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SummaryI continued to narrate to myself, hoping the player would pick up on my hints.
The GoodWhat the hell is going on? This is some trend that’s going on with the games I’ve been picking up. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Heavy Rain, Deadly Premonition, and now Alan Wake. All four of them are story driven thrillers, three of them have a horror tilt, three of them include FBI Agents in various roles, two of them are inspired by Twin Peaks, and another two make heavy use of a flashlight. That’s just for starters, I could tell you more links between them, but I’m afraid I might end up in some sort of paranoid thriller myself. To be fair, each game I mentioned has a completely different approach to storytelling and gameplay. Now I get to see how Alan Wake stacks up to the others.
The game takes its name from the main character, Alan Wake. Alan is a famous writer who arrives at the small town of Bright Falls, in the hope of overcoming his severe writer’s block. It doesn’t take long before things get weird and his wife disappears. Now, Alan must battle the physical manifestation of darkness, find his wife, and get to the bottom of the strange happenings in town and the strange manuscript pages he finds scattered throughout his path. The game is very centered on its plot, which twists and turns. It’s told in equal parts through the manuscript pages, Alan’s narration, and character dialogue. Interestingly, while the plot is completely different, a number of allusions are made to Twin Peaks. In fact, along with Deadly Premonition, I’ve seen the log lady carry a pot and now a lantern. Where will she turn up next?
Alan Wake has a survival horror feel to it, but it’s hard to call it that since it constantly overloads you with equipment and it isn’t really horrifying or even creepy. Each level typically gives you a destination to reach, which you must do while being pursued by the dark presence. The dark presence is a force that can possess anything it wants but is weak to light. It makes for a pretty cool foe. It’s constantly trying to stop you by throwing inanimate objects at you or by blocking your path. Townsfolk unfortunate enough to fall victim to it must first have the darkness in them weakened by your flashlight before they can be killed by conventional firearms. It’s a fairly neat little gimmick, and some of the events are fairly thrilling.
The environments are certainly pretty. I found it interesting that you can usually see your destination off in the distance. It really gives the game a sense of scale, even though all the environments are boxed into linear corridors. It also helps that the draw distance is pretty far out and I didn’t really notice any pop-in. Indoor environments are equally well designed and, for the most part, believable. The lighting effects are also pretty neat. Beams of light are shown very brightly against the duller colours of the background, perhaps to better represent the strange war between light and dark that the game centers on.
For me, the biggest standout of the game was its soundtrack. While Alan Wake does employ the usual generic movie-style theme soundtrack, it also includes a number of licensed songs sprinkled throughout. Sometimes you hear them on juke boxes or radios, but one always plays at the close of a chapter. It’s not just the quality of the songs, but how well they fit the game’s theme and context. It was especially fitting to have David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” playing over the end credits.
The BadThroughout the game, you often come across pages of a manuscript that Wake insists he didn’t write. Some of them are hidden , others are right in your path. Every time you pick one up, you can read it to learn about the events of the game. Some of the things you read about have already happened, others are occurring to other characters off screen, and some of them tell you what is going to happen later in the story. The fact that the game spoils itself for you isn’t my problem though. My problem is how they only succeed in breaking up gameplay. Considering Wake finds himself running from stuff all the time, it seems strange to me that he should stop to look for pages from a manuscript. I had to laugh at myself when, at one point in the game, I walked into the room where a character was lying on the floor, dying, and my first instinct was to search the area for pages before advancing the story. I’ll admit, this is mostly my problem, I don’t have to find them, but it’s hard to resist.
Speaking of totally arbitrary collectable objects, manuscript pages aren’t the only trinkets you find scattered around the game world. There are also an anomalous number of thermoses filled with coffee throughout Bright Falls’ forests. What purpose do they serve? I wasn’t very clear on that myself, so I looked in the instruction manual to find out, only to find that they aren’t even mentioned. So I looked it up online. As it turns out, the only purpose these thermoses serve is as a goal to unlock Xbox Live Achievements. That’s right; they don’t unlock alternate costumes, concept art, or even trailers, the only reward you receive are two paltry achievements. Now, I don’t hate achievements, they offer fun additional goals for you to try, but including an in-game item that serves only that purpose is bullshit especially since it breaks the game’s flow to seek them out.
Useless pickups aren’t exactly a huge issue for a game to have, no matter how much they get under my skin. Still, Alan Wake suffers from even worse issues, the biggest one being its dull, repetitive gameplay. In the first chapter, you find yourself running down roads, through a forest, and in derelict buildings. Get used to this, because it’s all the game is. From beginning to end, you run through the same repetitive environments, fight the same handful of enemies, and pick up the same useless items. Cutscenes and dialogue break up the action somewhat, and every once and a while the game gives you a driving sequence, but the rest of the time you’re simply travelling from point A to point B. It’s not all bad. The combat is decent fun, to an extent, and the oppressive dark presence following you everywhere does make for some thrilling situations, but it isn’t enough.
Dull gameplay can be made up for by a compelling plot, but unfortunately I didn’t find Alan Wake’s tale to be all that interesting. It’s incredibly far-fetched without even attempting to make it believable, most of the characters are completely two-dimensional, and it moves at a snail’s pace. Really, there’s only enough plot to fill out about an hour but it’s stretched way out to accommodate the game’s length. Then to top it off, the game’s conclusion is unsatisfying and left open. They couldn’t have said “wait for the sequel or maybe the DLC” any more obviously. It isn’t bad, it’s par for video games at the very least, it just isn’t good enough. At its worst, it seems poorly written and sloppy and even at its best, it doesn’t make up for dull gameplay and the more I think about it, the more plot holes I discover.
Overall, the control is a little spotty. On numerous occasions I was frustrated by Alan ignoring my command to reload. On a few occasions, I found myself mashing the button to no avail, because he was, I don’t know, in the middle of a stopping animation or something. Speaking of frustrating, enemies seem to be specifically programmed to cheap-shot you. I’d swear that they constantly move to hit you in the back when you aren’t looking. Realistic, perhaps, but it’s really maddening. To make matters worse, the environments are extremely cluttered and I found myself getting stuck in a lot of places that Alan should be able to scootch through. This is only made worse by the extreme light/dark contrast and the fact that you’re almost constantly running from enemies.
I feel I should mention that I hit a glitch right at the end of the game that nearly prevented me from continuing. I somehow found a way to climb over a barricade that I was supposed to destroy, and as a result failed to trigger the next event. I don’t understand why something like this would happen, since I was even able to activate the next checkpoint before I noticed something was wrong. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more glitches such as this, since there were many places I was able to squeeze into that I shouldn’t have been.