Review by AK_the_Twilight

"The Nightmare Lives On"

Alan Wake was terrifying. Remedy developed a world that harnessed the formlessness presence seen in hit horror novels and thriller films, while creating a purposeful narrative and visceral combat. Alan Wake's character echoed the works of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, but the psychological tension that was always existent throughout Alan Wake really brought the world to life. After facing the Dark Presence, Alan Wake returns to progress further down the path of nightmares in the DLC special episode, The Signal. It may feel a bit disjointed and distant from Alan Wake's original storyline, but The Signal boldly explores an alternative world that feels even more frightening than Bright Falls did in early 2010.

The Signal takes place immediately after the ambiguous ending of the original Alan Wake storyline. Alan Wake, still haunted by the Dark Presence that hides beneath the lake at Bright Falls, awakens in a world of dreams, where his mind creates the environments around him. He's contacted by a mysterious voice belonging to Thomas Zane, the ill-fated writer who fell to the Dark Presence's power. Zane cryptically leads Alan throughout the world composed of Alan's thoughts with a GPS signal on his phone. Along the way, Alan discovers figments of his existence at Bright Falls, including an internal fear that continues to manifest itself through poltergeist-possessed items and the Taken, people who have been controlled by the Dark Presence. It's up to Alan to find The Signal relayed to him by Zane and free himself from the world of his disturbed consciousness. The original Alan Wake followed a very cohesive and frightening narrative, but the Signal doesn't follow that same philosophy to the letter. The entire storyline takes place within Alan Wake's frustratingly haunted mind, so there's little connection to the original storyline. The Signal feels like a side-story above all else, almost as if it artificially extends the story instead of getting down to the nitty-gritty and answering some of the many, many questions still remaining in Alan Wake. Alan Wake possessed one of the best stories seen in a game in 2010, but The Signal doesn't feel very essential to the already well-constructed narrative.

As far as gameplay goes, The Signal follows the same combat template seen in the original Alan Wake adventure. Alan's main tool is the flashlight, which is used to weaken the Taken, destroy dangerous objects, or in the case of The Signal, reveal encrypted items, vehicles, or enemies. Battling the Taken is still straightforward enough: weaken their defenses with a focused flashlight beam, and then lay down the lead with a gun blast. More intricate tactics like fending off crowds of enemies with flares or taking out a mob of Taken with a flashbang are still visceral and fun to try out. The combat played a relatively big part in Alan Wake, and it remains a major part of gameplay in The Signal as well. Encountering possessed objects and solving simple puzzles are both back as well. Alan Wake's gameplay remains secondary to the storyline and the lack of connection to the main storyline in The Signal makes the combat feel a bit stale as well. There are some extremely powerful set pieces in The Signal, such as avoiding possessed monster trucks or traveling through a figurative minefield of enemies and traps. The Signal doesn't add anything new to the combat; not even a new weapon or skill appears. On the whole, however, this is simply more Alan Wake, and the visceral and challenging combat still manages to shine through the darkness of repetition.

The Signal isn't a particularly lengthy endeavor, but then again, it's not an expensive one either. At 560 Microsoft Points (around $7, U.S.), Alan Wake's first bit of downloadable content is relatively cheap, but doesn't last longer than a few hours. There are Achievements to complete, along with hidden alarm clocks and cardboard cutouts to find, but the lack of manuscripts to read really distances The Signal from the main story. The manuscripts in the original Alan Wake story were excellent ways to dive deeper into the narrative and extended the mystery well, while also rewarding the gamers' investigation into the tale. The Signal doesn't have any new manuscripts to find, so the entire adventure feels too individualistic and disjointed from the main story. The Signal is a solid value, pricewise and value-wise, but it makes a few too many steps away from what made Alan Wake great.

As a survival horror/thriller game, Alan Wake had a near-perfect grip on its presentation, which was haunting, ambient, and atmospheric in ways that would make even the best horror writers take notice. The Signal makes some interesting changes to the environment and ambience, making the overall presentation even better than the original. Alan Wake's world of nightmares that he creates has the same amount of surreal darkness that the original has, but being a part of Alan's consciousness lets the ambiguity of the world take off in very scary new directions. Floating words depicting items in the environment show the creativity of Alan's work, while also making the world unsettling and psychologically dark. The amazing atmosphere knows no equal, harnessing the fear of the unknown and the power of the human psyche. The final confrontation in particular goes the extra mile in depicting the connection between the world and its creator, how even precious creations can become something truly frightening. The graphics did have some minor glitches, but visually, The Signal is a fantastically realized treat. The audio remains fantastically scary, and hearing the television broadcasts rip through static is just plain disturbing. Alan's voice acting permeates the game, but it feels just as integral to the presentation as the graphics do. Alan Wake nailed the presentation, while also innovating amongst the horror genre, but The Signal is just as rich as the original. In fact, it's even better.

Pros
+ Atmosphere is even more frightening and cryptic than the original
+ Solid amount of climactic set pieces
+ Great action gameplay remains visceral
+ Inexpensive

Cons
- No serious replay value
- Lack of storyline significance and hidden manuscripts makes the chapter feel disconnected
- Pretty short

Alan Wake's horrific world was one of the best seen in 2010, and its first downloadable episode delivers more of the same terror-filled atmosphere that made Bright Falls a playground for the unknown. The Signal expands upon the psychological aspects of Alan Wake, and though it doesn't break much new ground in terms of gameplay, it still feels captivating. It would've been great to see more manuscripts or anything else that rewards going off the beaten path, but The Signal is enticing; you'll always want to see what happens next in Alan Wake's twisted version of Bright Falls. Combat remains a slightly repetitious afterthought, something that would've benefited from some new weapons or skills. However, thanks to excellent set pieces and plenty of ambient design, The Signal is able to overcome its slight distance from the main storyline and short length. It may feel a bit too much like a side-story and it doesn't answer many questions left hanging, but The Signal is a serious purchase for anyone who enjoyed the original Alan Wake.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 12/06/10

Game Release: Alan Wake: The Signal (US, 07/27/10)


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