Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Review: Alan Wake

It’s been five years since Remedy announced Alan Wake for the Xbox 360 at E3 2005 and I was as hyped then as I was the last month of waiting. But five years is a long time, and if you’ve been waiting you probably want to make sure the wait is worth it. Well I was there on day one and played it through to the end, I’m here to tell you if Alan Wake is worth the wait.

Developed by Remedy
Published by Microsoft Game Studios
Platforms: Xbox 360

(Reviewed on Xbox 360)

Alan Wake is a Psychological Action Thriller which is a fancy term to describe a horror that doesn’t rely on grotesque monsters and gore as its main horror factor, instead Alan Wake uses the raw fear of darkness and the unknown as its weapons against the player. The game takes place in the small town of Bright Falls in which Alan Wake, a famous writer, and his wife Alice has decided to settle for vacation in. Alan hasn’t been writing for over two years, he had some ideas for a new novel but couldn’t seem to get it started, along with that he suffers from insomnia and night terrors that make Freddy Krueger seem weak at times. This is where our story starts off, and it heads into unbelievable territories as it moves forward. Alice and Alan get into a fight, which ends in sorrow as Alice seemingly drowns from falling into the lake around the lodge they’ve rented, Alan in an attempt to save her dives into the lake but wakes up behind the wheel of his car, crashed, on the side of a cliff. During his walk to find help he finds a page of a manuscript entitled “Departure” which was the novel Alan had intended on writing, and as if that wasn’t enough it seems that every word written on the page came true not long after he had read them.

The story is complex and it might be hard to grasp all of it at once, but there’s no denying that both the story and the storytelling is some of the best I’ve ever witnessed and experienced in a videogame and it’s one of the really strong points that Alan Wake makes sure to never drop the ball on. Among the supporting cast is Barry, Alan’s agent and best friend, who works great as a more light-hearted character to make sure the mood of the game doesn’t get too low. Barry succeeds in where a lot of similar characters fail in that you actually find the character funny and interesting rather than annoying like so many other comical relief characters. Tons of other characters fill out the cast, all of them well played and fleshed out in every way needed for the town of Bright Falls to feel alive in the way that Remedy have intended and it works very well. However, one of the most important things with Alan Wake was that it was promised to be scary as all hell due to its new definition of the horror genre. Thankfully, it delivers on that as well. Alan Wake is not only the scariest game of this generation; it’s probably one of the scariest games I’ve ever played.

One of the reasons for this is that the fear is evened out and divided, sometimes the environment is screwing with your head and makes you feel confused or unsafe and at other times it’s the enemies in the game that have you screaming or shiver in the dark. Speaking of the enemies, they are some of the most brilliant designs I’ve ever seen in a game. The main enemies in the game are known as the Taken, these are humans with a very small distorted look to them. They are engulfed in darkness and twitch and run around like crazy spewing out illogical sentences with changing tone and pace. It might not sound that scary, but when you’re sitting in a dark room at night with good speakers you’ll be as scared by them as I was. I won’t mention any other enemies in the game, as I would consider that spoilers, but they are sure to freak you out the first time you face them. To put it all short, in the aspects of story and atmosphere, Alan Wake is about the closest to perfect I’ve ever seen.

The game is split up between day and night sequences. During the day sequences, which usually last around ten to fifteen minutes, you control Alan as he walks around Bright Falls, talking to people and trying to figure out what’s happening to him. During the night sequences, which usually last around thirty minutes to an hour, Alan must fight for his life against the darkness around him while trying to get from one place to the next in order to save his wife. The only complaint about this is that I feel that the day sequences could have been a bit longer to allow for some further exploration of the town itself. The day sequences mostly exist as a visual change between the otherwise dark landscapes you’ll see a lot of. However since the night sequences work very well it’s not a major issue at all.

The gameplay stays true to the story of the game by having the idea of bringing light to darkness as its main goal. The enemies in the game must be lit upon by any source of light until they are weakened to the point that you can kill them. The concept is quite similar to that of Alone in the Dark: Inferno in which the enemies could only be killed if you managed to set them on fire. However, unlike AITD, light is always available as your flashlight or lantern never loses its light even though there are batteries that you can use to quickly recharge the flashlight’s “charge” mechanic in which you slows down Alan’s movement but charges the light from the flashlight. People who have played Obscure will remember this concept as a key element from that game, though it works much better in Alan Wake due to its simple controls and great aiming system.

In fact, a lot of the gameplay and style in Alan Wake seems borrowed and improved from a lot of other games. Aside from what I’ve mentioned there are numerous of similarities to Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, though these are without doubt coincidence due to the great differences of development and storytelling. But just for fun I could mention that both games have an author who is looking for a family member after a strange car crash that they can’t seem to explain to a female police officer. Other elements borrowed from the previously mentioned AITD could be the idea of having the game presented as a TV-series with episode selection with great “previously on” segments as well as the mix of cars into the game, although that works miles better in Alan Wake.

