Alan Wake // Xbox 360
May 16, 2010
It’s mildly ironic that a title that tries its hardest to ape other mediums and thus transcend its own, is marred frequently by its insistence on incorporating run-of-the-mill videogame mechanics. Alan Wake is a cultural hodge-podge of influences, most notably the brash thrillers of Stephen King, but also finding time to riff on Ridley Scott’s adaptation of King’s ‘The Shining’, incorporating motifs from Alfred Hitchcock’s films, name-dropping authors from Raymond Chandler to Brett Easton Ellis, and aping the episodic format of successful TV series’ like Lost. But a bewildering array of meaningless collectibles that add nothing but artificial padding to the game length and solid but repetitious combat prevent this good game becoming a great one.
Alone In The Dark
A supernatural thriller with as many plot twists as the works of its main protagonist, Alan Wake is the story of the eponymous writer as he reassembles the pieces of the puzzle of the kidnapping of his wife, Alice. They are on holiday in the picturesque small-time town of Bright Falls, where Alice is hoping that the scenery change may inspire her husband to start writing again after a two-year barren spell. After learning of this ulterior motive, Alan is furious and storms out of their cabin on the lake. It’s at this point that the lights in the cabin wink out and Alan hears his wife’s screams from within. He rushes back into the cabin, only to see Alice fall over the railing into the dark waters below. He dives in after her… and wakes up bleeding at the wheel of a crashed car.
These sudden shifts in plot are typical in Alan Wake’s narrative, which constantly twists and turns to keep the player guessing. Constantly referenced by Wake throughout, in the form of him narrating his actions in the past tense, like in a novel, he acknowledges how the story apes that of a successful thriller that he himself would have written; full of red herrings, sudden revelations and cryptic messages. This is amplified by a clever episodic mechanic. The game is split into six chapters, each of which begin with a recapping of the key events from the previous chapter and each ending with a dramatic twist which propels the story forward, tempting the player to carry on and complete ‘just one more chapter.’ It works well, a device borrowed from many popular TV series which fits the pop culture vein that runs throughout Alan Wake’s story. It also lends itself particularly well to self-contained DLC, already confirmed by its inclusion as a header on the Start Menu, even if there is no DLC currently available.
Much of the game takes place in the dark, with darkness and light being the central motif underpinning the narrative and also providing the framework of the combat mechanics. As unlikely a hero as he would seem to be, Wake very quickly learns how to become an unerring aim with a pistol, but in order to use his firearms effectively he must first master an altogether more unassuming weapon – a flashlight. The enemies in Alan Wake are supernatural beings possessed by darkness called the ‘Taken’, and can only be wounded by bullets by first stripping away the darkness using a light source. The flashlight is the first of these weapons, with the left trigger providing a concentrated boost at the cost of some of the item’s battery life. Only once a Taken is fully shorn of its enshrouding darkness is it fully vulnerable to Wake’s munitions. It’s a refreshingly unique system for awhile, with the light beams also acting as the aiming reticule for Wake’s pistol shots, but its also a fiddly one. When the numbers of the Taken begin to increase and bear down on Wake with alarming speed, not only does he have to reload his gun every few bullets, but also replace the batteries in his flashlight too. Such inventory management may have been a mainstay of the survival horror series to date, most notably in the Resident Evil franchise, but this makes it no less frustating, particularly when the game is partial to spawning some extra enemies right next to you as you are busy stripping away the darkness from the Taken in front.
These frustrations are eased somewhat by the introduction of more powerful weapons, both conventional and light-based. The usual suspects are included of course, with shotguns and hunting rifles becoming your weapons of choice, but flashbangs and flare guns become the real heavy-hitters, each of which are capable of wiping out a whole slew of Taken in one hit. Wake can also light flares and hold them aloft to provide a moment’s sanctuary from the approaching threat of enemies; it’s harsh red glare providing a shield against the Taken, and often buying him enough time to fire off a few fatal rounds. Both the light weapons and the conventional firearms provide exceptional feedback – the stripping away of the darkness never gets old, and bullets land with satisfying, brutal force. It’s a unique combat system, but one that doesn’t introduce enough variety throughout the game’s runtime for it to be truly compelling, and which ultimately plays second fiddle to the narrative.
