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Remedy's long-in-development and highly anticipated survival horror title finally gets the hands on treatment...
Sitting down to go hands on with Alan Wake for the first time, the only way to be fair to it is by separating the monumental hype from the game itself. Both Remedy and Microsoft have been guilty of bandying around words like 'revolutionary' to describe the game, but you've got to feel sorry for a thoroughly competent survival horror title that's somehow been mistaken for the second coming of Jesus. It's a bit like pushy parents gushing about how talented their son is as he steps up for a snooty piano recital, while all the poor kid wants to do is stay home and watch cartoons. It's not the little blighter's fault: he may be able to tinkle the ivories a bit, but he's no Mozart.
And Alan Wake is no Resident Evil. In fact, it has a lot more in common with the somewhat inconsistent history of a different survival horror pioneer, Alone in the Dark; not with respect to its innovations, but simply to its derivations. Since it's become evident that the once promised open-world Alan Wake (from way back at E3 '05) is not going to happen, attention has since shifted to the game's 'dynamic use of light' and 'episodic style of a TV series'. However, both of these features have been championed by previous Alone in the Dark iterations and, in fact, Remedy's recreation of these ideas isn't exactly what we'd call revolutionary.
Using the torch as a tool to effectively stun enemies and pin them in one place, while simultaneously using the torch's beam as an aiming reticule, originally appeared in Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare back in 2001. Likewise, splitting the game's plot up like the episodes of a TV series (complete with the 'Previously on...' sections at the start of each episode) was a concept employed by the more recent Alone in the Dark revamp from 2008. Granted, we've only played the first episode of Alan Wake at this stage, but from this experience we'd be very hard pushed to find anything revolutionary about it.
That's not to say that the game is bad though; not by any stretch of the imagination. Just that it may not quite fit the billing. What Alan Wake does appear to be is a solid survival horror title, which is a dying breed on current-gen consoles. Just like the receding stealth 'em up genre - the linchpins of which have turned away from pure stealth in favour of action (e.g. MGS4 and Splinter Cell Conviction) - survival horror games find themselves in a similar predicament. Resident Evil 5 was a prime example of this last year, so Alan Wake's determination to stay true to the purity of its genre is commendable at the very least.
Episode 1 is heavily scripted, without the slightest hint of tangential plot-arcs or faded remnant of open-world decision making. Instead, players role from one set-piece to the next, through bottle-necked environments where the suspense is dialled up and down accordingly, and plot twists that are dished out to move the game along and keep things interesting. Varied pacing is then added with the occasional mild puzzle, although it's fair to say that Alan spends more time fighting off the 'Dark Presence' than anything else. As we're sure you've guessed, this 'Dark Presence' represents the evil forces in the game, although certain embargo caveats prevent us from going into detail on the matter. The things that we are allowed to tell you about the plot are what you're probably already aware of:
Alan Wake, a bestselling writer of horror novels, is taken to the seemingly idyllic American town of Bright Falls by his wife in an attempt to escape his crippling writer's block. It's been two years since he last wrote a word but, when a nightmare starts to become reality and pages appear from a book that he can't recall writing, the line between reality and his deepest, darkest fears become harrowingly blurred.
If this game writing lark doesn't work out for us, then perhaps we've got a future writing novel synopses (your thoughts in the comments). All joking aside though, Alan Wake's story is nothing if not engaging. Remedy is clearly drawing the contrast between darkness and light much farther than most other survival horror titles by subtly weaving it beyond the game's environments and into its cast of characters as well. These themes represent everything from the eeriness of Bright Falls itself to the strain that's evident in the relationship between Alan and his wife during the game's opening scenes. Plot twists are spine-tinglingly scary during Episode 1 as well, even if you do already know what's around the next corner.
Despite its problems, there's no doubting the fact that Alan Wake is a bit of a looker (not the character; the game, although Alan the man certainly made us swoon a little as well), with visuals that expertly capture the landscape of America's Pacific North-West which Remedy is looking to emulate. Effects such as the widespread devastation that ensues whenever the 'Dark Presence' decides to throw a hissy-fit - slamming everything from cars to industrial hardware around the game world like ping-pong balls - are also solidly designed, while character models are amongst the best looking we've seen on current-gen consoles.
The dynamic lighting that's used throughout the game's combat may not exactly be revolutionary, but it's visually impressive nonetheless. Remedy uses it to denote areas of safety and replenishment beyond the reach of the 'Dark Presence'. Looking through the dark surroundings to spot these beacons of serenity forms a key gameplay dynamic, resulting in a simple yet effective way of orienting Mr. Wake without the need for a map on the HUD. What can both figuratively and literally be described as visual flare can also be found in one of the game's weapons (a flare gun), which is easily the most effective gun we used and even has a specific camera assigned to it that pans up from the action to an aerial view of the ensuing carnage whenever a shot is fired.
For much of the five years that Alan Wake has been in development, it's been under a media blackout where both Microsoft and Remedy have refused to reveal any details. However, there's no denying the fact that this blackout has been bookended by enough hype to make a certain 3D movie with blue aliens in it blush. While it's hard to see how the Alan Wake that we've played could ever live up to this much hype, there's no doubting the fact that it is a good game. It even has the prospect of becoming one of the best survival horror experiences on current-gen consoles, owing mostly to the fact that the genre has been severely lacking any decent titles in recent times. For the sake of positivity, this is how we're going to look on it for now and hope that there are more enthralling secrets to come from the world of Alan Wake.
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