Review by nintendosega
Inventive and compelling horror adventure. I just wish the gameplay could keep up with the story and presentation
At the start of this console generation, two European developers, Quantic Dream and Remedy, each announced a video game. Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain was to be published by Sony, while Remedy's Alan Wake was to be published by Microsoft. I looked forward to both of them, but especially Alan Wake, since Remedy's Max Payne games were a couple of my favorites from last gen.
Both Alan Wake and Heavy Rain saw release this year, both tell incredible stories, and both provide enjoyable, but flawed, experiences. Each game is an entirely different beast, of course, but my experience playing both was actually pretty similar: the memorable story and incredible presentation drew me in, while several aspects of the gameplay took me right back out.
Alan Wake drew me in almost from the first few seconds. The game begins on a boat that's approaching the town of Bright Falls. Alan and his wife, Alice, are celebrating the release of his latest best-selling novel, and hope the time away from the busy city will do them some good. Alice secretly hopes it'll clear Alan's writer's block. After exploring the town and meeting some of its inhabitants, you get the keys to a cabin on a lake, and soon after they settle in, well....strange things begin happening, culminating in Alice being kidnapped under very mysterious circumstances. Alan then wakes up in a car on the side of the road, on the edge of a dense forest, and has no idea where his wife is or how much time has passed since her disappearance. What happens from there I won't spoil as the plot becomes more and more supernatural. Alan had apparently written a manuscript detailing all of these events, which are now coming true before his eyes.
The intense and very cinematic story is told through a mix of in-game dialogue, manuscript pages found throughout the environments, and very well-produced cutscenes. Television actor Matthew Porretta voices Alan Wake, bringing with him plenty of conviction and charisma. It's a rock-solid performance, in fact, pretty much all the voice actors do a good job, including James McCaffrey (good ol' Max Payne) in a small but important part as an author from the past. There are some weaker links, but nobody gives what I'd call a "bad" performance. With surprisingly strong dialogue, good acting, as well as expertly-directed cutscenes, Alan Wake's a cinematic experience, and watching its story unfold proves to be a lot of fun.
The gameplay mechanics, too, are built with a strong foundation. As far as horror games go, this is definitely more "Resident Evil 5" than...say, "Resident Evil 2," so yes, there's lots and lots of shooting. Luckily, this works very well. The creatures who inhabit the world of Bright Falls are weak to light, so your flashlight is just as important as your arsenal of weaponry. Before you're able to damage an enemy with firepower you must make sure you've weakened them with the light from your flashlight, which requires them to be exposed to the beam of your flashlight for a few seconds, at which point they'll change color and that's your cue to begin firing. This can be intense, especially as several enemies run at you at once, so you can "power up" your flashlight bulb to hasten the process, though this consumes battery life. Other items, such as spotlights in the environment and flares you can pick up, can provide you some help, and once you start breaking out the light-based weapons, the combat system gets really fun. Other features, such as the requirement to tap X rapidly to reload your weapon one bullet at a time, not to mention some incredible sound effects, ratchet up the tension when fighting enemies. Killing enemies (as well as dodging them, handled with the Left bumper and pointing the analog stick in a certain direction) triggers a very cool bullet-time like moment, which is always satisfying.
The game hands out plenty of ammo and batteries to you, but it can still be challenging at times, especially when you're surrounded by enemies and have to come up with a strategy. The dark environments much of Alan Wake takes place in make it easy for enemies to take you by surprise, so you always have to be on your toes. This is a linear experience, similar to Resident Evil 5, so the game always dictates where you go and when: still, there are opportunities to look around your immediate area for hidden weapons and manuscript pages. Also, radios and television sets are scattered throughout the environments: the radios let you hear the Bright Falls radio station, which provides you a sense of the life in the town. The TVs play clips from a (live action) show that Alan did some writing for. Very Twilight Zone-like. When not in combat, you also get to briefly explore a police station, the town diner, Alan and Alice's apartment in flashback, and a couple other areas that I won't spoil. All in all, it's a pretty well-realized world.
I wouldn't be able to review a game like Alan Wake without praising its soundtrack, which is among the best I've heard this entire gen. An absolutely epic musical score during the gameplay and cutscenes, along with great sound effects, always sets a perfect mood, as does the game's large collection of licensed songs. Ranging from David Bowie to Poets of the Fall (they did the great Max Payne 2 credits song and here contribute not only the single off their latest album, but also two songs written specifically for the game) this stunning audio experience just might make Alan Wake the best-sounding horror game I've played to date.
The visuals are crisp and some noticeable screen-tearing aside (mainly occurring when you spin the camera around) this is a very pretty-looking game. When you get to see Bright Falls and its neighboring forests in the daytime it's just gorgeous, and at night things get so dark that the flashlight at times is all you have to see where you're going. It might not be the most technically impressive game this console generation, but it's a very pretty one. The cutscenes, of course, all look great. I also have to commend Remedy for doing what they've set out to do with a Teen-rated game. Too much lately I feel like Western games, especially horror games, rely too much on blood, gore, and cursing to tell their stories. While these things can of course be effective, Alan Wake does without them for the most part and yet still provides a compelling and intense experience, and I think the developers deserve praise for that.
