenging and enjoyable. But for a disappointing end battle the story reaches a whole new level as Alan’s mind becomes more and more tortured. It gripped my attention and made me look forward to the sequel that they will undoubtedly make.