Alan Wake prides itself almost entirely on its story. It’s done to such an extent that reviewing the game becomes pretty simple; let yourself become engrossed by the narrative and you’ll find a gripping tale wrapped up in some intuitive survival horror gameplay. Conversely, think the plot is one big farce and you’ll be running through a pretty boring forest for fourteen hours.
Alan Wake is an acclaimed crime fiction author who has been struggling to write his next book. The writer’s block has made him emotionally unstable and is also having some pretty nasty effects on his relationship with his wife, Alice. To try and clear the air and rediscover his creative mojo, the pair take a holiday in the back country town of Bright Falls.
After a disturbing night in a log cabin, Alan wakes up in the middle of a car accident seven days later. He can’t remember anything that’s happened, there’s no sign of Alice and he’s being attacked by several violent citizens possessed by ‘a dark presence’. The crux of the storytelling comes in the manuscript pages scattered throughout Bright Falls. They’re read aloud in a similar fashion to the audio logs in Bioshock and depict a new novel that Wake doesn’t remember writing. The story seems to be coming true before his very eyes, hinting that the writer has somehow foreseen these events.
Without giving too much more away, the storytelling is fantastic and improves upon many of the shortcomings found in the film and literature mediums. The small cast of characters are realistically flawed and very believable, with some excellent dialogue and interesting insight from the manuscript. My favourite relationship was between Wake and his agent Barry Wheeler; at the start of the game Barry seems like the typically annoying, dumb sidekick type – but by the end of the adventure he proves himself to be Wake’s closest and only friend. Breaking the game down into ‘episodes’ didn’t sell me on the concept of a video game TV series, but it helps with pacing and alerting the gamer when it’s time to put the controller down.
The core gameplay revolves around the concept of light. The taken are possessed by a shadowy veil, and the only way to unload some clips into them is by removing it first with your trusty flash light. Keep a source of light homed in on them and they’ll quickly stagger, presenting an opportunity for you to send them to the afterlife.
Firearms are restricted to a few revolvers, shotguns and hunting rifles, but it does a good job of emphasising just how crucial light can be to your success. Hand-held flares will blind all nearby opponents and give you some breathing space, while flash bangs and flare guns can empty rooms in one sitting. Rigging up street lights, search lights and hunting for new batteries give a fresh take on the survival horror model.
Coupled with the combat is a presentation that feels straight out of a nightmare. Bright Falls is a dark place with minimal sources of light, creating constantly harsh shadows that will have you doubting the safety of every footpath and corridor. The fog that hurtles in when you’re in a particularly dangerous area is just sublime and will keep you straddling the line between feeling fear and awe.
Unfortunately, Alan Wake relies on its forest scares a little too often. Just like in Dead Space, I feel that less is always more when it comes to fighting off enemies. When only a couple of taken attack Wake in each area, tension builds in between the encounters and the player genuinely fears their potential when they burst onto the screen. However, after the midway point the forest environments feel a little too tired and the number of enemies make them predictable. Each kill gives a little less satisfaction and you end up simply ploughing ahead for the next checkpoint.
There are plenty of collectibles to be found that embellish the experience of Alan Wake. Radio sets allow you to tune into the latest show from KBF-FM, giving further insight into how the dark presence is affecting the town. Television sets also broadcast episodes of ‘Night Springs’, a fictional show that hints at complex theories such as alternate reality. Coffee Thermoses and hidden stashes (hinted by fantastic wall scrawls that appear only when your torch is exposing them) means that there’s at least some reasoning for multiple playthroughs.
The ending of Alan Wake will annoy many gamers, as it (perhaps not surprisingly) ends on a cliffhanger, thereby opening up a whole host of new questions. I don’t really want to have to wait another five or six years for a sequal – if one gets made at all. Thankfully two DLC episodes are already in production, so we’ll have to wait with baited breath to see if it offers some kind of resolution.