Saturday, November 6, 2010

Alan Wake

I originally started this article trying to explain why I like survival horror games so much, but to call Alan Wake a survival horror game is something of a disservice. Yes, it shares some similar characteristics to games in that genre (which I will expand upon later) but right on the cover beneath the title it says "A Psychological Action Thriller," which is really about as apt of a description as any. And as a psychological action thriller it largely succeeds, with sleek gameplay and a phenomenal immersive story that will have you thinking about it for weeks after the credits roll.

As a lot of people will remember, Remedy (the makers of Max Payne) have had Alan Wake in development for the better part of 5 years. Usually a long development time and frequent delays are the kiss of death, almost as if there's no way to stop the gradual buildup of expectation after a game is announced that usually ends up being almost impossible to live up to, even with no press whatsoever. Games like Too Human and Dark Sector are good examples of this, of games that took far too long to make it to market and didn't live up to their full potential. Thankfully, Alan Wake seems to have only gotten better with age, and some of the telltale signs of a long development time (like dated graphics or clunky gameplay) are not issues here.

The story is hard to explain briefly and not worth spoiling for those planning on playing it. That said, it's hard not to draw parallels to Stephen King (considering "Stephen King" are actually the first 2 words in the opening cutscene) although the story is a little more similar to John Carpenter's AMAZING 1995 Horror Film "In the Mouth of Madness". The basic plot is as follows: prolific horror writer goes to a small isolated town to get away from it all and get inspiration from his new book, things in the town start to go to hell, and his book starts coming to life in true Lovecraftian fashion. Crazed villagers, spooky forests manifesting untold horrors, and the idea of creeping darkness are what you'll find, and although they're not entirely original the story is crafted and paced so well it's hard to find much fault with it.

That's not to say everything is perfect, personally I would have preferred that the whole story have as much deliberate ambiguity as the ending but Alan narrates nearly everything that happens and you can find manuscript pages that foreshadow the events to come. It almost seems as if the developers realized their story might have been too high brow for widespread appeal and decided to dumb it down for the gaming masses, and while some people may appreciate the extra collect-fest this adds to the game others might feel that the handholding is unnecessary and detracts from the game's sense of immersion.

Going into this I really expected just another survival horror game and the hit-or-miss nature of survival horror controls in general, with games like Silent Hill/Resident Evil having clunky controls as a way to deliberately pace the experience, but Alan Wake is an action game by nature. Alan turns on a dime and the camera/movement is smooth and responsive. Light is your greatest weapon and your targeting reticule smartly piggybacks on your flashlight, which you use to burn away the defenses of enemies before finishing them off with your guns. Building on this the weapons are interesting and different, with flareguns functioning like rocket launchers and flashbang grenades that are capable of serious devastation.

The gameplay lends itself really well to the numerous and memorable setpiece moments. In one, Alan has to defend a huge outdoor stage from an onslaught of Taken (the game's enemies, think fast-moving darkness demon zombies) coming from all angles as he uses fireworks and floodlights to supplement his weaponry. If the controls were stiff this would be a huge chore, but the finely tuned combat makes it one of the most exhilarating and satisfying parts of the game. The game's other setpieces are just as good, and you'll probably find yourself wanting to replay the game to experience them again.

Graphics are good for the most part, with your flashlight cutting through the inky darkness that swirls through the forest, bathing the area in front of you with light in a believable and realistic way. The environments and vistas are gorgeous, but the character models are a little creepy. Alan's wife's face for example is wooden and lifeless, almost unnerving to the point that you wonder if it's intentional, and Alan's strange lesbian mullet seems to float an inch or two off the top of his head. The voice work on the other hand is phenomenal and the cast of characters are varied and well-written, and although the soundtrack isn't exactly memorable it does a good job of conveying the overall mood of the game.

Part of the reason why I waited to buy Alan Wake was replay value, generally speaking action games like this are usually short, 6-8 hour affairs. Alan Wake, to my surprise, clocks in around 8-10 hours but there's a decent amount of collecting you can do and with achievements you'll probably find yourself playing two or three times. If you purchase the game new you get access to the first of two DLC add-ons for free ($7 if you have a used copy), The Signal , which adds around 2 extra hours of content. The second DLC "The Writer" adds another 2 hours and costs another 7 bucks. The DLC is definitely worth it, as it wraps up the story nicely while leaving the door wide open for a second disc-based installment in the series, and collectors/achievement hunters will probably get 2-3 playthroughs of each as well. All in all there's a good amount of value for your money here, an above-average amount of length and replay value compared with other games in the genre, and considering you can find the game new for $20-30 it's well worth the price.

Alan Wake is not what I expected going into it, and survival horror purists will be put off by the fact that it's more of an action game, but if you're looking for a dark action game with a great story it's right up your alley. It's a real shame that the long development time and shared release date with Red Dead Redemption may have led to the game's lukewarm sales reception (only around 700-750k copies worldwide), as more people should experience what is unequivocally one of the most compelling and downright fun games of 2010. Here's hoping Alan Wake 2 actually makes it to stores, and in less time than it took for the first.

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