Originally unveiled at Microsoft's E3 press conference five years ago and in development since 2004, Alan Wake, a psychological action thriller, has been a long time coming. After generating a great deal of excitement upon debut, the game's developer, Remedy, went silent - leaving gamers waiting patiently for years. Fortunately, Alan Wake is finally here. But has it been worth the wait? Well, somewhat. While the game boosts an intriguing story, a unique combat mechanic, and an incredibly well crafted atmosphere, there are a number of flaws such as inconsistencies in presentation and plot, as well as some repetitive situations that hold it back from being a masterpiece.
Alan Wake is a best-selling suspense thriller novelist who has been unable to write for the past few years. In order to regain his inspiration - which has caused tensions with his wife, Alice - the couple set out on a relaxing vacation to the small, remote town of Bright Falls. Within no time the peaceful getaway turns into a nightmare as Alice disappears and Alan winds up in a crashed car with no memory of the past week's events. It is revealed that the events unfolding around Alan match pages from a manuscript he supposedly wrote, but of which he has no recollection. The plot follows Alan's attempts to piece together the events leading to Alice's disappearance and to save her from the dark presence that has engulfed Bright Falls.
Overall, the narrative is successful in keeping the player interested and motivated to press forward. The game is split up into six episodes, each ending on a revelation that brings up more questions than answers, enticing players to continue. It feels a lot like Lost in that regard, especially the "Previously on Alan Wake" recaps at the beginning of each episode. That being said, it also suffers from the gripes many have with Lost, mainly that the ending leaves loose ends untied and holes in the plot - in particular, one character's back-story and motivations remain at complete mystery. This could be fixed in the downloadable episodes planned, so don't go in expecting everything to be resolved at the conclusion of Alan Wake.
Alan's narration of the manuscript pages, which are scattered throughout the environment, is the primary form of storytelling. The game heavily encourages players to seek out the manuscript pages, but reading them is completely optional. The pages offer a variety of insights into the narrative such as explaining uncertainties or expanding on past events. Others foreshadow events to come, often outright spoiling them. During the opening stages, foreshadowing manuscripts can be quite effective at creating a feeling of dread and uneasy anticipation. As Alan Wake progresses and players learn how to cope with the enemies better, these manuscripts lose some of their impact, becoming more of a spoiler. It's an odd predicament the designers have forced on the player - on the one hand, ignoring the pages will cause them to miss out on key explanations that tie the story together. On the other, reading them will spoil events that otherwise would've been surprising and off-putting.Along with the manuscripts, there are numerous other extras that add personality to the world and greatly enhance the story. By undertaking the limited exploration elements (the levels are very scripted and linear) players will stumble on radios and TV sets scattered throughout the environment. A local radio show hosted by one of the town's people is very charming, making the world of Bright Falls more believable. Turing on the TVs will put on "Night Springs" - a bizarre, Twilight Zone-esque series that lasts for a few minutes each sitting. They're a nice break from the tense action sequences and a worthwhile addition.
Aside from scanning the environment for clues, Alan will fight hordes of possessed local residents. Don't let the psychological elements fool you, this is very much an action game. Remedy have created a simple yet deep core mechanic for the moment to moment combat, using light as a weapon. A major theme throughout Alan Wake is the contrast between light and dark, which is reflected throughout the plot, environment and combat. The game uses over the shoulder, third-person shooting to take care of enemies. Players can use anything that emits light as a weapon or defense, flashlights being the primary source. Other options include flares, flashbang grenades, spotlights, and fires, just to name a few; in short, light is your friend. Using light restores health and eats away at enemy shields, allowing players to pull out your firearm of choice and finish them off. The "Taken" (possessed town's people) are very powerful, capable of ripping players to shreds quickly, so there is a genuine sense of dread once an attack begins.
Using light and dark as combat mechanic works incredibly well. Remedy have been able to tap into people's primal fear of the dark and instinct to seek out light. The main problem is the combat largely remains the same from beginning to end. Impressively, the game throws slight variations in each scenario which at times hide the repetition - especially during the opening half when you're still figuring out how best to dispense with the Taken. However, it quickly becomes apparent after a few hours that the same tactics will work throughout the entire game. Near the end it frequently feels like the fighting is dragging on, and it becomes more about wanting to experience the next plot point, than anything else. That being said, there are a wide variety of interesting, well paced set pieces over the course of the campaign, but marching through the same forests can get stale.
What doesn't ever get stale is the creepy, tense atmosphere Remedy have created in Alan Wake. Overall, the game's visuals are very impressive. The lighting effects are some of the best seen in a game, as the contrast between light and dark feel natural. For example, at night Alan's eyes will adjust based on his proximity to light - when standing in light the darkness will be difficult to see through, but once players step out into the night, it becomes clearer as Alan's eyes adjust. It's a small touch, but one that goes to a long way to immersing the player. The sound design is equally impressive. Licensed tracks for the in-game radio show and the credits help set the foreboding tone. The night setting in general is amazing. Branches sway and crack in the wind, shadows obscure the player's vision just enough to create a sense of uncertainty, and the dense foliage keeps them guessing as to where an attack may originate.For the most part the presentation is top notch - with one glaring exception, the animation. In particular the facial animations and voice syncing are shockingly bad. It's a real shame because this poor execution quickly shatters the otherwise great atmosphere. This is likely a result of the extremely long development time it took to make Alan Wake, as the animations already look years out of date. The voice acting is also inconsistent. Some characters are believable but the sheriff in particular comes off as monotone and bland. These issues don't ruin the presentation, but they are a reminder of how long the development process has been, as other games have greatly surpassed Alan Wake.
After completing the campaign, which will take most roughly 10 to 12 hours, there isn't much else to do, as there's no multiplayer. Diehard completionists can search the game for collectable items, some worthwhile and some useless. It's an odd spectrum of collectibles - for instance, the manuscripts fill in essential gaps in the plot, making a valuable reason to go back, but on the other hand the hidden coffee thermoses serve no purpose other than chalking up more achievements.
In the end, Alan Wake is a worthwhile experience. The premise draws you in and the fantastic atmosphere makes you want to see it through. Remedy did a great job implementing the light versus dark combat, but certain portions of the game could've easily been edited out, which would immensely improve the pacing. For the most part the presentation succeeds in creating an eerie, uneasy atmosphere, animations aside. Bottom line, I'm looking forward to the first episode of downloadable content.