When Remedy pitched Alan Wake as something of a television series handed to players in episodic form, they weren't kidding. The game takes many cues from various films and TV series of the past; the kind that have reached plateaus of pure pop-culture benchmarks, and I'd be remiss to not mention the likes of Twin Peaks, X-Files, The Shining or even Evil Dead. But it does have its own flair, and this is probably strongest in the early part of the game.
Alan Wake's immediate strength is in its unique-to-videogames narrative, which borrows heavily from the aforementioned, with the added bonus of player interaction. The problem with this is, it seems the guys at Remedy, and Alan Wake's writer, Sam Lake, peaked the experience too early. Understanding this, however, requires a true understanding of the developer's overall intention, which is seriously admirable in the grand scheme of the game's inner workings alongside the arguably daunting task of pacing a game to reflect the static experience of watching events unfold in a non-interactive viewing environment.
The premise for Alan Wake, for those of you who've been living under a rock, sees a successful crime-writer at his wits-end. He's been unable to write for the past two years, suffering from an unmovable writer's block. His wife sees an issue beyond the creative impediment however, and so suggests a holiday in the mountainous small town of Bright Falls. When he arrives though, things turn from bad to worse as a mysterious blanket of darkness begins to haunt Wake, leading to not only the disappearance of his wife, but also an entire week of his life where he has no recollection of where he's been or what he's been doing.
Typical to this somewhat cliched setting, the town of Bright Falls - a fully realised environment for the game - is populated with quirky characters and that small town Americana mentality. Wake arrives there via ferry, and we're immediately introduced to the game's inner monologue narrative pacing, with Wake taking us on his journey, personally. He immediately sounds unnerved and uncomfortable, and this is easily accessible by the player as an extension of the game's foundation. But at the same time, Wake is weak and unyielding in his inability to HTFU; this adds a sense of initial dread - taking this guy through what is already being set up as a thriller is going to be no easy task. This is introduced when you first step off the ferry and into the local diner - controlling Wake is a bit awkward, and he doesn't *feel
* strong. Part of this seems intentional, and part of it feels like they're a bit behind the animation and control times over at Remedy.
Events unfold quickly in the game, and it's not too long before you're introduced to the ubiquitous impediment and essential gameplay device that will follow almost the entire way through. Darkness is essentially a character unto itself, along with whatever light you can find. It's safe to say you'll spend at least 90% of the game literally in the dark; your only tool (and weapon) is light, and it's in light you find solace, safety, essential items and strength.
Without giving too much away, for initial reasons unknown, townsfolk have been taken over by a dark presence; their bodies no longer functioning as rational human-beings, but rather vessels through which the darkness can puppeteer its chaos and destruction. What's more is it seems this entity and its minions want Wake, and he has no idea why. The malevolent nature of it however, is not always so direct; setting up moments or instances of divine complexity to ensnare the troubled writer, with the inclusion of various players in this twisted nightmare around him, who either end up savy to the threat at hand, or dead. It's an excellent concept in that the very darkness around you is essentially alive, and pissed at you, and makes for incredible atmosphere and a gameplay mechanic worth touting the game around alone.
If you've ever played Resident Evil 4, you're going to be reasonably at home with Alan Wake. The third-person controls are very similar (though the camera shifts on its own between being behind his left or right side, you can fix this with a click of R3 though), and combat is actually quite satisfying. Enemies are shrouded in the darkness, so getting a bead on them with your torch will wear it away, once you've stripped them of their shadowy shield, you can open fire, and most take between one and five or six shots to bring down, depending on the weapon you're using.
Unfortunately this satisfying combat can become tiresome with the game itself only offering a handful of weapons and even less enemy-types. This takes the scare-factor away quite quickly as everything can become a little repetitive in the confrontation sequences, and I honestly feel they just didn't capitalise on the light versus dark concept. It's a great system in place, to be sure, but only a portion of its potential is truly realised here.
Pacing throughout the game is narrative-driven, and it's actually not such a bad thing being led down a controlled path. There're plenty of wide-open areas for you to explore, and equally plenty of goodies for you to find. Chief among these are manuscript pages from a book Wake apparently wrote but has no recollection of doing so. When you find these, you can read them and pretty much prepare yourself for the event ahead, as they usually outline everything that's either happening to you, or about to happen. For the most part they're not overly in-depth, and the writing itself is pretty good, it's not Orson Scott Card good, more Dan Brown good, but serves a ready purpose for the game's overall narrative and lore. Beyond this are coffee thermoses, the usual weapons and items (Energizer brand batteries anyone?) and hidden weapons caches. You can also switch on radios and listen to radio programs, or televisions replete with story-driving images of Wake going mad in a room, or a Twilight Zone rip-off called Night Springs (which is just plain awesome). Finding all of these will net you the obligatory Achievements.
At the end of every episode, the game will pretty much end with a bit of a cliffhanger, or a hook for needing to get right back into it, and in keeping with the television show concept, these endings are always accompanied by a song, with the next episode always opening "Previously, on Alan Wake...". It works in the game's favour and there's really nothing like it in the videogame realm, I just think the intrigue peaks too early, and you're aware of the overall arc too soon.
From a visual stand-point, the game is lush and engaging. At night, trouncing through dense forest really is immersive through the game-engine, and the lighting is absolutely second to none. Wake's animations, as mentioned earlier, are rigid and lacking, while the facial animations throughout, and lip-syncing need some serious work (we're being told DLC will cover this). Aurally, the soundtrack is actually very good, and sets the game's tone and mood with ease, but at times the voice-acting is just a little on the annoying or cheesy side, and it's hard to work out if this is deliberate or not. As for DLC, we'll definitely be seeing it in the not-too-distant future, and the game's ending definitely leaves room for more exploration of the world Remedy have created here. It's just a shame it's over too quickly, the engagement peaks just a little too early, and the combat lacks any real variety or depth. Wake is a great concept and an enjoyable game, it just falls short of its true potential. Here's hoping Remedy keep their weight behind it though, and broach all of this for subsequent DLC or even a sequel.