Alan Wake is a survival-horror game… sorry, ‘psychological thriller,’ developed by Remedy Entertainment. It was released on the Xbox 360 back in 2010, but, with a little help from Nitro Games, recently saw a release on the PC. Boasting improved graphics, and a completion time of only five months, (working from the 360 code, of course), the game still has to face the fact that it is still a two-year-old game that might not transfer so well. Bearing that in mind, is this new version of Alan Wake worth your time and money?
Since ensuring that the PC version of the game surpassed what the 360 version looked like was a big part of Remedy’s game plan, it’s only fair that I talk a bit about the graphics, first: graphically… the game has these weird inconsistencies. The settings look really good: the buildings are well-detailed, the water rises, swells and reflects really nicely, the light shines in such a way that it cuts through the gloom in a heart lifting way, and the cut-scenes do showcase the PC version’s graphical update pretty well. The character models, though, don’t succeed quite so well. The faces outside of don’t look quite right: the defining features, cheekbones, chin, forehead, those kind of things, are over-defined, and give the faces a weird bumpy look. On top of that, the lip-synch doesn’t quite match up with the dialogue. It makes for a weird effect, and was present with the game when it hit the Xbox 360 two years ago, which serves to remind you that, even with the graphical update, you’re still playing a game that’s two years old. I can’t say for sure whether the graphical update exasperates the oddness of the faces, but I can tell you that it sure doesn’t alleviate it. It’s a shame, because Alan Wake tells a good story, but you’ll find yourself feeling a little disconnected from it, because the emotions the characters portray that should come out on their faces never look right.
When you’re not seeing people, the graphics are quite nice. Actually, the Taken (the game’s monsters) look pretty good too, but that may have something to do with the fact that their figures are shrouded pretty heavily in darkness, so you can’t see their faces. But the ironically named town (Bright Falls) looks really good, and so do the forests. Every. Last. One. The thing about Alan Wake is that it actually can create a really good atmosphere when it throws you in the forest. The problem is that it does it all the time. The game is split into six episodes, and for the majority of these episodes, the story always finds a reason (some extremely contrived: you’re supposed to meet this guy at noon. He doesn’t show up, so you wait until dark, at which point he calls you and tells you the meeting spot has changed) to toss you back into the woods. The story is actually really good, dealing with the split between the light and the dark. It distorts the almost primal fear man has of the dark into something tangible and murderous. As such, I would think that the city itself, with its stretches of dark streets, some places illuminated by streetlights, others by the dim neon signs of various establishments, the dark shadows thrown by the light shining through windows, would be a better place to tell its story. But, instead, you spend most of your time wandering through the woods with a flashlight. As I said, the atmosphere is done very well, but it feels like the game falls short of what it could have been because it sticks so firmly to that single atmosphere. There are glimpses of other moments the game could have made very well: for instance, at one point, you’re making your way through the abandoned buildings of an old mining facility, every now and again hearing the thud of footsteps, but this is only a brief scene before you’re thrust back into the forest again. It’s a shame Alan Wake didn’t try to expand itself a little bit: the game could have been much better if the environments varied a little more. Even something as simple as spending a little bit more time in the town proper would have made it quite a bit better.
As mentioned earlier, Alan Wake tells a good story. The titular character is a writer, but he seems to be experiencing some difficulty. Apparently, he’s been unable to actually write for some time. He and his wife go on vacation to a town called Bright Falls, in (his wife’s) hopes that he might find the inspiration to write again. Things take a turn for the weird, however, when Alan’s wife is kidnapped, and the town’s inhabitants are suddenly possessed by a strange darkness. As far as horror, (or ‘psychological thrillers’) go, it’s not really original, but that doesn’t make it a bad story. However, there is a divide between having a good story to tell, and telling your story well. Alan Wake is strong in the former, but falls somewhat flat in the latter. It seems as though Remedy just wasn’t one hundred percent sure how one goes about the presentation of a horror game. Atmospherically, as I’ve said, they hit it pretty well several times, but in presenting the story, the foul it more often than not. The most intrusive problem is how the camera is constantly pointed at objects of interest. Early on in the game, you come to a logging camp, and you need to climb a set of stairs. The stairs are broken, so you need to find an alternate method of getting up. You find a control panel that would shift a group of logs dangling from a bit of machinery into a position where you could use it to reach the landing. The power’s off, though. So off you trot, and once you find the generator, away goes the camera to point toward the control panel, which anyone with enough cohesion to play the game (which you’re probably doing, if you see that part), would be able to deduce by themselves. I know that particular example is a small gripe, but the game does it over and