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SummaryThis generation's "Eternal Darkness."
The GoodI’m a horror fan. I’m a huge horror fan. And one thing that I think is important above all else, is atmosphere. Hell, a stellar atmosphere can make up for shoddy acting or iffy writing. My favorite movie? The Evil Dead, hands-down. That movie has iffy acting during the first act, but I put it like this: Once the acting stops and the horror starts, it’s the best horror film ever made. My favorite games of all time? Super Metroid and Eternal Darkness. What do both of those games have in common? It’s the incredibly thick atmosphere.
What’s the point of this? Frankly, Alan Wake had my attention almost immediately. Its atmosphere is so thick, it’s damn-near spine-chilling. It’s so thick, it’s claustrophobic. It’s so thick, I swear this game actually weighs more than most!
Nah, that’s an exaggeration, but seriously, this game gets horror so right it had me hooked from the first seconds.
Alan Wake is the story of the title character, one Mr. Alan Wake, who is a highly successful author, mostly of crime thrillers. Alan has been suffering from writer’s block for two years, and with his wife, they take a vacation where things get pretty bleak pretty fast. Before long, Alan seems to have fallen into his own writings and his wife is taken by an evil force. Alan is able to see this dark force which manifests itself in the form of possessed souls called The Taken. The biggest weakness of the Taken? Light.
This is where this hyper-thick atmosphere rolls in. The game takes place, largely, in the forested mountains of Washington state—at night. Alan spends a lot of time trekking through the blackened forest, often armed with just a flashlight and a pistol. The Taken are often little more than black, wispy man-shaped shadows moving through the darkness. But they come in the guise of lumberjacks and small-town mountain folk and farmers. Sickles and knives and chainsaws in hand. They’re often revealed with a brief, dramatic repositioning of the camera, which then refocuses on Alan Wake so the player may make the appropriate hasty defenses.
Running through the darkness is eerie enough, but combat heightens the terror. Enemies must be hit with an often hard-focused flashlight beam to weaken them, then fired upon with the available weapon. The gameplay operates similarly to classic, early Resident Evil titles. Fleeing is common, especially early on, and ammunition is often scarce. There’s typically enough to get by, but that’s on the normal difficulty. Of course, even on normal difficulty, I still found moments where I ran out and was skirting death by a few flashlight batteries. The light slows down the Taken, and weakens them—but there needs to be a lot of powerful light for it to actually defeat any of these guys. Hits with a flare gun or flash-bang grenade will do the trick, but these aren’t anywhere near as plentiful as flashlight batteries and pistol ammo.
Item management is key. Thanks to the Xbox 360 Achievements and some other extras, I was often inclined to do a little exploring in that dark, eerie, windy mountainside. Digging around for book pages, weapons, items, and coffee thermoses (a collectable for the sake of a collectable) often did well to put me in dangerous situations.
Alan Wake’s story is heavily inspired by Stephen King (and maybe a little of others like Dean Koontz, who is like the “Disney version” of Stephen King) and his work. A frequent theme in King’s novels and stories is an author drawn into some fiendish story. Misery, The Dark Half, and The Shining to name a few all revolve around a writer. Alan Wake’s seems to draw quite a bit of information from The Dark Half including its frequent use of birds and an author dealing with a reality-bending situation.
Frankly, I love the fact that there’s finally a game so heavily inspired by Stephen King. We have so much zombie horror in this industry, and more than enough games with ghost stories, Japanese horror inspiration, and even quite a few with solid Lovecraft influences. Eternal Darkness, for instance, is very clearly and very heavily inspired by Lovecraft’s style and his horror stories of Cthulhu and “the ancients.” It’s been said, and it’s worth repeating: Alan Wake is the closest thing we’ve got to a Stephen King video game. For that matter, the story is fantastic. I was extremely happy to see that not only wasn’t the story easily predictable, but predictions I did have were routinely dashed, and the story continued to twist and evolve. Characters are generally likable and realistically portrayed, and fitting deliberate “authored clichés,” if you will, when appropriate. The voice acting is quite good, and the game uses cinematics in proper moderation, instead telling most of the story through gameplay, as it should be.
