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Remedy’s long-awaited opus finally touches down in Bright Falls and we have the definitive verdict...
Alan Wake is a writer, and not a very good one at that. I mean, sure, in the game’s fictional world he’s a New York Times best-selling author, but commercial success doesn’t mean he can actually write well (just read a Dan Brown book, for example). In trademark Remedy style, Alan’s voice forms a narrative in the game, consistently updating you on what he has to do next and precisely what he’s thinking about in the past-tense. But seriously, these grating monologues actually have more in common with English GCSE comprehension exercises than good writing. The fact that most of these sentences either start with the word “I“ or “The” makes you wonder whether Remedy wants you to identify the verb.
Put another way, the lack of variation in his writing style is shocking and, to put it bluntly, intensely annoying. It’s not just the constant voice-over updates either. As he strolls around the game world, Alan uncovers pages from a book called The Departed that he wrote (the twist is that he can’t remember writing them) and, once again, the same bland writing style is painfully present in the book’s pages. Alan constantly bangs on about how he’s been influenced by Stephen King, a writer known for his whittled-down writing style, but Wake takes this to ridiculous proportions. Where am I going with all of this though? After all, this is a game review and not a book review, but bear with me for a second.
In the game, Alan mentions how important characters are to a book, warning us that if a character says one sentence that’s out of place then the whole illusion is shattered. And yet Alan Wake himself is one massive contradiction. He can handle a gun like a card carrying member of the NRA and yet he runs like a 40-a-day smoker and jumps as if he’s got lead weights in his shoes. The lack of stamina sort of makes sense – he’s a self-destructive writer living in New York for crying out loud – but the aptitude with a gun doesn’t. There’s something Remedy is not telling us here. Either Alan grew up on a farm in Texas, or is secretly nipping down to his local shooting range where he harbours psychopathic fantasies about mowing down crowds of people.
The point is this: in delivering a character that has much more to his personality than the standard gaming archetypes (i.e. the blank-slate, generic protagonist or an all-American hero type), Remedy has raised the bar for itself – the developer has to make that character believable, not only in the dialogue, but throughout the gameplay as well (a la Bayonetta). It is to the game’s credit that we’re being so harsh about this though. Alan Wake does much more than most third-person shooters or survival horror titles just by presenting an original concept for its protagonist and setting. Bright Falls, the Pacific North-West and Twin Peaks inspired location for the game is immersive, and much of this appears to be testament to the game’s early development.
Initially pitched as an open-world game, Alan Wake has since been re-designed as a heavily scripted experience, although the open-world remnants have left much more believable surroundings and backdrops in the game’s wake than would have otherwise been the case. This, coupled with some superb direction in parts, creates a location that gamers can happily immerse themselves in. There are detractions to this in parts though. As an homage to the works of David Lynch, Alan Wake perhaps doesn’t go far enough at times. Some of the secondary characters are clear references, and good ones at that, but the game lacks the surreal and abstract touch of Lynch at pretty much every turn. Its particular brand of survival-horror is much more in-line with the game industry standard, both in terms of suspense and combat.
There are moments that’ll give you a brief jump, and some mildly eerie (which should really be a type of censorship rating) scenes of suspense and build-up, but the game rarely messes with your mind like Lynch does. In the closing sections of the final episode, shades of Lynchian madness begin to shine through but it's far too little too late as far as we're concerned. It's a conclusion to the story that leaves you with far more questions than answers. Some will say that this is veritably Lynchian; others will argue that it's a necessary cliffhanger for a game that bases its format on a TV series. However, we certainly felt that it left us slightly adrift after 10-12 hours of gaming.
The combat is built around some decent gameplay dynamics and controls, but severely lacks variation in the enemies. Alan Wake’s use of a torch as an aiming reticule, and light as a weapon against the Taken, is a differently styled and tricky enough combat method to keep things interesting for the duration. However, when you’re constantly fighting against enemies that usually break-down into one of two types (small and large – some with chainsaws and fish hooks; most with axes), it does take away from the experience somewhat. As the game unfolds, the Dark Presence starts to take control of inanimate objects (at its most extreme, a combine harvester), although this is usually more annoying than it is impressive.
The similarities between Atari’s Alone in the Dark series and Alan Wake is something we’ve spoken about on TVG previously – both the episodic TV format of Alan Wake’s levels and the game’s specific use of a torch are derived from various Alone in the Dark titles – but at least Remedy does a solid job of incorporating them (arguably to a more satisfying degree than Alone in the Dark managed, even if it was the trend setter). We weren’t terribly impressed by Alan Wake’s occasional attempts at puzzle sections though, in that you can count the amount of these attempts on one hand and doing so is probably a more complicated feat than actually completing the puzzles themselves.
Away from all the combat and puzzles though, each of the game’s six episodes (complete with ‘previously on Alan Wake’ recaps) start with about 20 minutes of exposition. In the first episode, this is where Alan enters Bright Falls on a ferry, while the second is a flashback to a night at his New York apartment. They are the periods of calm between the game’s bulk of survival-horror gameplay and, somewhat bizarrely, it seems as if there’s a touch of Heavy Rain in them at times. Despite the fact that you’re often taking part in fairly benign actions, the expositions actually manage to be engrossing for the most part (although the fact that there are doors in Alan Wake’s apartment that even he can’t open is as ridiculous as it is funny).
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