over. It draws your attention to the point of interest. Part of what makes a horror (sorry, ‘psychological thriller’) game good is the niggling feeling of helplessness. In a game like Amnesia, that was done through eliminating combat, necessitating the need to flee every time you came across a monster. In Silent Hill (2 and 3, aka ‘the good ones,’) this was done by putting your character in a position that they cannot or will not (here’s looking at you, James Sunderland), get out of. In Alan Wake, the devs bungle this by constantly pointing at your next object of interest. If the player bungles around for a while with no idea what they’re doing, then sure, offer them a hint. But don’t do it right off the bat. And it has a nasty habit of going into this slow-mo thing to point the camera at Taken when they appear. If your objective is to scare the player, do not let them know there is something coming up behind them. That way, the tension created through the atmosphere created by the game coupled with the sudden grunt of a Taken coming up behind you and burying an axe between your shoulders might make the player jump. There’s also a problem with Alan narrating events. In theory, this makes sense. He is a writer: that he is narrating these events as they happen to him seems almost natural, in a way. But the narration doesn’t provide any insight, as good narration would. Instead, you just hear Alan reiterating points that any fool could have figured out, or making observations that are so obvious that they’re almost laughable. My favourite of these was when I came across a couple of flashbang grenades next to a truck belonging to the city’s power company. Wake nonchalantly said “Flashbangs definitely weren’t standard issue for the power company.” Really? Alan, I’m not even sure flashbangs are standard issue for the police, my friend. I think that right there is S.W.A.T gear. Anyway, this poor narration is contrasted rather sharply by the manuscript pages. One of the collectibles you can find through the game are manuscript pages, which serve two purposes: one, they provide some background on some of the characters you meet and events that happen outside of the main focus of the story, creating what is actually an extremely thorough frame for what happens to Wake himself. The second is that it outlines parts of the story that haven’t happened yet, but only in brief. It supposed to mess with your head in the same way other horror (SORRY, psychological thriller) games would by placing something behind the player so that the moment they turn around, they’re startled by it, and immediately think, ‘I knew that was going to happen!’ In Alan Wake, they’re thinking ‘when is this going to happen? I know it’s going to happen soon. Isn’t it? Maybe it isn’t. Oh, wait! Is it happening now? … Nope…’ It helps to build the atmosphere of the game quite well, and, given its effectiveness, it really eliminates any need for narration at all, especially the extremely unhelpful one that’s in the game.
I also need to mention this, but I can’t really go into a lot of detail without spoiling, as it’s somewhat story related, so I’ll just be as vaguely informative as I can. Alan Wake has a dénouement. If you don’t know what that is, basically, it’s the part of the story following the climax, where the action begins to slow down in favour of concluding the events. A lot of games simply use the ending cutscene as a sort of pseudo-dénouement, concluding everything outside of the player’s control. But here, the very last chapter has the feel of dénouement written all over it, not begin quite as action-oriented as the preceding chapter. I can’t go into any more detail than that without ruining something, but suffice it to say, I was quite pleased to see one placed in the game.
Speaking of the action, the moments of reprieve are probably more enjoyable than they should be. Building on the story’s theme of light versus dark, in combat, you have to remove the darkness from the Taken with your flashlight before you can shoot them. While this style of combat is fitting, and actually kind of an interesting idea, it also gets extremely repetitive really quickly. There’s no real variation to it, and even later on, when crows are flying at you, and you have to remove the darkness from inanimate objects to stop them from moving about on their own, it all feels rather too familiar. The game does attempt to switch things up a little bit, by sometimes putting you in a position where you don’t have a gun, so you can’t fight, or you have no flashlight on hand, so you have to find other sources of light to remove obstacles from your path, but these moments don’t occur often enough, and when they’re over, the game devolves into another round of ‘run through forest shining your flashlight on monsters and shooting them.’
Alan Wake (either version) ultimately does manage to weave an interesting narrative, and at times has a generally good atmosphere, but it’s hampered by an overuse of similar environments and a system of combat that, while interesting at first, quickly becomes repetitive. If you’re into survival horror gaming, Alan Wake is definitely worth a look, but don’t expect it to reinvent the genre. The PC version features some improved graphics, and a few other tweaks that try (but don’t really succeed) to make up for the fact that it’s basically a PC port of a two year old game. If you played it on the Xbox 360, there’s really no point to buy it again here, but if you haven’t yet played it, and the genre interests you, it’s definitely worth a look. Here’s hoping the PC version of American Nightmare doesn’t take two years to come out.
Title : Alan Wake
Format : PC (Also on Xbox 360)
Developer : Remedy Entertainment
Publisher : Remedy Entertainment
Release Date : 02/16/12 PC (05/18/10 Xbox 360)