Though much of the game involves some kind of venturing out at night in the haunting forested mountains of Washington, there is also a surprising amount of variety to the gameplay and style. Wake may have to simply run to a safe, well-lit location. Part of one stage includes a tense run from police. There are puzzles to solve, and possessed items to defeat. Levels frequently have a dreamy feel to them, and it’s not always easy to know what’s real (story-wise) and what isn’t. Some stages are simply for exploration and story progression—taking place in daylight where the Taken can’t survive anyway. Almost every stage begins with Wake having to start over fresh with new weapons and items, and typically, the explanations for why he’s always starting over are believable and logical.
Besides the shadowy Taken, other enemies include possessed birds and possessed inanimate objects. Things ranging from tires and barrels will become possessed and lunge at the player. While fairly impressive, they’re nothing compared to possessed mine cars and vehicles that float and come roaring through the night towards Alan Wake to crash with an impressive thud into the ground.
Which brings to mind another aspect—the sound production here is phenomenal. This has one of the best audible atmosphere’s I’ve experienced, I dare say, since Eternal Darkness on the GameCube inspired me to crank my stereo surround sound ever-higher (until the police were called that one time—true story). The environmental sounds are moody and fitting, and used to great effect both warning of danger and heightening tension.
Couple that sound with some stunning graphics, and some of the best use of light and shadow in gaming, and this is one hell of an experience. That is, if you play it right—this is an atmospheric horror game. I only played at night, with the lights out and the surround sound cranked. I didn’t just play this game, I full-on experienced this, and amazingly, it all worked. The graphics, the sound, the light and shadows, the mood and atmosphere—everything is hitting all the right keys to create a beautifully rendered horror-thriller experience.
In fact, this is the game that Resident Evil 5 should’ve been. It’s haunting, it’s dark, it’s creepy and tense—it’s damn near the perfect horror experience, and such a rarity these days where everything is law enforcers and super soldiers and claiming to be a horror game in the guise of an action-packed first-person-shooter. And it pulls off this feat with a Teen rating? You better believe it. Besides the atmospheric sounds and tones, the soundtrack is quite interesting. There are a couple licensed songs and some songs written for the game, and amazingly, they never feel inappropriate. Some of them are even pretty good, and there’s a surprising variety to them including classic Metal, Pop-ish tunes, and Lounge-style music.
Control for the combat is intentionally fairly limited, but it works really well and is typically very sharp. Dodging enemies and escaping is possible and even a good idea at times—and there is a special dodge move in the repertoire. It is possible to be overwhelmed at times. While a debatable notion, I will defend the fact that there is no pop-up map screen. There is only a radar that gives the direction to the next obstacle. I defend this because the tension of being lost in the wilderness adds to the tense atmosphere, and besides that, only those of us wandering off a fairly clear beaten path will run into this tension.
The camera has minor issues (see next section), but for the most part, it’s enthralling to see just how often the camera seems to frame the visuals so beautifully. The camera is almost always perfectly framed on incoming action—a tree collapsing several feet ahead, police searchlights beaming through the haze, possessed objects slamming down right in front of Alan Wake, distant objectives cleverly framed during the gameplay, etc.—which adds to, not only the already outstanding atmosphere, but the cinematic feel of the regular gameplay. Rarely have I seen a camera system that seems to work so many beautiful dramatic angles. Think of it like how the original Resident Evil games were designed around dramatic camera angles—now picture that in a fully 3-D environment (rather than pre-rendered), with stunning depth added to those visuals. That’s the visual punch of Alan Wake coupled with often brilliant camera angles.
There are several TV’s in the game, and on most of them, players can watch a TV show called Bright Falls, which is beautifully inspired and designed around classic 50’s Twilight Zone. That old Twilight Zone series is one of my all-time favorite TV shows, and this was pretty cool. Inspirations from both Stephen King and Rod Serling in one great game? More please!
The BadHonestly, this game fires so consistently on so many cylinders that noticing the few bad items isn’t exactly easy. But there are a couple issues holding it back from true perfection.
On a few brief occasions, venturing through that forested mountainside, the camera planted itself with a tree between me and the action. While the issue could be quickly dealt with, I have trouble excusing this since cameras have for quite a while had the ability to “clear out” polygons that would otherwise be in the way. Alan Wake’s camera is typically pretty good, simply following as Wake is turned with the right thumb stick (similar to titles like Gears of War), and it’s clearly designed to work nicely through the environments to keep the action constantly well-framed. While the camera angles and views are excellent, stunning, and dramatic. Every now and then, though—bam—a screen full of tree with several Taken drawing ever closer.
