The hype machine has worked overtime prior to the arrival of Alan Wake, and all sorts of rumours and speculation spread over the game’s actual design and genre. Now that Mr Wake can be found on store shelves, the guessing is over, and we have the final article, and everything is clear.
Alan Wake, from the creators of Max Payne is, contrary to popular pre-release belief, not an open world, sandbox adventure. Instead, what we have here is a very linear action adventure that spans several TV-like episodes, much like Atari’s Alone In The Dark reboot (don’t worry though, Alan Wake is far better.)
As the titular Alan Wake, the story plonks you firmly into pulp fiction horror, and as usual, I’m not going to spoil it for you, save to say that it cribs ideas from a number of horror staples, most notably from John Carpenter’s, In The Mouth Of Madness. In fact, so similar is the story, that this could even be a videogame spin-off.
Alan is an author suffering from writer’s block, and to try and recuperate from his wordless woes, he and his wife take a trip to the picturesque small town of Bright Falls. In true horror movie fashion, though, this seemingly innocuous town holds some truly horrifying secrets, and after his wife disappears in strange circumstances, Alan is inevitably pulled into them, and sent on a journey into the darkness, quite literally.
The game is played in third person, and you have to explore Bright Falls and the surrounding areas, such as coalmines, ghost towns and logging yards, to find clues to Alan’s wife’s location. Events are played out in two distinct styles. During the day, Bright Falls is a far more welcoming place, and you can converse with others and explore. However, not much of the game takes place during the sunny hours, and it’s at night that things get interesting.
Alan Wake‘s constant theme is the fear of the dark, a primal fear present in everyone. Not knowing what’s lurking out of sight is something that anyone can relate to, and the game plays on that.
When the sun sets, Bright Falls become a dark and dangerous place, and Alan is constantly under threat from a strange dark presence. This presence is able to possess townsfolk, shrouding them in darkness. These possessed yokels attack Alan with extreme vigour, and the only way to defeat them is to use Alan’s greatest weapon: his trusty torch.
Whilst the dark is the constant foe here, light is your best friend, and by shining light on enemies, you can destroy their protective dark barrier. Once this is down, you can then attack with normal guns and rifles to kill your foes. Hold down the left trigger while aiming at a foe, and you’ll turn the torch up to full, doing more damage. This uses up batteries, though, so you’ll need to use it sparingly.
This dark/light mechanic makes for some truly satisfying and engaging combat, and Alan’s extended armoury is a little different from the norm. The usual weapons like pistols, shotguns and rifles are here, but are complemented by other items usually used as defensive tools in other games.
Flares, for example, are a lifesaver here, and can not only give you breathing room, but can drain enemy darkness quickly. Likewise, your two most devastating weapons are not high explosives or rockets, as you’d expect in other games, but instead consist of flash bangs and a wicked flare gun. Flashbangs can clear out a whole bunch of enemies instantly, and the flare gun is truly epic, killing even the usually tough mini bosses in a single hit.
This altered armoury and combat system works really well, and the end result is something very different from the plethora of similar third person titles out there.
As well as using light-generating weapons to combat foes, Alan Wake also makes use of safe spots. Usually well placed lamps or lit safe rooms, these serve as checkpoints and safe areas where you can regain health and stock up on supplies. Occasionally, though, these spots may be powered down, and you’ll need to crank a generator into life to turn on the light. This can cause edge-of-your-seat moments when a group of foes is bearing down on you as you frantically try to power up the light (by way of a timed button-press mini game).
Whilst on the subject of combat, I should mention the enemy AI. Whilst foes do often tend to wander right into your torch light, enemies do also demonstrate some crafty tactics, such as flanking you from the darkness, attacking while you take on another enemy, throw axes at you from a distance, and some of the more powerful foes use other tactics, such as invisibility and high speed running.
It can be very challenging taking on multiple foes, but it’s always good fun. It’s also genuinely terrifying as, with low health, you desperately try to outrun a group of foes to make it to a safe spot, all the time hearing your foes grunting and shouting behind you. Trust me, you’ve never been so happy to see a light source in a game before.
Sadly, as good as the combat is, it’s also very, very scripted. Enemy encounters are always triggered by reaching a certain point, and because of this, you’ll soon begin to predict when and where you’ll be attacked. This takes some of the fear away from the game, but doesn’t damage it too much.
This level of terror is aided greatly by the excellent use of light and shadow, and the overall oppressive atmosphere. This feeling is perfectly executed, just like a good horror film or book, and you’ll feel uneasy for the majority of your time in Bright Falls.
The lighting really is impressive, and the powerful storm-like effect used by the darkness is very sinister and nerve shattering. When the darkness approaches, you always know you’re in for trouble, be it darkness-cloaked townspeople or poltergeist-like animated objects.
Alan’s adventure isn’t all on foot slogging and fighting, and occasionally you’ll get to drive a car or truck through the countryside. These sections are quite rare, and serve to break up the proceedings a little. At the very least, they function as a respite from the always perilous on foot sections.
While you’re exploring Bright Falls there are side tasks to attempt, such as collecting coffee thermos flasks, knocking over stacks of cans and collecting the game’s main item, manuscript pages. You’ll also need to keep an eye out for hidden secrets, denoted by bright yellow ink that’s revealed by shining your torch on it. These markings often lead you to hidden stashes of weapons and supplies, and so, are well worth seeking out.
The mix of combat and exploration is just about right here, and although they won’t tackle your brain cells all that much, some puzzles are present to break things up.
The switch between day and night is a well-executed idea too, and the sense of relief when you see daylight is palpable, but don’t get used to it, it never lasts long.
As I stated at the beginning of the review, Alan Wake is presented in a TV-style manner, split into episodes. After you complete an episode, you’re graced by some oddly out of place folk music, and on continuing, a “last time on Alan Wake” montage is played.
This is something that I don’t really understand, to be honest. If the game was sold as episodes, like Sam And Max or Monkey Island, then this would make sense, but on the same game disc it’s just not needed, and breaking up the game by pulling you out of the story only damages the immersion. It didn’t work for Alone In The Dark, and it doesn’t work here.
In the end, Alan Wake plays almost as well as it looks (and it looks very good, indeed). The mixture of adventure and well implemented and original combat makes for a truly entertaining and gripping tale, and the story, although a little crazy and unbelievable at times (Alan takes to gunplay far too easily for a tweed jacket wearing writer), it’s always absorbing.
It’s a shame that the game is as linear as it is, especially with the promise of open world antics earlier in the development cycle, and that combat encounters are so telegraphed and scripted, but this doesn’t stop the game from being a slick, polished action title that should please any survival horror fan.
Alan Wake is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.