Review: Alan Wake

The unfortunate reality of any game that suffers under the yoke most commonly referred to as ‘constant delays’ is that it loses more fans than it garners. I’ve realised that I’m among the sick few who hang onto a constantly delayed title for dear life, regardless of their negative mantra (and that’s not necessarily because they’re bad, but more often because people equate ‘delay’ to mean ‘it better be better than sliced Half Life when it is released). After all, I am the guy who was met with laughter when I told EB Games folk that I wanted to cancel my pre-order for Duke Nukem Forever… 18 months after I’d slapped down the cash (and that was when I was in high school).

Unfortunately true segue anecdotes aside, I’ve been a pre-fan of Alan Wake ever since its announcement. Truth be told, all I needed to know was that it was being developed by the dudes who gave us the Max Payne games: Remedy Entertainment. I loved both Max Payne games to the point where I actually held out hope for the Marky Mark movie adaptation… sigh. Regardless of failed movie adaptations, Remedy had created not one but two resonating experiences in the Max Payne games. Despite some minor gripes (how unnecessary and annoying were the drug-induced levels?), the gameplay was addictive, the graphics and physics were great, but above all else there was some engaging storytelling going on – something that still seems to be lacking in the gaming world.

Better yet, the Max Payne games merged great storytelling with memorable gaming moments, providing a kick-ass experience that could have players showing off bullshit cool shootouts one moment, and feeling heartache at the loss of yet another one of Max Payne’s loved ones the next. It didn’t need to label itself as an ‘interactive film’ with an over reliance on quick-time events, and the experience certainly felt more varied than the two types of ‘Jason’ on offer in a particular game that this sentence has spent altogether too much time not-so-subtly bagging out.

Prose and cons

I paint this picture because I want you to know that despite the delays, I went into Alan Wake with the highest of expectations. The problem, though, with expectations is that they can lead to mega disappointment: a type of disappointment that is beyond the norm because of aforementioned expectations (gotta love circular logic). And in terms of the game, Alan Wake was initially an uber disappointment. The first major hurdle was the storytelling aspect of the game which, granted, I judged harsher than your average game. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some kind of gamer who hates a game if its story isn’t Oscar worthy, but Alan Wake put itself on a pedestal to be judged in a more harsh light.

What pedestal you ask? For starters, this was made by the same guys who brought the gaming world the afore-praised-for-storytelling Max Payne games – it’s not unrealistic to expect a higher calibre of storytelling that surpasses your average game. Second, the game features a protagonist who is a writer (note to future game developers: if you’re going to have a protagonist who’s a writer, make sure your storytelling is tight). Plainly put, Alan Wake—the game’s protagonist—is a bad writer at the start of the game. He uses adjectives and adverbs in his novel excerpts more liberally than a high-school creative writing student.

Beyond this, he doesn’t think like a normal person (you get to hear his thoughts as a voice over): he thinks like he’s writing the outline for the first draft of a novel: that is to say it’s far from subtle and downright corny at times. You’ll need to get accustomed to his voice-over very early on as it will endure for the duration of the game. It does get better later in the game, but for the first hour or so I was cringing and flat-out taking the piss out of it. For instance, at the start of the game you run over a hitchhiker who randomly vanishes. When you’ve just hit a mysterious hitchhiker with your car and jumped out to see that the corpse has disappeared, you don’t need to hear Mr Wake explain the exact same thing in a voice over.

The beginning of the game also serves to set you up for the main game mechanic: the importance of light and its use against the darkness. And when I say it sets you up I really mean that it bludgeons you over the head with a Maglite to make sure you get the point. The chances are good that you already understand most of this from reading the back of the box, or watching the countless gameplay videos over the years, so it only served to patronise more than reinforce. For those who have no idea about the lighting mechanic in the game, it’s both simple and effective. The nasty things like to live in shadow and need the darkness burnt off them with light before you can damage them with your firearms. Get it? Got it? Good.

There was also more than a dash of heavy-handed foreboding, some average graphics and the lip synchronisation during early cutscenes didn’t really seem to match what was being said. If I hadn’t been keenly anticipating the game for so long I probably would’ve given up then and there, but I persevered… and I’m glad I did.

The real game

I’m sure that the sneaky ones out there who jumped to the end of this review and saw my mark out of 10 will be scratching their head as to how I could’ve possibly reached said mark given what I’ve just said. Well, allow me to elaborate. The first one to two hours of the game managed to cram all of the things I hated about Alan Wake into them. This is no mean feat and ill-advised for any gamer developer considering the first couple of hours of a game are crucial to capturing the attention of the player. Everything after these initial hours was amazing.

It’s as though the writers of the beginning of the game were fired and new, talented blood was brought in to properly realise the interesting premise. The storytelling got better: a helluva lot better, to the point where the episodic gameplay mechanic became redundant, but in a very, very good way. For those unaware, Alan Wake is separated into several chapters to offer players the option of enjoying the game as they would a preferred TV show: in bite-size pieces. Each episode ends on some sort of cliff-hanger, which makes you want to play on. And that’s where the redundancy comes in – the questions created by said cliff-hangers were so provocative that I didn’t want to put the controller down and come back ‘next week’… I wanted to know then and there what the hell was going on.

The game does well to toe the line of Wake’s sanity throughout the game – is he some crazy writer with an overactive imagination who is hallucinating all of the nasty things that are happening because of some acid trip gone bad, or is he really seeing this stuff happening?

The graphics can be bland at times, but when they’re on they’re really on. Combine this with the fantastic lighting (essential to the aforementioned gameplay mechanic) and it actually helps to create some tense atmosphere. Low-level flashlights run out of battery power surprisingly fast and Alan always seems to run out of sprint stamina two steps before the safety of a well-lit area. The darkness-loving baddies predominantly use melee weapons and regularly get the drop on you, helping to increase tension. I never found Alan Wake scary or even creepy, but there were a lot of tense moments when I could hear The Taken (the fancy name for the creatures of the night) somewhere in the dark but couldn’t see them.

Thankfully, you can dodge attacks, and doing so slows it down to make you feel every bit the badass… you can even spin the camera during such moments for a Michael Bay-type feel, if you need to step up the adrenaline. As you make your way through the game the story starts to push your inquisitive mind in different directions, urging you to fight through countless waves of enemies to find out the truth of what’s going on.

I’ve deliberately kept this review light on spoilers and haven’t even talked too much about what happens in the actual story because it really is best experienced firsthand. For Max Payne fans there’s more than a few nods to the Remedy noir action hero of old, and I loved all of those moments.

Alan Wake may not be the perfect experience that I was hoping for, but it came so very close in so many ways. If you can make it through the drudgery of the first couple of hours you’ll be rewarded with an experience that sticks with you after all is said and done, even if you miss the last line of the game (like I did).

8/10

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  • PSIress

    Nice review, I can't wait to get my copy of this.

    I'm more excited about playing Alan Wake than I am red dead redemption.

  • Bagmup

    Game is awesome although the narrative gets annoying as it seems he talks in the third person a lot.

    Up to chapter 6 now and i find it hard to put this game down, i will definitely be going through again on nightmare mode, normal kicks my arse now and then so should be fun.

  • DoGM3At

    wow so its worth a second playthough?

  • NachosJustice

    Let me know what the last line is dude!

  • NachosJustice

    I'd totally play it again… y'know, if I didn't have so many other games to play.

  • NachosJustice

    I can't fault you on that one PSI, particularly if you like a decent story.

  • Bagmup

    Turtle Beach headset ftw

  • NachosJustice

    I put it to you that that is, in fact, a lie!