Thursday, 27 May 2010

Video Game Review: Alan Wake

Alan Wake, you say? Yeah, I remember that one. Hard to forget, really. Alan Wake / awake, right? That game from the Max Payne guys that doesn't actually exist. Vapourware, you know, a la the oft-cited Duke Nukem Forever.

Wait, what? It came out?

...well. Then, surely --- I mean, it's got to be a bit rubbish, right, taking that long?


Remedy Entertainment have been talking about Alan Wake for as long as there've been next generation consoles on the market for us to play it on. They've been alluding to it since before the iPhone was even mooted. Their noirish breakthrough efforts - Max Payne and its superior sequel - fantastic games though they were in their day, are old hat now. Developers have been condescending to a new generation of gamers for half a decade since Remedy announced Alan Wake, and given its unnaturally long gestation period, what's perhaps most remarkable about this game is just how thoroughly modern a product the Swedes have been cooking up.

Alan Wake is a bestselling author suffering from writer's block. The better to clear his head, he and his wife Alice arrive in the town of Bright Falls just in time for Deerfest, an annual celebration of... well, walking venison steaks. Alan just wants to take it easy, but Alice has other plans: she's brought her husband's typewriter to their ramshackle cottage on the lake, thinking the disquieting atmosphere might inspire him, and tells Alan of a clinic in the village which specialises in helping artists whose muses have deserted them. Needless to say, the author's not a fan of Alice's surprise, and they squabble.

And then the lights go out.

And all hell breaks loose.

That's the prologue in a nutshell. I wouldn't want to ruin any of the surprises the remainder of Alan Wake has in story - suffice it to say they are plentiful and utterly satisfying - but the narrative is pacy, clever and ultimately the thing that'll keep you coming back for more. Told through in-engine conversations with NPCs, manuscript pages you'll find scattered around the shadow-shrouded environs when you go down to the woods to play, and of course cut-scenes, the team at Remedy have, with more than a tip of the hat to Stephen King, crafted a brilliantly pulpy and self-aware tale divided into six distinct episodes that hits all the terrifying highs and lows of the very best in mediocre horror.

And it's a pleasure to say that the game between all the story bits plays to the narrative's very strengths. Really, we shouldn't have doubted Remedy: the Max Payne games were solid experiences through and through, and Alan Wake takes its cues from them. It's a third-person action adventure game, when you come right down to it; a shooter, mostly, with the prerequisite that you point your torch at any enemies before you can actually damage them, with its fair share of exploration to break up all the running and gunning.

It's as well, really. The action is great initially - though hardly revolutionary even then - but from the halfway point of this ten-hour experience on, the repetition entailed by a single combat mechanic, however polished and impactful, a largely unchanging setting and such a small selection of fodder for you to take down with your torch and pistol combo that it's positively short-sighted starts to shine through. Alan Wake is never dull, though. The beats of the narrative are perfectly spaced out, so much so that they serve to reinvigorate the experience each time it threatens to bottom out, and there's always one collectible or another to be found throughout the densely forested areas of Bright Falls you explore: manuscript pages, coffee thermoses in a neat shout-out to Twin Peaks, friendly chatter from an authentic AM radio host and several episodes of Night Springs, a gloriously awful take on The Twilight Zone.

Alan Wake is not without its faults, then, but a touch here and a touch there demonstrate that Remedy have poured a whole lot of love into this game, and between its wonderfully pulpy narrative which pits you against the world, good against evil and light against darkness, its near-enough unique episodic structure, its gorgeous looks and atmospheric audio, there's no shortage of things for those of us on the receiving end of the experience to love about it either.


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