Release Date: Out Now
We originally saw Alan Wake touted as a 360 launch title, and after five years or so in development the pressures and expectations seem to have gotten to poor old Alan, who is taken away by his wife Alice for a stress-relieving and writer’s block-breaking stay in the quiet town of Bright Falls. It’s not long before strange things start to occur, not the least of which is Alice’s disappearance from their idyllic lakeside cottage. When Alan tries to find her events get even stranger when both the cottage and even the small island on which it’s built vanish..
Whilst searching for Alice, Alan is attacked by a strange dark presence that throws huge objects (dumpsters, cars, trucks—anything really) around like the world’s most bad-assed poltergeist and controls townsfolk who appear to have been taken by it, and have been turned into menacing black-faced killing machines that throw knives, machetes and sickles, or just simply try to chop Alan into pieces with an axe or chainsaw. These frightening enemies seem to be invincible at first but you discover that they shy away from light, and you can damage the Taken’s dark power by shining any light source on them. Finding a flashlight you discover you can drive them back, and bright light sources (like streetlamps) act as safe havens into which the Taken won’t stray. This gameplay mechanic isn’t new and fighting off the flocks of ravens reminded me at times of Gears of War (when you fight off the Krill), but there’s clearly plenty of influence from pop culture all over the place and you’ll detect more than a drop of Stephen King, The Twilight Zone, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Alone in the Dark and naturally Max Payne running through Alan Wake’s veins.
Alan’s far from defenceless though and conventional weapons that are found scattered throughout Bright Falls (well, it is a hunting community) can be used to destroy the Taken. Weapons include a revolver, double-barrelled and pump-action varieties of shotgun, a hunting rifle and a flare gun that must easily be the most visually pleasing method ever of destroying an enemy. Alan can also light flares (hold RB) or throw them (tap RB) to drive Taken back whilst draining some of their power, or throw flashbangs, which act like shrapnel grenades killing all but the biggest, baddest Taken within range. The Taken are protected by a shroud of darkness, and shining a light on them makes their own personal corona of light get smaller. It takes a few seconds of careful aiming to completely drain this dark shield away and can be sped up by aiming/boosting the flashlight’s power with the left trigger, when it shrinks to nothing there’s a bright flash and then it’s wise to unload a few rounds from your chosen weapon into them, at which point they’ll pop, flash and vanish in a shower of sparks. It’s a visually stunning and very satisfying game mechanic that is used throughout the game—and probably overused—but is such fun and so well implemented that it never, ever gets tired. At times you will no doubt run out of ammo entirely and can only dodge (LB) thrown weapons; this looks amazing as Alan sidesteps to the left or right of centre of the picture and the thrown weapon comes straight at you the player—making a well-timed dodge look very cinematic! The ultimate weapon in the game is the flare gun and the ammo is relatively limited, but sometimes the camera will follow a flare to its target and this also looks marvellous as the enemy hit and anything near it are destroyed in an eye-popping flash of red light.
Once you’ve got the hang of the combat and as long as you keep topping your ammo supplies up, the game never gets too difficult on its default setting, and there are ‘hard’ and ‘nightmare’ difficulty settings if you fancy a real challenge or feel the need to play the game through more than once. There are several collectables and sub-challenges, and the game is fun to play, so it’s entirely possible that you’ll be tempted to wander around Bright Falls for quite a while.
The game is superbly presented in an episodic way that makes it feel like the various TV series’ (Twin Peaks, Lost etc.) that it was inspired and influenced by. The action is broken up well with manuscript pages to find and read and radios and TV shows to listen to and watch; these all act as ‘collectibles’ in the game too, so you’ll be seeking as many as possible out. There are 6 episodes with chapters within these which took me 10-12 hours to complete, and DLC episodes are planned for later in the year, the first of which will be free to anyone who has the redeem card in their box.
The game’s sound effects are excellent, and the voice acting is too, with some interesting song choices that play out the end of each chapter. The character models are well detailed and animated but I don’t really know what happened to their faces—they seem to lack any great expression, like the entire town had been to one of those Botox parties that people used to hold a few years back. Alan also wears the same odd outfit throughout the game, comprising of a stiff-looking tweed coat and a pair of even stiffer looking trousers, that must chafe terribly. He moves and aims well but isn’t very fluidly animated for some activities, disappointing as he certainly doesn’t need to rival Lara Croft or the Prince of Persia in the number of different possible actions, although picking up various items is smoothly done and the dodge move works beautifully.
And so there you have it, Alan Wake’s psychological adventure (it's not a survival horror game as such, so I'm going to call it an "Action Survival Shooter", or A.S.S. for short) is a good looking game with some stunning effects and memorable set pieces, and Bright Falls and the surrounding mountain area is, at times, beautiful to behold.
A game so long in development needed to be good, and it is, but I don’t think it’ll be winning anyone’s game of the year award either (unless there’s a special award for lighting) as its gameplay soon gets repetitious, and much like Remedy’s Max Payne games, it continually falls back on its one trick a bit too much. Despite a few driving sections that break up the action nicely and cover quite a large expanse the game lacks any genuine lack of freedom, and certainly isn’t the ‘massive open world’ game that was originally unveiled to us those five long years ago…
- Easily the best lighting/darking FX yet. - Fluid, fun combat mechanic. - Superb TV-style episodic presentation. - More episodes to come and the first one is free. - Nice scenery.
- Unimpressive character models. - Poor facial animation. - Samey gameplay and predictable outcome. - Not quite the groundbreaking game we’d hoped for.