If You Go Down To The Woods Today…
Alan Wake was a long time coming, having been through no less than five year’s worth of development from initial announcement to final release. In that time, the scope of the project has mutated from a multi-platform open-world title to a linear, Xbox 360 exclusive, adventure game. But the legacy of its original incarnations can still be felt throughout. The gameworld often feels vast, even when clearly delineated the gameplay requirements of each chapter. It’s rare that you’ll come across an invisible wall blocking your path, and the driving sections which see Wake journey from A to B – whilst mowing down a few stray Taken – hint at an overworld much larger in scope than is necessary for the its final incarnation as a linear action adventure game.
It’s perhaps a little bemusing, then, that almost the entire first half of the game sees you running through woods. As a horror cliche, dark forests are as old as the hills, and it seems a shame that developers Remedy fall back on this setting so much in the opening half of Alan Wake, particularly considering how beautifully constructed other environments in the game are. Areas like the coal mine, and the Cauldron Lake Lodge, are exquisitely crafted, clearly displaying the talent of Remedy’s environments artists; it’s a shame then that these don’t feature more prominently in Alan Wake’s gameplay. The latter half of the game improves notably in this respect, as the streets of Bright Falls play host to the unravelling plot, where Wake is often accompanied by some of the secondary characters in the game, Sheriff Sarah Breaker and his literary agent Barry.
Barry turns in the best performance in what is overall a very solid voice acting cast. Overweight, and dressed in bright orange windbreaker and red cap, Barry is the comic counterpoint to Wake’s heavy-browed seriousness, who shows an inordinate amount of care for a cardboard cut-out of his favourite client and delivers such gems like “I think my tongue just took a crap in my mouth.” Down to earth, and possessing a more realistic amount of fear for the developing situation than writer-turned-superhero Wake, Barry is an everyman character that adds real believability to the supernatural story.
Anyone For Coffee?
It’s a suspension of disbelief that enables the character to be sucked in to that supernatural story, a plotline which is more or less par for the course in the horror genre of writing that Alan Wake is so desperate to reflect, but this is stretched to breaking point by the title’s most game-like inclusion – its collectibles. Some of these admittedly work well, plugging in gaps in the fiction and fleshing out character in more incidental detail, as in the case of the radio and TV shows that Wake can activate on his journey. The manuscript pages, too, are actually intrinsic to the story, even if they more or less spoil upcoming gameplay devices by exposing them in the paragraphs they contain. But I’d like to find out exactly why Alan Wake can pick up collectible coffee thermos flasks, of which there are one hundred in total, as he quests for his missing wife. Never explained, not rewarded (other than by the inevitable associated Achievement), not consumed by Alan, and somehow secreted about his person in their dozens, the inclusion of these collectibles is not only completely bizarre but also potentially ruinious to a tense atmosphere which is otherwise so painstakingly crafted. A perfectionist in nature, I was compelled to hunt every nook and cranny for these flasks, regardless of their useless nature, even whilst the game was trying to drag me onwards through its story, often resulting in completely unrealistic situations where I was still hunting around for cold coffee flasks in an abandoned cabin whilst the screams of a dying man could be heard upstairs.
Perhaps a leftover from the game’s open-world origins, the inclusion of the thermos flasks leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, savaging the suspension of disbelief and negating Alan Wake’s pretensions of transcending its medium in order to encompass film, fiction and music. Remedy should have put more stock in the tale it was trying to weave instead of padding out its game with tiresome collectibles, in the same way that Heavy Rain managed so successfully. In a title where narrative is king, meaningless collectibles serve only as distractions, useless trinkets for Achievement whores which actually detract from the experience as a whole.
Bestseller Or Bargain Bin?
In a period of time where the PS3 has delivered mature, story-led exclusives with great success, Remedy weighs in with its own take on the genre, this time as an exclusive on the Xobox 360. While its plot is a little more formulaic and cliched than the likes of Uncharted 2 and Heavy Rain, borrowing heavily as it does from the pulpy paperback thrillers of Stephen King, it still packs a hefty narrative punch. Its stand-out moments are as frightening as anything else on the market, and its treatment of light is both gorgeous and intrinsic to both its story and its gameplay. Set in a totally believable North American town, replete with trailer parks and county sheriffs, Alan Wake is very successful at drawing the player deep into its world and associated fiction. But its over-reliance on traditional videogame idiosyncrasies often overshadows its more lofty ambitions, leaving Alan Wake to be a short-lived bestseller, but some distance away from being a classic.