Though few of us can claim to be bestselling authors (and if you happen to be one and your name starts with “George”, please try to finish the next Ice and Fire book in under five years), most of us have certainly suffered from writer’s block. That empathetic premise to Alan Wake seems to stand testament to its development, as developer Remedy Games spent over five years on the game before finally releasing it on the Xbox 360 in 2010. Though the finished product received praise from critics and gamers alike, the overall poor sales resulted in a cult classic instead of a major new franchise for Microsoft. Now that Alan Wake has been released on the PC two years later, can the ambitious third-person thriller find a new audience?
Alan Wake is a bestselling author from New York suffering from writer’s block. His two year hiatus has delayed the publication of his next book, which has caused the famed writer to grow more irritable and solitary. In an attempt to lay low and get his mind off his work, Alan and his wife Alice travel to Bright Falls, Washington for a quiet vacation trip. After receiving the cabin key from a mysterious woman in black, the couple take residence at a solitary lakeside cabin, where Alice hopes that the scenic view and quiet atmosphere will be enough to inspire her husband to continue his writing.
In case the game hadn’t clued you in already with its eccentric locales, dark-garbed woman, ominously-named residence (“Cauldron Lake”) and Stephen King quotes, things quickly go wrong… supernaturally wrong, at that. After a sudden blackout puts him in a busted car with a week’s worth of missing memory, Alan embarks on a journey to find his missing wife while attempting to solve the mystery of a manuscript that he has no memory of writing. There is also the matter of the Darkness (no relation to the game series of the same name), an entity that takes hold of Bright Falls’ residents by night and has them attack the vacationing author.
These are just a handful of the mysteries and dangers surrounding Alan during the thriller/horror-inspired story, which pays homage to both written works (through the character’s constant narration of the events surrounding him) and television programs (a “previously on…” recap between chapters as well as closing each act with licensed music). The story itself is filled with interesting twists and turns, helped further with strong voice acting and music as well as visual design. Unfortunately, the facial work on each character is amateurish in comparison, to the point that the lazily-flapped mouths often don’t sync up with the dialogue, while the contorted expressions and body movements lead to far too many instances of uncanny valley.There is also the matter of the manuscript pages; littered about each area are a few pages from the mysterious mystery novel “Departure”, which eerily portends to events that soon occur in the real world. While the primary motive of this mechanic is to establish ominous tension, more often than not it simply spoils the scares before they happen. On the upside, the pages that focus on events and characters outside of Alan’s spectrum succeed in filling in the blanks in the story, but the length to which players must go to obtain these stashed story scripts leads to another problem detailed below…
Gameplay-wise, Alan Wake is a competent third-person action/shooter that mixes the opposing forces of light and darkness into a unique gameplay experience. Enemies that have been taken in by the Darkness (and are thus referred to as “Taken”) are invulnerable until they have been exposed to light. Using Alan’s flashlight as the primary light source, shining light on the enemies will eventually cause their shadowy barriers to break, leaving them vulnerable to gun fire. Through this simplistic-yet-satisfying concept, the flashlight becomes an invaluable weapon that works in tandem with firearms, though it’s important to be mindful of the limited munitions for both (guns take bullets, naturally, but the flashlights burn through batteries faster than Paris Hilton on a lonely Friday night). Though players are only given four types of guns in the game, the light-based tools are far more entertaining, including flares to temporarily keep the Taken at bay, flashbang grenades that are much brighter but no less effective than standard grenades, and flare guns that instantly vaporize dark enemies with the force of a rocket launcher.
Though the human-based enemies tend to get repetitive (mainly classified into three types: a standard axe-wielding foe, a speedy knife-wielding/tossing foe, and a lumbering heavy foe wielding a sledgehammer), the Darkness is capable of possessing inanimate objects as well. Everyday items, including vehicles, chairs, logs and construction equipment, can instantly pull a Poltergeist and start violently flying around to attack players. These random manifestations easily make up the most thrilling moments of Alan Wake, and will likely cause cautious players to tread carefully upon the next junk-filled location (even if the suspense is hampered somewhat by the slow-panning camera whenever an enemy encounter is about to occur).
Speaking of the environments, the game’s locales, whether it be day or night, indoor or outdoor, are still some of the most spectacularly rendered seen this generation. Before Skyrim, Alan Wake remained the forerunner on single-player locales, with every piece of shrubbery swaying realistically in the wind (and then violently whenever the Darkness envelops them). For a game where light plays a key role, the lighting effects are also some of the best ever seen, with every type of light source featuring its own volume and glow. Aside from the clunky character models, Alan Wake is still an impressive visual treat as it was two years ago, and those with beefy PCs can enjoy the subtle enhancements that a souped-up computer can deliver over the aging Xbox 360 console.
The biggest problem with the original still remains, however; while the narrative portion is far from perfect (aside from the janky character faces, the character of Alan Wake is a generally foul-tempered character who seems disgusted when an overeager fan praises his books - this might be an accurate interpretation of a real life writer, but it’s hardly grounds to create such an unlikeable protagonist), it still works best with the atmospheric gameplay… except when it doesn’t. As a forced incentive to replay the game, Remedy has tossed optional collectibles in the game.
Some of these collectibles, including radio broadcasts that update with the passing of the story and the Twilight Zone-inspired “Night Springs” TV episodes, work to bring players closer to the game’s established mythology. Other extras, including coffee thermoses and manuscript pages, are annoyingly placed off the beaten path, causing an instant break in immersion as players frantically fumble in the dark to fill up their Achievement lists (and even worse, there are manuscript pages that can only be collected in the “Nightmare” difficulty, the hardest difficulty that isn’t even available until finishing the game once). Let’s not even discuss the rather gratuitous product placement of Verizon wireless and Energizer Battery.
Though several of the game’s misguided priorities have prevented Alan Wake from becoming the definitive fusion of cinematic storytelling and traditional gameplay, the overall experience is still worth experiencing, especially for fans of the classic thrillers and mysteries directly referenced in the game (including Twin Peaks and The Shining). Aside from the graphical enhancements, the PC version also includes the two DLC episodes taking place after the main story (“The Signal” and “The Writer”), creating an even bigger incentive to finally the madness and mystery of Alan Wake’s vacation gone wrong.