While the majority of the characters are nice and fitting, and generally likable (for who they are), Alan’s best friend and literary agent, Barry, has a tendency to be a little annoying. His “big city” personality is pushed just a little too much. To be fair, he has his moments—but they’re somewhat few and far between.
Horror games tend to have a difficult problem to get around—and that because of their length (being video games and not movies), that it’s all-too-easy to get used to the scares and the gimmicks. Few titles—if any—can maintain the tension and scares throughout. I even got used to dealing with Nemesis in Resident Evil 3, and early on running into that jerk created all sorts of ill feelings. Granted, the atmospheric style of the game remains consistently strong, and the game does throw out some surprises, but seeing the Taken suddenly appear creates less tension towards the end of the game. On top of which, like the typical RE game, ammunition is suddenly much more plentiful towards the end.
There were a couple knuckleheaded moments in the game where there was no valid excuse for Wake suddenly starting over without any weapons or flashlight batteries. Usually the explanation was good, a couple times, not so much.
Not really much variety to the Taken—they’re always shadowy human figures with crude weapons. The only animals involved are birds. The coolest enemies tend to be the poltergeists and possessed implements.
The Bottom LineSo, in the end, I loved Alan Wake generally through and through. While the scare tactics did lose a little punch towards the end, the game remained consistently enjoyable and challenging straight through. The story is great, and again, it’s the closest thing we have to a Stephen King video game. The acting is typically pretty good, for the most part, characters are enjoyable and the music is great.
Honestly, I do believe this game is this generation’s Eternal Darkness, which handily remains one of my top games of all time. Granted, the style is entirely different—Stephen King here, H.P. Lovecraft there, but both games borrow generously with all the right influences from their respective authors. Each game delivers up a brilliant atmosphere, an excellent story, fitting moody music and environmental sounds. Both games also feature some excellent voice acting and generally likable characters.
Sure, Alan Wake falls a little short with one character that borders on annoying, and an atmosphere that loses a little more steam as it goes along. On top of which, Eternal Darkness also featured that outstanding and innovative insanity system which had enough variety to it to remain consistently fresh through the end of the game. Alan Wake’s core gameplay is not quite that creative, and controls a bit like RE4.
Then again, bear in mind that I’m comparing this game to a title that I consider the best on the GameCube—even with two outstanding Metroid titles, Rogue Squadron, the Resident Evil remake and Resident Evil 4. That’s like comparing a movie to Shawshank Redemption and saying it’s almost as good—that’s what I’m doing here with Alan Wake.
Finally, a word on the Limited Collector’s Edition: Nice. Okay, a little bit more. The soundtrack is CD is made up of 10 tracks, half of which are “orchestrated score” style music, and the other half are the original songs recorded for the game. Unfortunately, the soundtrack does not feature all of the music in the game. For instance, if it was licensed, it isn’t on there—there’s a Bowie song at one point in the game, but not on the disk. Still, it’s not bad and it has its high points. The song “The Poet and the Muse” by the “Old Guards of Asgard” (a band in the game) is my personal favorite. It perfectly captures the style of early 70’s era Heavy Metal with obvious influences from Stairway to Heaven and similar tunes. It also comes with a full-color hardcover book detailing the story from the point of view of a different author investigating the events of the game.
The bonus disk is really nice, featuring a host of items. There are three documentaries, every cinematic in the game can be viewed all movie-like (and run for about an hour), an award for your Xbox360 Avatar, as well as a list of screenshots and concept work over the game’s whopping five year development cycle. Some of the screenshots include side-by-side photos of real-life actors and the characters from the game for which they modeled. There is also a developer commentary track which may be installed on the Xbox and a list of, presumably, all the trailers for the game over its development cycle. Another nice feature is a Marketplace segment which features two Xbox 360 themes. Typically you have to pay extra for these things (and I finally replaced my Brutal Legend theme), so to have two themes included here is great.
So in the end, this is a fantastic horror/thriller title hitting pretty much all the right marks, and doing pretty much everything right for its story, characters, and genre. Frankly, I loved Alan Wake as a protagonist—for once, essentially, the “everyman” thrust into extraordinary circumstances rather than the super soldier, prophesized hero, or any other clichéd game protagonist. Alan Wake is a great horror protagonist, and again reminds me a lot of the “everyman” characters populating Eternal Darkness. Thoroughly enjoyable throughout, and highly recommended.