Alan Wake Review (Xbox360)

Alan Wake wasn’t the game I expected it to be from all the trailers and footage I’d seen over its lengthy development cycle. Even when I’d seen the game privately demoed behind closed doors at E3 2009, I never quite realized until I played it that this wasn’t so much of a deliberately paced thriller as it was a full-on, set-piece based action game.

It’s strange, then, to see the gaming media compare Alan Wake to Heavy Rain. Both have put a massive emphasis on plot, but when push comes to shove Microsoft’s latest exclusive blockbuster has more in common with the Uncharted series than Quantic Dream’s ‘interactive experience’.

Bright Falls is full of spooky sights.
Stunning Lighting effects are constantly in play.

Strip away the storyline and Alan Wake is an interesting if slightly repetitive third person shooter which mixes guns with light, an overarching theme of the entire game. Enemies in the game are humans taken over by the darkness, and the dark energy which takes the form of a mysterious tar-like substance must be burned away from them with a flashlight, flare or other light source before you can shoot to kill.

The action in the game controls wonderfully, with the same slack character movement but tight aiming you’ll find in games like Uncharted and Gears of War, though here precision accuracy isn’t the real core of the gameplay – it’s more about crowd control, using light to deal with and hold off the melee-using enemies, with the shooting a secondary element.

In line with that the Left Trigger ‘boosts’ your flashlight, making the light more deadly to enemies but reducing its battery charge while the right trigger fires and the right bumper uses your secondary weapon – which could be flashbang grenades or flares. The flashlight is thankfully unlimited in Alan Wake, recharging when you’re out of combat, and in combat you can switch batteries to remain combat-ready at all times, though batteries are finite.

The Left Bumper sprints, but in combat it has a secondary function – dodging. Remedy’s Max Payne pedigree shines through here as most dodges will initiate a brief sequence of bullet-time, with the camera panning around Alan as he narrowly misses the pitchfork or knife he’s avoiding an attack from. It looks pretty damn cool, and the animation in these sections looks great.

The Max Payne effect continues in other areas, with sweeping camera movements when you pull out a flare or commit to other large actions in combat, though some of the most intense moments in Alan Wake’s combat for me came when I had next to no ammunition or flares, and I was left to run from light source to light source with a ton of enemies chasing after me – it gets intense.

As well as the regular flashlight, there are a few upgraded flashlights and other light sources – car headlights, spotlights, street lights and so on. The car driving controls are a bit floaty, but even that is still very solid, and it’s fun to run down enemies thanks to the power of a car’s headlights.

In addition to the shooting mechanic there’s some collectables to grab and things to collect. While a few are useless, most – like TV Shows, Radio Shows and Manuscript pages – provide you with something to watch, listen or read that fleshes out the town of Bright Falls, its inhabitants or help to clear up the mystery of what’s happening to Alan Wake – they’re rewarding to find.

Past the above, Alan Wake is all about the story. It’s not the longest story in the world, clocking in at about a dozen hours, but for those hours you’ll almost certainly be on the edge of your seat and desperately waiting for the next twist or reveal.

In terms of a summary, all you need to know is that bestseller novelist Alan Wake’s wife is missing, he’s missing a week of memories and he’s finding pages of a book he can’t remember writing – and the pages are coming true. Dark creatures are trying to kill him, a kidnapper claims they have his wife – and he’s trying to unravel the mystery.

The story is admittedly cheesy and hackneyed, but this seems to have been a deliberate decision from Remedy, with the game quite openly flaunting its inspirations of late 80s/early 90s thriller TV and slashy thriller novels, embracing the cheese of the medium and being all the better for it.

Flares can be used to keep enemies at bay.
Once light has burned away the darkness, it's time to shoot.

The narrative somehow manages to be self depreciating but thrilling at the same time, and the mystery of what has happened to Wake kept me playing while the script did a fantastic job of getting me invested in all the major characters, especially Alan and Barry, best friends and colleagues.

To further the TV or novel-based feel of the game, the action is split into episodes or chapters – six in total – with each episode ending with a big cliffhanger and beginning with a nice little ‘Previously on Alan Wake’ montage.

Each episode also ends with a musical number, and that makes this a good time to mention the soundtrack, which is a wonderful mix of licensed music and pieces composed specifically for the game, ranging from old country music that fits Bright Falls perfectly to the spooky strings you’ll hear whilst in the woods and, yes – a bit of heavy metal in a surprising but awesome section of the game.

Wake narrates most of his experience with a sort of internal monologue, and it only adds to that TV-thriller atmosphere the game exudes. While story is Alan Wake’s strong point, arguably the best facet of the game is in fact the atmosphere, and how it’s constructed a seemingly alive world out of the spooky town of Bright Falls.

That’s accomplished through the previously mentioned TV and Radio shows, which can be found and watched or listened to at set points in each chapter, but also through the in-game dialogue as Alan comments on things as he walks past them and banters with whoever he’s with at the time.

Bright Falls is an incredibly well-accomplished little backwater town, and it’s without a doubt one of my favourite game locations in years. The game gets a lot out of what it’s based off and where it’s set, and it really makes the most of the characters, setting and mystery at hand.

It’s difficult to talk about the story without spoiling it, but it’s an intriguing, exciting and awesome ride as it twists and turns and leads invariably to its exciting climax, which goes a long way to indicate a sequel is all but certain – no bad thing in this case.

The same little touches also make the gameplay more fun, too. You’ll find messages on walls that only show when you’re shining your flashlight at them, pointing you to secret areas where extra weapons can be found. Meanwhile, pages of Wake’s manuscript you find can be read and often foreshadow events before they happen. I knew I was going to face a possessed bulldozer before it happened thanks to the manuscript, and so I saved a few flares to help me deal with it – an awesome touch!

All that stuff is awesome, but Alan Wake still has flaws. The combat is repetitive despite being fun, and this isn’t helped by the variety of enemies being limited to four or five different kinds. There’s also objects that can be possessed and will attack you, like the aforementioned bulldozer, but the enemy variety leaves much to be desired.

The game is also remorselessly linear, driven solely by the story and nothing else. This, again, is similar to Uncharted, though Alan Wake lacks any multiplayer component unlike the second in that series. In a game where the story is as tightly woven as this, that can hardly be argued against, though.

In the dark Alan Wake manages to be one of the best looking Xbox 360 games around, with impressively realistic looking lighting and shadowing, but in the few daytime scenes there are it begins to look a little rough around the edges – thankfully most of the game takes place in the dark, where it looks fantastic.

Wake can get behind a steering wheel, too.
These things can be pretty dangerous at night. Really.

Alan Wake suffers from a number of problems, but in the grand scheme of things it’s a real achievement of a game, managing to do things with story that many other games have failed to do while also managing to have an engaging if repetitive combat system and an absolutely superb atmosphere.

Remedy have proved that they’re not just a one-trick pony, creating a game that’s starkly different to Max Payne but also deeply referential to it. The clever story, great voice work and presentation all work to sweeten an already sweet deal, and while it’s been a long time coming in the end it’s clear that Alan Wake was well worth the wait.

Best moment: The moment the mystery was unraveled through some awesome playable and non-playable sequences.

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By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on May 14, 2010
I was concerned that Alan Wake would too closely resemble Max Payne, but you obviously had this in mind too, Alex. Excellent review, and aside from the combat it looks to be an esetial purchase for any gamer with more than a casual interest in Action/ Adventure gaming.
By BoneArc (SI Elite) on Jul 26, 2010
a bit too dark for me ,so i will skip this one
By Wowerine (SI Elite) on Aug 05, 2010
Still doesn't seem finished, even after I completed the game... weird game bro