• Review: Alan Wake

    Posted by DM Le Bray on May 18th, 2010 View Comments

    Back in 2001, Max Payne became the ONLY game I played for a solid month. The noir action, well-executed bullet-time effect, and graphic novel storytelling enthralled me.

    Now that same developer–Remedy Entertainment–has released Alan Wake, touting it as the next big cinematic action thriller on the Xbox 360. The game has already generated its share of buzz and is poised to be a big deal in terms of action thriller storytelling. But can it possibly live up to all the hype it has received? Read on…

    The Story
    You are Alan Wake, a crime novelist with writer’s block on vacation in the idyllic, waterfront small town of Bright Falls. Together with his wife, Alan is seeking escape from the pressures of deadlines and the New York City lifestyle. And maybe there will be a bit of inspiration in Bright Falls to help him out of his current creative lull.

    But Wake soon finds himself in a waking nightmare where his wife (and a week of his life) is missing, his manuscript (you know, the one he doesn’t remember writing) is becoming reality, and things possessed by “darkness” are trying to kill him. This isn’t blood and guts survival horror; rather, it is a psychological thriller where whatever is “taken” will try to kill you with their axe, scythe, or chainsaw.

    And that’s Episode One–a thriller cliché that is good romp but nothing new to the genre, and Remedy knows it. Nods to Stephen King, Twilight Zone and Hitchcock ensure: winks from Remedy telling us they’ve read the books and seen the shows. The story progresses with plot details doled out through each episode. Like a good thriller, there’s a mystery a-foot, and we won’t have all the puzzle pieces until the final scenes.

    The plot always thickens when an eye patch is involved.

    But beyond the story of Mr. Wake, Remedy is doing something unique to video game storytelling. Where Max Payne distinguished itself by using a graphic novel approach, Alan Wake is pushing video game narrative takes its cues from The X-Files, Twin Peaks and 24. Broken into “episodes” that tell a television series-style story arc, we’re encouraged to come along on with a writer trapped in a terrifying world that may just be of his own making.

    Unlike games that feel like blockbuster movies, Alan Wake is designed to be a comfortable “tune in next time” TV series. Fortunately for us, it’s like we’ve picked up the Season 1 DVD, so we can watch it all in one marathon go.

    The Gameplay
    Alan Wake a third-person action shooter. The controls are easy to pick up and the cinematic actions just as easy to execute. The simplicity of gameplay makes way for the story; Alan Wake is more about progressing the plot of this action thriller rather than combo attacks, character upgrades and XP grinding.

    And the action is pretty straight-forward: run, dodge, point flashlight, shoot, drop grenade, repeat.

    Early in the game, this pattern of action makes great cinematic fun. With every dodge of a knife (easily done with a button push) you get a slow-motion camera move that is massively satisfying. Followed up with a shone light (to burn away the “darkness”) and a couple of swift shots from pump-action shotgun, and you’re an everyman killing machine. Drop a flash-bang grenade and watch a group of foes disintegrate into nothingness. More please!

    Normally you want to run toward the light. This isn't one of those times.

    And yet, after repeating that approach over and over again with every new group of Taken that you encounter, the action becomes a tedious. “Dodge, flashlight, shoot” becomes just another “block, parry, kill” from my favourite game of last year, Assassin’s Creed II. Sure it looks cool, but after doing that 100 times I’d like some more flavour.

    The promotion of Alan Wake has made much of the light versus dark theme and related gameplay mechanic. Your trusty flashlight has an important role to play and is often more important than your traditional weapons because the light destroys the evil that possesses both people and objects. Of course, you can’t have unlimited light at your disposal and we can easily run out of batter power, especially at more challenging levels. The real frights in this game come from a dying flashlight that sputters out as the Taken advance with pointy weapons poised.

    Since we’re dealing with a game that’s focused on its story, the gameplay must be linear. Remedy demonstrates that good pacing requires rails and not a sandbox and it employs that here. The clear directions (executed smoothly, and almost naturally, through the character’s internal monologue) ensures the game moves as it should. This is a clear strength, but it also presents a weakness: eliminating any desire for replay. When you’re telling a story like this, though, replay isn’t a concern.

    The Graphics
    Alan Wake gets nearly perfect marks in this area with realistic set pieces and fully-realized environments. Sweeping scene-setting pans over mountains or through valleys have a great cinematic quality that are wonderful to watch. Directorial choices about camera shots are top-notch.

    Remedy excels at creating powerful ambiance within these environments that heighten the emotion of fear or anxiety. As the “evil” gets closer, the fog starts to close in with a depth and texture that makes the moonlit forest much more menacing. As with the plot, Remedy was clearly paying close attention when writers like Stephen King describe a malevolent mist. Sprinting through a forest thick with fog with gun and flickering flashlight in hand as you try to escape certain death is as exhilarating as it should be.

    Amazing set pieces in the deep, dark woods.

    The flashlight is one of my favourite visual elements and this game would have a serious problem if it didn’t work properly. Fortunately, Remedy has captured the image of the light that cuts through the darkness, diffused around the edges. This is not a game about big guns and a multitude of weapons, so the flashlight has to be brilliant and it does a great job of helping to create claustrophobic environments. I particularly love the lens-flare effect of the light as it illustrates how much of the darkness you’ve burned off of a Taken.

    One notable problem with the graphics seems to be a weird lack of syncing between mouth and voice. It seems all the more obvious because the game really does look quite good and most action is well-choreographed.