The length of the game is longer than the average game these days. My first run through the game took me about sixteen hours, and while I did explore a lot of the environment in the game, my main focus was still on continuing the story. In later runs I’m counting on the game to clock in to about eight hours, though a good speed runner could probably cut off a lot of hours of that time as well. I think the initial idea of the game was that each episode should take about an hour each, this has not been the case though, with some of the later episodes taking far longer than the early ones, not that this makes the game worse in any way at all, it’s just a way of framing in the story in different segments, which it does a great job at doing.

There are a lot of secret collectables in the game; I’d say it would be a little less than three hundred or so. These are divided into seven different categories and are placed throughout the game from the very first seconds to the very lasts. I have not been able to find all of them as of this review, but I’m quite close to finding the last ones. There are three different difficulty levels in the game, one of which is not available until you’ve beaten the game once, they are divided up quite nicely with Normal being just perfect for a first run and Hard, which was what I played first, is quite a challenge to a very fun level. However, the third level called Nightmare is just what it sounds like; it’s properly difficult for someone who wants a challenge further than Hard, although sometimes it can be frustrating to a great length.

While I’m on the topic of replay value I’m going to mention the Developer Commentary that is available if you’ve bought the Limited Collector’s Edition of the game. Its classic commentary similar to what was available in The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. There are also additional episodes coming as DLC, the first one is free if you’ve bought the LCE mentioned above, to bridge the story between the first and second “Season” of Alan Wake, a concept made to let the story continue while Remedy still can focus on developing the proper sequel. It’s a well thought out idea that cane have a great increase on the already good replay value, even though it comes with a price, but that is something that can’t be discussed until July when we get a chance to try it out for the first time.

Now let’s talk about the visuals, because they are a great part of the atmosphere in Alan Wake. The graphics themselves look great, especially the environment which is probably the best looking environment I’ve seen on any console to date and it’s obvious Remedy has taken a lot of time designing a detailed world to makes sure it feels realistic. The lighting is tremendous and I have yet to find anything wrong with it, the same goes for the animations which are mostly motion-captured. The visuals are not perfect though, the faces of some characters, such as Alice, look very strange and unrealistic and the lip-syncing feels very out of place and unnatural in a lot of the conversations. This is a shame for a game so close to what I would call the top of modern visuals. But I guess that top will be reached by some other game soon enough, we’ll see.

The game has a beautiful soundtrack from the main menu to the credits sequence. The combinations of original compositions that have both an epic and ambiguous feel to it with some classic songs from several points in time makes the already great atmosphere even more amazing. The voice acting is spot on for every character, I can’t say that I’ve found a single person who’ve had a bad actor or out of place voice, which says a lot since I always tend to find at least one character with horrible voice acting in every game, so this was a pleasant surprise. And the script itself is just as great, lending itself to the already spectacular acting in such a way that every line feels natural and far from forced.

These coming two segments I will devote to something I rarely do in reviews, I’m going to leave every attempt at being objective and tell you straight out what I think from a personal point of view, something that can’t be told with scores but only in words from the personal experience you get from the game. If you don’t want to read such “unprofessionalism” I suggest you simply skip to the final segment of the review and forget about this. Alan Wake was a game I waited for during five years, I still have my early issue of PC Gamer where I first read about it and since that day I’ve wanted the game. However, at the same time I was scared. The further into development it got the further I got scared that I wouldn’t enjoy the game and that it wouldn’t have been worth the wait at all. As you can probably tell from the review that was not the case.

In fact, I’ll dare to say that this is the absolutely best game I have personally played during this entire generation of games. The story mixed with the simple and fun gameplay along with such a wonderful presentation was just what I needed, a true masterpiece unlike anything I’ve seen from any developer during the last ten years. However, during the days leading up to the release of Alan Wake I expressed my fear of the small chance of the game actually becoming my favorite game of all time. As anyone who has viewed my profile knows, my favorite game is Shenmue II. Replacing such a game is something that is not easy for me to do, and I’ll say it right here and now that for the moment I have not replaced it with Alan Wake. However, this is a pending decision that I must think about for some time before I set it in stone. So yes, Alan Wake might be my favorite game of all time, but that’s just my personal opinion.

In conclusion to the review, I’d like to simply answer the question I asked at the beginning. Was Alan Wake worth five years of waiting? Yes, every long second of waiting was worth it. Good day to you all, enjoy this amazing game.

1 comment:

  1. Great review mate, I'm definitely playing this in a week or two. Gotta borrow it from a friend.