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Review: Alan Wake


I’ve always said that once I got my Xbox 360, my first 360 review would be Alan Wake. Well, after only a week of having my 360 and playing Halo: Reach multiplayer, I was able to squeeze in the entirety of Alan Wake, and finish it.

This was one of the must-buy games for me back in 2010 when I first heard of its gameplay and concept. You may remember that it was originally planned as a cross-platform release on the PC as well as the 360, but the PC port was eventually scrapped, making the game a 360 exclusive. As a PC gamer I was bummed out and felt that I was missing out on a great game. Now it’s 2011, and after finally getting my very own 360 I instantly jumped into Alan Wake with no hesitation.

During my initial playthrough, my first reaction was towards how great the game looks; since most of the game takes place at night, the lighting and the atmosphere was done exceptionally well, giving you that eerie feeling familiar to anyone who’s watched or played a survival horror game. It’s designed to make you feel the need to grasp onto your trusty flashlight and make sure you don’t let go. The darkness is the real enemy in this game and you can sense it everywhere.

A story worth exploring

You play as Alan Wake, a famous best-selling writer suffering from a 2-year writer’s block. He ventures to Bright Falls with his wife Alice for a vacation in the hopes of getting his creative juices flowing. Alan grabs a key and map for their rental cabin from a mysterious woman. While settling into the lakeside cabin, a cabin surrounded by a lake. Alan notices that Alice has set up his typewriter and writing equipment. Angered by the fact that she wanted him to try and write he storms out to get some fresh air. Suddenly, Alan hears a scream from the cabin and rushes to his wife – she has fallen into the water, and it appears that something is dragging her under. Alan jumps into the water to save her and suddenly wakes up in his car – he soon realizes that he was just in an accident. It’s dark, Alice is gone, and this is where the mystery starts.

Now I won’t write anything else about the plot, since the story is what really shines in Alan Wake. For the entirety of the game, I found myself sucked into the story, both witnessing and taking part in Alan’s struggles against the darkness. Unfortunately they don’t have the best character models to express the characters’ emotions better, but the voice acting in the game makes up for it by bringing what we need to care about these characters.

The game is divided into episodes, and the developers include “previously on Alan Wake” recaps, as if the player is actually watching an HBO mini-series. It’s a great addition that actually works well since Alan also narrates the story as you’re playing. The narration helps with the mood and setting the game it’s trying to capture, and can also give hints to the player. These hints are for the most part quite useless, since it’s obvious enough what to do in order to progress.

Although gameplay takes place mostly during the night, when morning comes you’re treated to knowledge and gossip about the characters in Bright Falls, and gradually develop a better understanding of the story as Alan tries to figure out what’s going on and get to the bottom of his wife’s mysterious disappearance.

The graphics, lighting, and sounds give that perfect horror setting

Remedy Entertainment and Microsoft seriously did their homework in setting the atmosphere of the game – I felt like I was experiencing a Stephen King novel. Aside from the promise of a great story, I knew I had to immerse myself in this game simply because of how it looked. During the day, there’s really nothing special, but when night falls it’s clear where all the effort went. Perfect lighting cuts through dense fog, and crafts elusive shadows to keep you guessing if there’s something watching you. Together with the soundtrack in the game and Alan’s verbose narration, it’s a perfect horror movie in the making.

The game’s visuals are fantastic, and they get even better as you fight the Fallen: how the lighting reacts when repelling the darkness looks amazing, especially when you use your flares to fend off groups of them.

Gameplay is linear and repetitive

Alan Wake is a linear experience; you’re basically going from point A to point B. There’s no backtracking, something you might expect from similar games like Silent Hill or Resident Evil. This game just forces you forward all the way to the end.

Now, it makes sense why the developers would go for a linear approach in such a cinematic game – it works well with the story. Regardless, it’s extremely straightforward for my tastes, and I was hoping for a little bit of exploration in Bright Falls. They created this amazing world, and I wanted to experience it a bit more. Instead, you’re meant to sit back and let the story unfold before you.

