At the risk of making so many bad puns about Alan Wake finally stepping into the light, away from the darkness of development hell – given the games central theme of light and shadow – we have to be honest and admit that it is somewhat of a relief to finally play Alan Wake. It has been five long years since its initial reveal at E3 in 2005, and in that time it could be said that the game has developed some sort of identity crisis. Is it Silent Hill? Is it Uncharted with a torch? Or is it something else entirely?
We’re not conspiracy theorists, but during the course of Alan Wake’s development there have been some fantastical stories of a studio ravaged with internal strife, and/or huge portions of the game being redeveloped or scrapped altogether. Then there’s the speculation of the not-too-reassuring hand of Microsoft Game Studios clasped on Remedy’s shoulders, a chilling squeeze digging into collar bones “encouraging” the game be finished with the race for second place in this generations console war reaching white-hot levels. The dark halls of alleged vapourware are a fantastic place to create any half-baked, completely-without-merit story, but as it turns out Remedy have it all in hand. Whilst we feel it important to discuss games in their wider context, what matters most – when all the smoke has cleared – is when the game ‘text’ is sitting in disc trays.
The concept of identity when talking about Alan Wake is interesting, because the game has an acute awareness of self – it absolutely has no reservations about what it is, and wears its heart on its sleeve with pride. It’s an unashamedly entertaining – if ultimately a little shallow – story about a single man’s quest to ironically discover a sense of self to call his own. The pacing and narrative structure is heavily inspired by recent television smash hits such as Lost, 24 and Heroes, and the plot is as absurd as any horror fiction writer has managed to pen in the past. Such shameless pilfering from the wicker baskets of other forms of storytelling would be unforgiveable if it wasn’t executed so well. Not a spoof, homage or a tribute – Alan Wake is a genuinely substantial attempt in bringing this style of narrative to the medium, and in this respect we highly doubt that you will play anything like it this year.
Whilst it is almost aggressive in pointing out what it aspires to be to the player, there is a risk that many will approach Alan Wake with pre-conceived expectations and will receive a perhaps not-too-pleasant surprise. It is striving to mirror popular culture – what it is not doing, is attempting to become some sort of post-modern, cult classic enigma. Those hoping for a delightfully cryptic, unsettling experience akin to Twin Peaks or Silent Hill are perhaps setting themselves up for a fall. Indeed, Alan Wake seemingly takes great delight in proclaiming itself as “A Psychological Action Thriller” across the top of its box art, but the truth is that – for the vast majority – the game is as psychologically thrilling as a trip to the dentist. There are one or two moments where the barometer raises to “visiting the in-laws” levels, but rarely does Alan Wake have the ability to unsettle or scare the player. Oddly enough, the game begins to falter when it remembers that it is precisely that – a game.
Sometimes the purity of an experience is in its simplicity, and it is within this methodology that Alan Wake operates. Missions within episodes are always a case of moving constantly forwards from point A to B, and all follow a similar pattern of a slow introduction with the “psychological action thriller” dial turn slowly upwards as the episode progresses. Combat quickly deconstructs to a strategy of pointing your torch at an enemy with the left trigger before shooting it with the right. Whilst it is certainly accessible enough, and free of the complications of Sam Fisher-esque gadgets, this lack of variety means that the system begins to unravel in the latter stages of the game.
One of the main criticisms why the game is nowhere as threatening or foreboding as it initially appears – at least from an aesthetics perspective, with fantastic lighting effects cutting through thick swathes of eerie gloom – can be aimed squarely at the shortcomings of the combat. Alan can’t run very fast for very long, spends an age reloading a gun and is a terrible shot, but is fortunately packing enough heat thanks to the abundance of weaponry lying around to make you wonder if the residents of Bright Falls were planning on invading nearby states in the near future. With enemies rarely – if ever – taking more than six revolver shots to kill, and flash grenades being ridiculously overpowered and in plentiful supply, there is never a sense of danger.
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