    The Downsides
    Remedy’s created a solid game that deserves good marks, but it is not without its flaws; flaws that may pop out even more because the rest of the game is so enjoyable. But there still are downsides to Alan Wake. (Warning: this is where DM gets a little artsy fartsy with his criticism.)

    While I may rave about the pacing of the game, it is prone to too many expository scenes that just have one character walking from point A to B to C as they listen to other characters talk about the situation in the town. Every episode starts slow and builds to a crescendo, but the slow parts can be so numbing after a great action sequence. No, I don’t want to drive the truck down the dirt road so I can jump out and listen to the radio in cottages along the way. A scene change, well-produced cut scene, or in-action exposition will do just as well. Don’t lull me to sleep with a walk through a trailer park as Mr. Yokel tells me about things I won’t care about later.

    Speaking of Mr. Yokel, who’s name I clearly don’t recall, there are so many characters in this game that are ridiculously one-dimensional and clichéd that I just couldn’t give a damn about them. Many are just there to share more exposition or shuttle the plot along. The high-strung-city-slicker agent, the honest-but-suspicious-sheriff, the awe-struck-naive-small-town-waitress. Maybe that’s the point. This is a thriller after all, but if that’s the case, let’s cut their screen time to a minimum.

    Why is it always a sleepy little town?

    In a world where there is rarely anything “new” in art, we have to understand that everything derives from something else. In Alan Wake, Remedy pulls liberally from existing horror and thriller stories with a few tweaks of its own. The editorial nod to true craftspeople of the genre is important because it lets the players know that the writers know their stuff–they know they’re pulling directly from King and Hitchcock. And in a video game environment that’s not done that very well up until now, Remedy can be forgiven for rehashing old stories. But… but, I just wish the writers had been more creative and original in the story, setting and characters. A quick description of the plot and you’re already thinking that it must be an adaptation of some book or movie or radio play that’s already out there. It’s one thing to acknowledge that we’re all familiar with the source material and build a story from there, but it’s another thing to just rehash old stories with which we’re all familiar. That said, perhaps Remedy isn’t interested in creating new plot when it can put us in the middle of an already existing scary story, but the clichés weigh heavy with me.

    Being a tale about a writer with a pre-written book that seemingly controls the story, the manuscript has a role to play. As Wake makes his way through the sequence of events, he picks up pages of the manuscript that either foretell future events or elaborate on the thoughts of other characters or activity happening off camera. While the glimpse into Wake’s future (e.g.: chainsaw baddie coming up or get ready to dodge train cars) adds to the suspense and goads you to play on, pages of copy that tell me about what other characters are doing just feel lazy in visual story telling. I don’t want to just read that the FBI agent is an alcoholic–I want to see it.

    Trust me, it's always better in the day time.

    And now, apropos of nothing, I ask the question: why are there demonic miners in the abandoned mine?

    The Advertising
    A few reviewers have already picked up on the obvious product placement that appears in Alan Wake. Some brands of note include Microsoft Sync (in Wake’s car), Energizer (all those batteries you need) and Verizon (the wireless provider for Wake’s smartphone).

    Do they add to the story? No. Do they make sense? Sure, they appear in context. Do they upset me? No.

    Product placement is hardly new in broadcast, but it is only a couple years old in video games. Many players don’t see it often (if at all). If Remedy could get extra dollars to make their game that much better, I absolutely support the choice. But, it has to be done well and in context. Remedy does a fairly competent job, but a lingering product shot can still ruin a scene by taking me out of the game. This in-game advertising certainly doesn’t lose any points for the game, but it could have if done poorly. But as long as you don’t make me sit through a commercial for Dove soap in your horror game, I’ll be ok.

    The TV Aesthetic
    I forgive the faults of Alan Wake because I adore the television series approach to video game storytelling. Breaking a story into self-contained episodes hooks me into the game. It forces the developers to have good pacing and craft a plot with digestible chunks that has the player hungry for more. Even if I didn’t quite care for Episode 3, it had a great “finale” that made me want to continue on to Episode 4 right away.

    This is the X-Files game I always wanted to play. Battling the paranormal, running through the woods with a flashlight and a gun, eluding federal agents… it’s the type of escapism a fan of the genre loves even if it is derivative of so much other existing material.

    Get in the rusty cage to go over the ravine. What could possibly go wrong?

    I also want to point out that Remedy is able to create good thrills without the over-the-top violence of other survival horror games (although, arguably, this is more thriller than horror). As Wake shoots a Taken, it evaporates into dust like vampires in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even if a character gets an axe to the head, the gruesome details aren’t shown but just implied. While these choices may just be to get a lower rating (ESRB: T), they feel just like choices made by television producers to accommodate a primetime audience–and, in my opinion, that’s much more frightening.

    The Bottom Line
    Alan Wake is an important game. It demonstrates a new way of video game storytelling that will likely be copied in the near future. Downloadable content has proven that people are willing to pay for games in smaller portions and Alan Wake proves that putting those episodes together in a slick “season” can make for a great game.

    Alan Wake isn’t particularly scary or thought-provoking but it looks great and makes for a fun ride if you allow for a few slow expository scenes. Remedy has given us one of the most engaging ways to enjoy a playable thriller and they should be commended for it.

    The Good
    Thrilling episodic pacing
    Truly creepy environments
    Easy to control cinematic action
    The X-Files game I never had

    The Bad
    Plot and characters lack creativity
    Little replay value
    Annoying lulls in the action

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