Review by Josh_3691
"Seven years of development, but has it been worth it?"
Five years have passed since the announcement of Alan Wake and now the game is finally here. As one of the big Xbox 360 exclusives to be released this year, have developers Remedy managed to follow on from the brilliant Max Payne series or should this game stayed in the shadows.
The box describes Alan Wake as a Psychological Action Thriller and while it's hard to dispute the last two, the psychological element seems to have gone missing, as Alan Wake isn't scary in the slightest. The story centres on Alan Wake (a step down in the name stakes from Max Payne), a writer who is suffering from writer's block, who, along with his wife Alice, decides to take a vacation in the picturesque town of Bright Falls. Before they have even unpacked, Alice goes missing and the story of a book Wake has no memory of writing, is coming true.
The story is presented like a television drama and is split into six episodes, all of which end on a cliffhanger. It's a clever way to keep you playing through the game and is implemented much better than it was in Alone in the Dark. Now while the story is always compelling, as it twists and turns towards a solid, if unsatisfactory ending, the same cannot be said for some of the writing. I don't want to give too much away from the story, as it certainly is the main focus of the game, but unfortunately it is quite poorly handled. Some of the writing is dubious at best, especially the manuscript notes which are dotted around to fill in the story, and the game doesn't seem to know whether it wants to be a serious thriller, or more tongue-in-cheek. The characters though are all interesting and bizarre enough to carry the whole thing through. There are ageing rockers, noble police chief, an obsessive waitress and many more beside, they all add together to make a world that captures the small American town feel. Alan Wake certainly wears its influences on its sleeve, the main one being Stephen King (who is shamelessly name-checked in the first few minutes) but Twin Peaks is the main inspiration for the town itself. Ultimately the story is good but a little more care with the script and more interaction with the towns people themselves could have made this game so much better.
Alan Wake is an extremely linear game as it shepherds you from one dark forest to the next and your means of survival is the torch you carry with you. You defeat enemies by shining light on them and after they have been weakened enough, empty a few clips of your pistol into their heads. It's a mechanic that works well and leads itself to the games tenser moments when your running out of ammo and batteries, and the enemies are closing in. Flight or fight decisions need to be made instantaneously and makes these moments the most tense that the game has to offer. You collect other weapons as you go through the game the most interesting of these been flashbangs which give a one hit kill, and Flares to buy you some time to fall back and reload. Unfortunately though the game never expands upon this battle system and although there is great variety in the enemies that you face, you will defeat them in the same way and this leads to the game becoming overly repetitive. They try to spruce it up with possessed objects and chainsaw yielding Taken' (a la Resident Evil) but the game was crying out for something new to be introduced to keep enemy encounters interesting. Another problem is that enemy encounters are signposted by the manuscripts and then are shown in a slow motion effect lurking through the bushes. Now while this may look fantastic, it kills any tension that can arise as you know when an enemy is going to attack and this means that the fear factor of enemy encounters is diminished. Alan Wake himself is clunky to control but that makes sense given that he is just a writer not some gun-tooting space marine, I would have liked the dodge move to be easier to pull off though as it can screw up the camera and is ridiculously frustrating when facing possessed objects. All of these are minor qualms though as the combat in Alan Wake, although repetitive, is always well handled and the enemies themselves are scary enough to keep your heart rate ticking over.
The crux of any horror game though is the atmosphere that it creates and Alan Wake never has any problems keeping you on the edge of your seat. The forests are beautifully designed but still creepy, as you make your way through shining your light frantically on sinister looking bushes, while enemies lurk from behind you. The game is never scary as every time something scary happens Wake narrates in his dull, monotone voice and kills the atmosphere. The world of Bright Falls looks spectacular with over hanging mountains and lush forests, it is one of the best looking games available on the 360. It's a shame the same level of detail couldn't be given to the character models, as some of them (especially Wakes' wife) look lifeless. This is not helped by the truly awful lip-syncing, which is so out of time it once again can kill the atmosphere of the cut scenes. It's unfortunate that Remedy didn't get this right as everything else that they created is so unblemished that this really stands out. Although they dropped the ball slightly on graphics, the same cannot be said for the soundtrack, which is fantastic. From cheesy pop songs to close each episode, to the chilling themes as you lurk through the forest. It can easily draw you into the game and is up there with Silent Hill and Mario Galaxy as one of my favourite soundtracks of recent years.
In terms of length you're looking at around 8-10 hours to complete it on normal difficulty maybe adding 2-3 for higher difficulties. The main reason to go back through the game though is the collectibles. I have already mentioned the manuscripts that pad out the story, but the best reason to go back is for the radio stations (which provoke some interesting thoughts) and the TV shows. These TV shows centre around a show called Night Springs and is a nod to cult Sci-Fi hit The Twilight Zone, they capture the show perfectly to the nonsensical stories, horrible acting, genius moral twists and even a Rod Serling sound alike. As a fan of the show I thoroughly enjoyed watching these and they turned out to be one of my highlights from the game. There are also 100 coffee thermoses, another homage to Twin peaks, to collect also.
Alan Wake is an interesting game to rate as it falls short in numerous areas but the charm that the game possesses means that you always want to continue. The story is well told and interesting enough to keep you playing even when some of it is poorly written. The combat is very well put together but never expands beyond its core basis and the locales are beautifully designed but with some shocking character models. If you can take the rough with the smooth there is a lot of fun to be had with Alan Wake but it will frustrate those who struggle with the story driven linearity of the game. Ultimately this comes down to how much you like the Survival Horror genre, if you do Alan Wake might be the shining light you're looking for.
+ Story is always compelling and well told.
+ Bright Falls is beautifully designed and filled with bizarre characters.
+ Soundtrack and atmosphere combine to make a tense affair.
+ Combat is very well executed
- but is never expanded upon.
- Some of the writing is sloppy.
- Horrible lip-syncing.
- Not particularly scary and quite repetitive.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 06/07/10
Game Release: Alan Wake (EU, 05/14/10)
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