The gameplay in Alan Wake is just as unique as the story, but with its own problems that ended up bothering me all throughout. During the night, Alan goes against the Fallen, citizens of Bright Falls that have been taken by the darkness. They’re pretty much invincible until you expose them with a light source. Once you’ve exposed enough of them with light, your guns can finally hurt them. As you progress, you gain access to more light sources to fight off the Fallen. Aside from your flashlight, which burns batteries in a matter of seconds, you get a flare gun, flash bang grenades, flares, and more. Otherwise harmless sources of light are turned into deadly weapons in Alan Wake.

The combat system is initially great, but as you get to the midpoint of the game, you can feel it getting repetitive, and as you progress further it doesn’t get any better. The enemies you face stay the same all the way to the end. Sure, you get boss fights, like the darkness taking over vehicles to kill Alan, or poltergeist-like objects flying at you through the air, but aside from that there really isn’t much variety to be found amongst your opponents.

Another gripe I have is that even though the game cycles from one night to the next, during each new night you start with nothing. It’s like when the last night ended, Alan thought it was a good idea to throw away all the equipment that he picked up. I was playing it safe for the first few nights, thinking that I should save my two flare gun shots or my last flare for later, but then the segment came to an end and I reflected that there was no use in being frugal. Once it came time to face the darkness again, I’d be armed with only my flashlight – nothing carries over.

So basically, I feel it’s necessary to scratch the “survival” title off Alan Wake’s genre card, which leaves it as a horror/suspense game. There’s no sense of needing to be conservative to survive. Each night, there are always just enough batteries, ammo and flares lying around the night for you to pick up, so Alan is more than prepared. I never felt stressed that I had only one flare left going through the woods or five shots left in my revolvers. There’s always enough.

The game’s controls can be a bit problematic at times. There are instances where Alan Wake requires the player to jump from one place to another, but because of the clunky controls, falling caused me numerous nonsense deaths. There are some instances when even after I’ve let go of the stick, Alan still moves a bit, resulting in my falling or getting hit. The shooting mechanics work well, thankfully; it’s really just navigating Alan to where you want to go that’s the problem, and it doesn’t feel nearly as solid as the shooting controls.

The sense of thrill is also pretty bad in Alan Wake. The developers created such an amazing atmosphere, giving the player a creepy, scary feeling during the night, but the game always alerts you if the Fallen are about to attack. Where’s the fun in that? When they show up, the Fallen’s surprise attack has been ruined by a slow-motion camera shot of where the opponent is coming from, and this happens almost 90% of the time. Because of this, I’m never worried at all running around, since the game informs me if an enemy plans to show up. With that and the easy RT dodge system, I actually pity the Fallen when they try to jump me.

It’s good to have some sort of system to warn the player whenever danger is near, such as Silent Hill’s radio static to scare the player, making one look around frantically to see where it’s coming from. Here, they give you all the information you need to defend yourself. Where the Fallen is coming from, how many there are (usually), and the slow-motion shot of the enemy gives you enough time to plan your counter-attack.

Overall

Alan Wake was a good attempt. Most of my issues with it are relating to the main gameplay, which is sad. If it weren’t for the story and the amazing visuals, it would have been hard for me to finish the game. The developers had a great concept, but the execution fell short with its repetitiveness and not-so-scary encounters, thanks to the slow-motion shots of the Fallen. The game clocks in at ten hours, which is a perfect length for a game like this. If you want a horror game that will force you to turn on the lights in order to keep playing, I’m not sure if this is the right game. But if you want to experience an amazing story with great visuals, this will do.

Score: 75/100

Pros:

–          Compelling Story

–          Amazing atmosphere to create that perfect horror setting

–          Great voice acting, interesting characters

Cons:

–          Repetitive gameplay

–          Not-so-scary moments

–          Clunky controls

–          Game gives slow-motion shots of Fallen coming out of the dark to ambush you, making it unnecessarily easier

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