Video Game Review: Alan Wake

Alan Wake Cover Art

Before I get into my review of Alan Wake, I’d just like to say that for the past 2 years, the gaming industry has been a huge disappointment.  Like Hollywood, game studios seem to be locked in a cycle of sequels, ripoffs, rehashes and, when all else fails, totally unfaithful treatments of comic books.  It’s been depressing.  Overhyped games like Spore,  Fable 2 and Assassin’s Creed 2 have failed to deliver.  Promising and engaging games like Borderlands lose some of their appeal and impact when add-ons are released to the market only a couple of weeks after the full release.   It’s been a really dark couple of years for gamers.  Well, unless you’re content to just keep shoveling money at Activision for the latest comically half-assed installment of CoD.  When the ratio of crap games to worthwhile ones reaches a certain point, it’s hard to keep track of the good ones.

It is perhaps because of this low signal to noise ratio that I hadn’t even heard of Alan Wake until almost a month after its release.  There was either very little pre-release hype or I was just oblivious to it.  It wasn’t until I noticed a friend of mine playing it that I was even aware of it.  if not for him, I never would have tried it, and that would have been a crime.

Alan Wake is a successful writer with a massive case of writer’s block.  After killing off the main character of a hugely popular crime series, he found himself unable to write.  We are introduced to his character 2 years removed from his last publication as he sets off on a vacation with his wife to the idyllic setting of Bright Falls.  Bright Falls is a picturesque coastal village, set between pristine water and forested mountains somewhere in the Pacific northwest.  It is here that Alan hopes to escape from all of the reminders of his inability to create, including the incessant whining of his agent/best friend, Barry Wheeler.

The gameplay begins in the midst of one of Alan’s nightmares.  It’s here that we’re first introduced to the underlying theme of the game, light and darkness.  In his dream, Alan is stalked by a murderous, axe-wielding psychopath from a story he never finished.  A mysterious and very bright presence interrupts Alan’s dream to teach him how to use a flashlight to dispel the darkness within the creature, making it vulnerable to physical attack.  This simple mechanic is the basis for all combat in the game.  While the enemies become tougher and the light sources you discover become more powerful and spectacular (road flares, flare guns, flash bangs), the concept remains the same; use light to dispel the darkness so that you can defeat your enemies.

As the plot advances, Alan’s wife goes missing and he sets out to find her.  Elements of his nightmare become intertwined with reality, and the dark presence in his dream begins to influence more and more of his surroundings.  In the course of his search, Alan begins discovering pieces of a manuscript that he has written but cannot recall.  These manuscript pages give you glimpses into the future so you always vaguely know what to expect, and they also add depth to the characters and world that Alan inhabits.  Far from being spoilers or making the game to easy, I found these glimpses of the future only added to the immersion into the game world, as well as filling you with a sense of dread for what lies somewhere ahead of you.  I don’t want to give up too many spoilers, so I’ll go light on plot details, but the story blew my mind multiple times.  The writing in this game is incredibly good.  The voice acting is also excellent.  The only thing that slightly subtracted from the immersion into the game world was occasionally stiff and out-of-sync animations, leading to some instances of what my friend Mike calls “talking mannequin syndrome.”  Ultimately, it’s the story that drives the game.  You are never sure if you’re in the real world or a dream, and Alan never seems quite sure himself.

I found the presentation of the game to be refreshing and something I hadn’t encountered before.  The game is presented like a TV show, consisting of 6 separate episodes.  At the beginning of each episode, there is even a brief recap.   I literally laughed out loud in amusement as the second episode began with “Previously on Alan Wake.”  I found the layout of the game screen to be wonderfully uncluttered.  So many games these days come equpped with clunky HUDs or awash in too many icons.  The Alan Wake screen consists only of a health meter, a direction indicator and the ammo status of the currently selected weapons.  Weapons are easily switched with the D-Pad (Xbox 360 layout), while your flashlight is focused with the LT and your weapon fired with RT.  It really doesn’t get more complicated than that.  It might sound like an overly simple layout compared to the Rube Goldberg-like control schemes of many other games, but the simplicity is a blessing and much appreciated.  It allows you to focus more on playing the game and less on pausing it to find the game manual to remind you how to switch weapons.

Overall, this was one of the most engrossing, entertaining and fun games I have played in a long, long time.  When it ended, I was devastated, not out of disappointment but simply because there was no more game to play.  It doesn’t set itself up well for a sequel, and for once I am disappointed that we may not see another chapter.  I loved this game so much, I’ll give it just enough time for the details to get a bit fuzzy in my memory, and then I’ll break it back out and try it on a harder difficulty level.  I just wish I could erase the entire story for my brain so that I could experience the same “oh my fucking God, is that what’s happening” moments all over again.  My final grade for Alan Wake is a well deserved A+.  This is truly one for the ages, and gives me hope that the industry hasn’t completely gone to shit yet.

~ by schlippo on June 29, 2010.

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