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Gaming: Alan Wake

The Andersons

If Remedy played Left 4 Dead 2 in 2009 they were probably a little annoyed with one sequence that does something very similar to a later part of Alan Wake, completely stealing their thunder in the process.

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As is pretty standard with the ridiculous Console Wars there were attempts made by some gamers to present Quantic Dream’s PS3 exclusive Heavy Rain and Remedy’s Xbox 360 exclusive Alan Wake as direct rivals, games competing in the same space and attempting to do the same things, forever kept from direct competition by being exclusive to rival consoles. Presumably it was because they were both clearly setting out to be atmospheric titles with a focus on story, Heavy Rain aping films while Alan Wake adopted some of TV’s style of storytelling. As games though they have very little in common, Heavy Rain downplaying interaction to give more focus to camera angles and character, Alan Wake playing pretty much like a regular third-person shooter.

The game’s core bit of uniqueness is the importance of light. With their vacation in Bright Falls interrupted by an attacking darkness that captures Alan’s wife Alice, it’s up to him to try and rescue her and stop it from spreading, and for the most part his torch is the primary way to do that. The game’s main enemies, the Taken, are local townsfolk who have been possessed by and cloaked in darkness that makes them unkillable, but by focusing his torch on them for long enough Alan is able to blast the shadows away, making the enemies vulnerable to good old-fashioned bullets. While all you’re really doing is wearing down an energy shield to be able to kill them the dark/light presentation gives it enough of a unique spin to make it feel different.

Guns are plentiful in the game, and while Remedy seem to delight in taking all your guns away from you time and again replacements are never hard to find (at one point you lose all guns and then in that same area are given a revolver with an infinite ammo source, followed by a shotgun with twenty shells in the very next room). Considering how few weapon types there are in the game it seems taking them is about giving you something to collect again so that you aren’t simply maxing out early and being left fully equipped from then on. At points the ready availability of weapons and what should be rare items like flashbangs seems to stretch credulity, as does novelist Alan’s proficiency with them (in narration and dialogue he mentions how he’s not really used a gun before), but by the end of the game all is sufficiently explained.

Barry

When first introduced Alan's agent Barry seems like typical comic relief, but later on in the game provides a genuinely welcome counter to Alan's grimness.

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As a shooter something the game is lacking is enemy variety. The Taken come in several flavours, regular ones who can throw a knife in addition to the regular melee attack, bigger ones who take more hits to kill and do more damage, speedy ones who hit fast but die quickly, and incredibly speedy ones who move around so quickly and are unhittable for so long that you’re more likely to just continue on than bother waiting to kill them. The only other enemy types are flocks of birds (with a character making the obligatory Hitchcock reference) and possessed objects that float into the air and fling themselves towards you (with Alan pointing out such things are common in Stephen King’s novels), but they aren’t interesting to fight and only really alternate between frustrating and dull. The Taken might have had a similar creepiness to the shibito in the Siren series, which were also possessed villagers going through old routines and saying innocuous phrases out of context, but Alan’s so good with weapons that they never have the same level of menace. They’re just bullet fodder to slow you down, and as feeling like you’re in danger is a major element of horror games Alan Wake is not a game that ever feels scary.

On a visual level the game really does nail the atmosphere in the many forest scenes, which mostly take place at night and are lit sparsely by Alan’s torch or the occasional light source, the surrounding fog serving to increase uncertainty about what’s out there rather than just being to limit draw distance. While Alan Wake does do its best to skip as many daytime scenes as possible (during which no combat can take place) there are still quite a few and during these parts all those atmospheric effects are lost, leaving a game that for the most part does not look particularly nice.

The story was clearly a big focus of Remedy’s when they were making the game, but after the opening sequence that sees Alan separated from Alice things stall somewhat, with some early chapters (the third in particular) feeling entirely pointless, the story going almost nowhere while Alan is given flimsy objectives to justify trudging through yet another lengthy forest area. It’s only from chapter four onwards that things really get on track, the game increasing the number of impressive set-pieces and moving the plot along faster, while also giving more time to some of the game’s best characters.

Best-selling horror?

A couple of the manuscript pages hint that Alan's success comes from writing stories about a character very similar to Max Payne, and provide a little treat for fans of Remedy's previous series.

(Click the image for a link to the source)

Remedy’s fondness for telling a story and showing off their writing and references to other media also means there are a lot of parts that essentially require the player to stand still while taking it all in. As well as regular cutscenes there are mini episodes of the Twilight Zone-influenced Night Springs that play on TVs and require you to stand still and watch, radio broadcasts that require you to stay close and listen (the sound fading at distance), and manuscript pages from a novel that Alan doesn’t remember writing, which he reads when you access the relevant screen (pausing the game in the process). They’re all optional but they’re part of the game, so skipping them feels like missing out on something.

The manuscript pages are an interesting idea in that they tell Alan what’s coming up, enemies he’s going to face or things he will experience, essentially providing little spoilers. Making them optional collectibles means that Alan never actually does anything with the information they provide (which would require recording different dialogue and changing cutscenes), meaning even when he’s told what happens he still goes along with it anyway and seems just as surprised. Even when it mentions a friend getting in danger he doesn’t warn them, which for the most part renders them completely pointless, like they needed something in the game that incorporated Alan being a writer but couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it.

In fact it’s only right near the end of the game where Remedy do anything novel with the writer idea within the game itself (ie. not part of the story), and if used earlier it could have been genuinely interesting. As it is the game ends well (both in game and story) but before that takes its time doing anything with most of its good ideas, repeating a lot of its location assets and enemy types over and over while never coming close to capturing the horror feel the game was aiming for. It’s still a solid shooter that tells a story worth experiencing, but otherwise it’s a game that falls far short of its aims.

Game of the Year 2010 Status: As the sixth game on the list Alan Wake places fairly low at number four, being a game that’s not bad but also not particularly excelling in any area. It currently slots in above the fun but rather flawed Splinter Cell: Conviction and below Heavy Rain, which also fumbles in some places and has a questionable lack of interactivity at times, but captures its targeted atmosphere well.

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  1. November 1, 2010 at 04:15

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