Review by zenandi

"Previously, on Alan Wake..."

And with that TV-serial-esque line, each 'episode' (chapter) of Alan Wake begins and what follows is a short montage of cutscenes that recaps what happened on the last episode. Meanwhile, the Limited Collector's Edition comes in a very nice case that's made to look like a thick hardcover book. Alan Wake is a terrific story-telling experience to be sure, except when you critically rate the gameplay, there really, unfortunately, isn't that much depth in it.

As I personally like to do, I like to tell you the bad of it first and get that out of the way...

First of all, at the heart of the gameplay is a gimmick -- every single enemy you encounter needs to have their 'darkness' stripped away by light before your gunfire can hurt them. To take a direct comparison so you'll know what I'm talking about -- its a bit like Mass Effect 2, where none of your fancy biotic abilities or tech skills will work until you have removed the enemy's shields and so on. If you haven't played that game, just know that its basically: shine light --> strip defences --> shoot. Oh, and try not to die while you're at it.

Now to be fair, this is quite okay, maybe I'll concede that it's even interesting at first. After all Mass Effect 2 does that and nobody really complains right? Fair Enough.

The problem with this concept is two-fold:

First, there is absolutely no variety. You shine a light and you shine it some more, insert batteries -- ammo if you will -- as needed to recharge your flashlight, and keep shining. There is literally no other way. Now, some might say, what's so bad about that when 90% of shooters operate on the same "keep-shooting-until-they-die" formula?

The problem is, there is really not a lot of skill involved if you are somewhat familiar with action games. The flashlight concept is not so much aim-and-shoot as point-in-the-general-direction-and-hold-it-there. Even on Hard mode, you wouldn't have much difficulty stripping defences.

The difficulty, and the true beauty of the combat system, is trying not to die while you're at it. Now here, I must say that these are some of the most aggressive enemy AI I have seen yet without being flat-out cheap.

To illustrate: a fight, 3-on-1 in a forest, one big lumbering 'hardy' foe, and two 'grunts' if you will. Naturally, I try to back off to keep all three in sight. That's when I realize that's practically impossible. The game is ACTIVELY flanking me. That's right -- the two grunts didn't 'accidentally' just happen to move offscreen to the extremes of left and right with the big hulking monster in the centre making a bee-line. Enemies are MUCH faster than Alan is, and they hit extremely hard on Hard and quite simply, this is a bad scenario, basically. Jeez, I'm in trouble....

Except, of course, I'm not....

This is where you pull out either a Flare or a Flare Gun or a Flash Grenade and BOOOOM. White Light, or Red light -- forget which, doesn't matter. End of. Adios. Goodbye, Sayonara...

And thus, the one redeeming quality of the combat is negated by the frequency of the easy out available to you. And again, unless you've never played an action game before, you will absolutely be overwhelmed by how many 'light bombs' are available to you. I mean, come on, really? This is insulting...

So basically, on Hard mode at least, the combat flunctuates wildly between quite-intense-when-you're-surrounded to absolute-cakewalk-if-you've-had-enough. I'm all for player options for games, and I guess its my fault for deploying the Holy Waters, but basically, when the bomb doesn't cost a bomb then why don't you use the bomb?

Besides, the alternative of duking it out on their terms, while fun on paper, can get frustrating. While I have high praises for how they can flank you, they ARE borderline cheap. Projectiles can hit you from nowhere, and enemies can strike up to three times in quick succession. Not anywhere near Ninja Gaiden II perhaps, but still...

On top of that, the game has an annoying habit of taking all your guns and restarting you from scratch. So basically, the ten flashbangs that you accumulated in the last chapter? Yeah... gone. So the only reason for NOT using what you've got is really for the challenge. If you're that kind of person -- fair enough -- for everyone else, the conclusion here is the game has some balance issues.

The other problem, is that for much of the game, the concept is the same --- walk through a dark forboding place to get to next dark, forboding place. Again, some might ask -- how is this different from 90% of games out there where you similarly walk from point A to point B?

The difference is, in other games, you're going from point A to point B to do something, then going from B to C to achieve another something. Even though as a player, you realize the game is still linear and going from point A to point C, in actual play you really don't mind or even notice it. Besides, usually there's really big changes in scenary or new gameplay challenges so you're distracted. Or, and this is lacking too in Alan Wake, you level up, make RPG decisions on how to level your character.

Alan Wake feels more like you're going from A to B so that you can go from B to C so that you can go from C to D. It gets infuriating is what happens. It feels really forced is what it is. Perhaps what it is, is that Alan Wake is just really weak at covering up this obvious linearity, and that the objective between checkpoints is just plainly frivolous. For instance, without Spoiling too much: You're in a police station, you need a chopper, and the key is at Point B, while the Chopper itself is at point C. Oh, really? I so didn't see that coming.

Here, the over-arching plot of Alan Wake sometimes even works against it -- you're dying to know what happens next, but uh... see, you gotta get through this building first, and after that, there's this field you have to navigate, then some mountain path, then... Yes, infuriating.

Wow, that was a huge chunk. It really is so easy to criticize...

The game's true redeeming quality then, is truly its story and its method of delivery. Simply put, no other video game has so far delivered its story quite in this manner.

At the beginning of the game, and once you reach the second 'episode', you will quite clearly see that Alan Wake has been conceptualized as if it was a TV-Serial, to the point that you even get an ending song for each chapter. But more than that, the story is narrated to you by Alan himself, as if it were an audio book.

The game makes it abundantly clear that you're controlling a character in someone's story. Supposedly, a story that Alan can't remember he wrote is coming true, and you have to find the manuscript scattered about to figure out what exactly is happening and if you can stop it somehow.

Now the manuscript are an interesting concept -- they are scattered around the place as collectibles, and each piece is a page of the story that sometimes reveal interesting information, sometimes allows you insight into what other characters are thinking, sometimes lets you have the other perspective from another character, and even sometimes prophesizes, as it were, what's going to happen next.

It's a cool concept -- it has the same effect of say... as if you were skipping ahead a few pages in the book you're reading. Or sometimes as happens in novels, writers simply switches to another character's perspective to give you that other view.

Lost Odyssey's little memories concept is the closest comparison I can think of, except they're probably not even close... The Manuscripts are VERY relevant to what's actually going on, and are a major highlight in the gameplay -- if only because it reveals the plot a bit and if nothing else, breaks some of the monotony you might be feeling at the moment

Concluding, Alan Wake's story is quite engrossing, definitely a page-turner if it was a book -- as I've said, its sometimes infuriating that you have to do all that leg work to get to the next big part of the story -- and its method of delivery is unique and definitely unlike anything I've ever seen. It's environments are huge and atmospheric, and the soundtrack is appropriately haunting and beautiful. Basically, there is absolutely nothing not to like about any of the above I've mentioned. But truly, gameplay -- although solid with no annoying glitches and the like -- is not the strong point, although its fair to say that for nailing everything else right, Alan Wake deserves some leeway on its one weakness. Unfortunately, being a game, that's a big flaw to write off.

Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 06/01/10

Game Release: Alan Wake (Limited Collector's Edition) (US, 05/18/10)

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