Review

Alan Wake

Come with us on a journey to the rural town of Bright Falls, as we discover its dark and deadly secrets.

By Liam Richardson on November 4, 2011

[gameinfo title="Game Info" game_name="Alan Wake" developers="Remedy Entertainment" publishers="Microsoft Game Studios" platforms="Xbox 360" genres="Psychological Thriller" release_date="14 May 2010"]

Alan Wake was a game that was tragically, like so many others before it, tainted by the curse of excessive pre-launch hype. There was a point in time that even I can remember when everyone went crazy over Alan Wake. Everyone was saying it was going to be the true next gen experience, a game so unbelievably mind boggling that anyone who witnessed its power would fall to the floor and weep tears of joy. This was in 2005. Compared to the games actual release, April 2010, that was some time ago.

Although the game has received mainly positive reviews from critics since its release early last year, each review always led back to one key sin that they just couldn’t forgive the game for, no matter how positive other elements of the experience were. It just wasn’t worth the wait. Worth their time, sure, but not worth the five year development period that is disappointingly associated with the game.

When something is in development for so long, I find it often overshadows any other aspect of the game itself and can quite often lead to bias. I’m stating the obvious here, but in what I will now mockingly coin as the ‘Duke Nukem effect’, critics and gamers alike will always split into two distinct camps whilst waiting for a long awaited game to be released. Those who lose faith and interest, and those whose excitement and anticipation will reach a fever pitch.

As a community, our most common misinterpretation is that if a game takes a bloody long time to make then it just has to be the best thing ever made by mankind. It just has to be. There’s no other reason why it shouldn’t be so. There a few examples where this is true, most notably everything ever made by Valve, but there are enough Gran Turismo 5′s and Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness’s out there to convince people otherwise. Still, we like to get excited and, bless us, it’s not necessarily something we can be blamed for doing. We follow an exciting industry, a one in which a ‘good things come to those who wait’ attitude is often adhered to by the majority of us. Our problem is how pissy we get when we’re not happy with how things turn out.

So when Alan Wake was finally released people were, understandably, a bit miffed. It wasn’t perfect, in fact it was a bit repetitive and a bit short, so critics shook their heads and passed it off as just another thriller title. A good one, but not the best they’d ever played. It was at this time that I was going through a bit of a gaming “dark phase”, a time where I was picking games up but not really playing them. My first pay check was spent on Crackdown 2, Red Dead Redemption and, of course, Alan Wake. I believe that if I was to have played Alan Wake back when it was still a bit uncool to do so, I would have been just as neutral about the whole experience as everyone else was at the time. But, I didn’t play it then.

Instead, it sat on my shelf for at least six months still in its cellophane wrapper, barely acknowledged and practically forgotten. Then along came my Christmas break, marking the end of not only my first term at university but a rare dry spell of gaming. At most, I’d played a few split-screen matches of Call of Duty and the odd Worms game over the course of three months…. A rare occurrence indeed. So there I was, back home and desperate for something, anything to get me back into gaming, good and proper, and that’s where Alan Wake comes in and rather delightfully, where my review actually starts proper.

A six hundred word introduction. Wow. That’s rather extreme. Extreme, but necessary. Basically, what I was trying to say was, I went in blind and devoid of expectations which is how everyone should experience Alan Wake. It’s why it’s important to try and convince you to play Alan Wake now or to play it again with new eyes. It needs to be experienced properly, when hype and expectation just aren’t a factor anymore.

I’ll start, as I often do when reviewing games, by diving straight into the negative aspects of the title. Alan Wake is a game about using light sources (primarily flashlights) and conventional firearms to kill enemies that have been possessed by a force known as “the darkness”. To say that the majority of the game sees you using these techniques whilst running through a forest would be a bit of an understatement as this is all the game consists of. Gameplay is not exactly Alan Wake’s strong point. It’s not a badly executed system of combat, certainly not, but it’s incredibly repetitive. Alan Wake is a game that relies very strongly on narrative, and if you’re not one for a good old story then I’m afraid that Alan Wake just isn’t for you. Those looking for an incredible, innovate gameplay experience should run in the opposite direction straight away. It’s basic, and it’s a flaw. I admit, I didn’t get much joy from the physical act of actually playing Alan Wake, but instead got my pleasure from treating Alan Wake as an experience.

Alan Wake is a beautifully written and completely immersive title that is unmatched by any other. It’s ground breaking in that it delivers a blockbuster experience to a console without any, some game play sections aside, loss of quality or pacing. The game itself revolves around Alan Wake, an anti-hero of sorts whose love life and career are slowly breaking down before his very eyes. In an attempt to save his marriage, Alan and his wife take a holiday to Bright Falls, a small rural American town. It’s here that his wife is kidnapped and held hostage by the “darkness”, which becomes the game’s primary antagonist. Waking up a week later from the night of his wife’s kidnap, Alan finds a page from a book he can’t remember writing. What is written, becomes true.

“Oh well that sounds all very well and fine,” you say, arms folded, “but surely this is all just revealed through cut scenes? I’m not prepared to play a game where the only experience is walking from A – B in order to watch some CGI shit…” Well dear, and rather angry reader, I’m pleased to tell you that narrative progression is primarily done through the use of collectable pages, found throughout the game, written by Alan himself and revealing key moments in the story well before they occur. It’s unsettling, it’s incredibly well paced and most of all it’s utterly breathtaking when it reaches its climatic second half. You find yourself scrambling to read these pages, as they slowly but surely start to reveal the horrific truth not only about the darkness that hunts you relentlessly, but about the town of Bright Falls itself.

The narrative wouldn’t be that impressive however, if it wasn’t for the location and the characters that inhabit it. The town of Bright Falls is incredibly realistic in its execution, and not unlike many rural towns I’ve visited myself. It carries with it a sense of beauty that is expertly contrasted with an overall sense of nightmarish fear. There’s just something not right about its endless forests, its abandoned mining settlements, its treacherous mountain scape and its naive, closed off community. Even though it becomes tiresome at times, running through familiar forests and killing a plethora of equally familiar enemies, there’s admittedly nothing quite as unsettling as darkened figures appearing from behind the trees, their axes raised and their intentions clear. After the first few encounters, you’ll start to fear dark situations. Trust me.

It’s the characters themselves that made it for me though. Alan is a dick, to be honest, but although he may not be very likeable it’s incredibly easy to be sympathetic towards his cause. He loves his wife, and he’s damn sure he’s going to find her. His friend Barry is a comic relief character that actually serves a purpose and the entire population of Bright Falls themselves are as diverse and as fleshed out as any in a video game.

I love Alan Wake. I don’t quite think I’ve enjoyed a game so much since Uncharted 2, and that’s certainly saying something. Alan Wake is as compelling as it is addictive, as beautiful as it is horrifying and as immersive as it is dense. Short in length it may be, but it’s an experience you’ll never forget.

I had no expectations of Alan Wake, when I began to play that cold December day.

I came away with a sense of pride, to have been a part of its experience.

Alan Wake is a great game that deserves your time.

The Verdict

-