What doesn't quite work:
And this is what's pretty disappointing about Alan Wake: despite a very inventive and well-written story, despite incredible cutscenes, great visuals, fun combat, a decent length, and a top-notch soundtrack, Alan Wake doesn't quite manage to achieve greatness, and this is almost entirely due to what should have been a home run: the gameplay. Sadly, this aspect of the game feels almost thrown together, which is puzzling after the game's 5+ year(!) development time. Though the presentation screams out "horror game!" the gameplay itself feels almost like "Max Payne in the woods," with you basically running through dark forests with your HUD display pointing you in the right direction, with you gunning down enemies, and with you picking up manuscript pages and occasionally listening to radios and TVs. And occasionally you'll run into a puzzle or have to find a switch to start up a generator. That's about it. That's every level. Boxes of weapons and ammunition are scattered all throughout these levels, as are checkpoints, where you restart from should you die.
There are a couple big problems with this. The game's divided into episodes, and each episode is pretty long. I got sick of wandering through the dark woods mid-way through Episode 1...and yet, that's featured in almost each episode. Running through one dark forest environment after another, after another, after another, gets old fast. Occasionally they throw a puzzle at you or even a driving sequence, but for the most part, the game's a series of long "point A to point B" journeys through dark, enemy-infested forests, fighting the same enemies the exact same way all throughout the entire game. You'll soon long for daylight.
While this action-driven approach works well in a game like Max Payne, and even Resident Evil 5, which featured varied environments, enemies, and extremely frequent cutscenes, Alan Wake's cutscenes generally occur at the beginnings, mid-points, and ends of each episode. Your time spent in between mostly involves killing enemies, listening to your companions talk, and hearing Alan read manuscript pages to you. Granted, these are very well-written, but a sense of repetition hangs over the entire experience, especially as you reach the last two episodes, which reek of padding and an attempt to extend the game with two or three trips through the forest too many.
The ammo and checkpoint systems feel out of place in a horror game. Though the story does try to explain to you why hundreds and hundreds of boxes of weapons, batteries, and ammunition are placed in conveniently-marked containers in the middle of the woods, these things take you out of the experience. Suddenly, you're not "living" this exciting narrative, you're "playing a video game." Same with the checkpoint system. It's not enough for the game to simply tell you when you've reached a checkpoint, it takes a cue from Gears of War and triggers a "boom" on the soundtrack whenever you hit one. Since arriving at a checkpoint pretty much confirms that all hell is about to break loose, it becomes hard to continue to be surprised by enemies as the game goes on: stumbling across a bunch of ammo and/or triggering a checkpoint make it pretty much a safe bet that an enemy ambush isn't far off.
It feels like there should have been more to the game than this. The town of Bright Falls, what little you get to see of it in daylight, is brimming with personality. The ability to return to this town and explore it at your own pace would have done wonders to break up the repetition of enemy shooting and dark-forest-path-hiking that make up the bulk of this experience. Though you can usually wander some distance off the beaten path, aside from collecting coffee thermoses (there are 100 of them in the game, try to collect them all!) or picking up pages and weapons, there's nothing to look for. This is as bare-bones and simple as horror games get. What Final Fantasy XIII did with the RPG genre, Alan Wake does with the horror genre, though unlike FF13, which featured a constantly evolving and strategic combat system, Alan Wake is just the same thing over and over again. It's fun, don't get me wrong, and they come up with some awesome ideas (including a rock concert that has to be seen to be believed) to keep things interesting, but it just doesn't feel like there was enough to this game. Though I eagerly played to get to the next cutscene, I found myself dreading turning the game on to have to deal with yet another hike through the woods.
Alan Wake is a game that, despite its big flaws, I'd still say is worth playing, just to experience the incredible storyline. The presentation, including the atmosphere, music, voice acting, writing, cutscene direction, and even the combat system, is well-done and inventive. The visuals are nice and the game creates a strong sense of tension and some jump moments. Unfortunately, the gameplay itself feels like a never-ending corridor shooter (with forests taking the place of corridors) and this, as well as the extremely annoying character of Barry, the checkpoint system which telegraphs each enemy encounter ahead of time, the uninspired boss battles, the lack of enemy variety, the pointless driving sequences, the product placement, and just the general idea that this game took over 5 years to make, hangs over the proceedings like a bad smog cloud. If I didn't know any better I'd assume the game was rushed, but with that clearly not being the case, I have no choice but to assume that Remedy originally had a much bigger game planned, one which was scrapped somewhere along the line and was rebuilt (quickly) to be this. It's just the only explanation I can think of.
Alan Wake is a fun game; a repetitive one, and one you'll be spending the last hour of begging for it to end, but it's still a memorable experience. The storytelling and presentation is up at the top, the gameplay hovers down near the mediocre. Though there's no sequel planned, the end credits assure us that the story will continue, and sure enough, two downloadable episodes have been announced. I definitely plan on playing them and can't wait to spend more time in Alan Wake's world, I just hope they offer more in the way of variety than this game provided.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Alan Wake (US, 05/18/10)
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