Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Alan Wake

Post-Launch Review
Alan Wake
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Released: May 2010 (XBox 360) / February 2012 (PC)


Alan Wake is a third-person shooter and horror game where you play as the titular character, a bestselling novelist on vacation with his wife Alice in the Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls. Alice disappears under mysterious circumstances, and Alan loses a week's worth of memory. As he searches for answers, he begins to stumble across pages of a manuscript he doesn't remember writing - and all the terrible events and dark horrors of the manuscript start coming true.

At Launch

Alan Wake received average review scores of 83%. Critics enjoyed the story and its pacing via the episodic format. The gameplay mechanics were highly praised for their ability to make the player feel alternately threatened or perfectly safe, along with some fresh and strong combat. Reviewers found the game's environments and lighting effects to be visually stunning, but the character animation to be poor. Some critics felt that while the game was strong overall, there were few memorable moments.

Post Launch

Alan Wake received 3 major DLC packs. Two, The Signal and The Writer, are bonus episodes that add to the story and bridge the gap between the game and a potential sequel. The third pack, American Nightmare, is a large standalone story addition that takes place after the main game, which may or may not actually be "real" in the game world.
The PC version was originally cancelled before launch, but was later released anyway. Hooray!
Alan Wake Bonus Materials released for free on Steam in December 2013, including videos, art, and documents from the game's development, as well as a soundtrack, sheet music, scripts and screenplays.
Remedy has stated that they're working on a sequel, and considers the first to be 'season one'.

The Good

Story & Manuscript
Alan Wake has some really cool plot points and ideas behind it, and they're well served by the overall story. I like the idea of Wake finding pages of a manuscript he doesn't remember writing. The idea of an author writing something that begins to come true has been done a few times, but this is a different approach. As you find manuscript pages you find hints as to what will come next, and you learn additional background information that you wouldn't learn otherwise - since the manuscript is written in the third person, you learn a bit about some of the other characters.
The ending works out pretty well and fits in excellently with the themes brought up in the story. Without spoiling too much, it's an ending that realizes that you can't just wave a hand and magically resolve all the loose ends. It also leaves room for more, and has an ominously ambiguous tone that suggests there's a lot more to the story.
Special Features
The Signal and The Writer are a two-part story addition, tracking what happens to Alan after the events of the main story. It's delightfully twisted and confusing, and portrays a fight for sanity and control better than most other stories I've seen that deal with the same issue. There's a bit less action than in the main game, but it works well and helps tell this particular story.
Graphics and the Pacific Northwest
The game's environments look fantastic, especially on the graphically-updated PC version. Not only is the level of detail and render distance great, but the region is also realistically portrayed. Forests look like real forests, not a random assortment of trees on a patch of grass.
Lighting effects are also excellent. I suppose you should expect that of a game that makes light a prominent gameplay mechanic, but it's still worth saying. Contrast is great, shadows work well, and the way light interacts with fog is pretty neat. Standing in bright light obscures your sight into the darkness. Flares are probably the best aspect of the lighting system, with the intensity of the red glow and smoke making them feel quite powerful.
Making combat feel dangerous and threatening is a challenge for horror games - you tend not to feel too scared when you've got flamethrowers and rocket launchers in your backpack. However, Alan Wake does a great job of it. Enemies are invulnerable to damage until you use your flashlight to burn away the darkness surrounding them. It takes a while to do this, requiring more time the tougher the enemy. This creates tense situations where you have to manage your time and attention carefully - if you're surrounded by five Taken, you can't just start shooting; you have to keep steady and burn them one by one, trying to dodge the attacks of those you haven't got to yet.
The use of light also does a great job of immediately letting you know whether or not you're safe. If it's bright out, you're safe. If it's dark, watch out. If it's dark and foggy, you're in trouble. Spotting a lone streetlamp and its warm cone of light feels very reassuring, especially since enemies can't follow you into bright light, and in fact they all disappear if you enter a proper safe zone, so making a break for the light becomes a viable and important tactic.
Of course, there are some powerful weapons that give you a bit of breathing room - flashbang grenades, hand flares, and the flare gun help a lot. But your supplies are limited, so it's best to save them for situations where you feel overwhelmed.
The game makes a lot of references to other horror media. Some are subtle and some are obvious, but all are great. There are a few directly quoted references to Stephen King, and a pair of major visual references to Kubrick's film adaptation of The Shining. FBI agent Nightingale frequently calls Alan by the names of other horror writers to taunt him - it's hilarious to hear him yelling "I'll get you, Stephen King! You won't get away, H.P. Lovecraft!"
By far the best reference, though, is the in-game TV show called Night Springs, a direct reference to the classic episodic horror shows The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. You can watch short episodes of Night Springs on TVs scattered throughout the game, and they're always entertaining with their cheesy black and white melodrama.

Old Gods of Asgard & Max Payne Shoutouts
A pair of elderly men, Odin and Tor, provide some great comic relief during brief moments throughout the game. They're a pair of retired rock stars who modelled their band after Norse mythology. They're a little mysterious, a little silly, and a little crazy, and call to mind Remedy's earlier Max Payne games - especially when you consider that Wake's main character in his novels is a perpetually miserable hard-boiled noir detective.
American Nightmare
This chunk of DLC is quite different from the rest of the game. American Nightmare is a separate game client, with the story framed by the Night Springs narrator. It's uncertain as to whether the events of the story actually happen, or if this is an episode of a TV show, or Barry Wheeler's dream.
American Nightmare is more action-oriented, with more firepower, faster reloads, and a greater emphasis on combat. It looks and runs a bit nicer than the main game, most notably the character models. The story follows three circuits of a time loop, which could have been tedious and boring, but each time you go through the loop the events speed up so that you don't get the feeling of "not this again".
American Nightmare also adds an arcade mode, where you simply fight waves of Taken until you've defeated them all, fighting for a place on the competitive leaderboards.

The Neutral

Episodic Format
Most critics loved the episodic format, but I felt it had a significant flaw. 
Alan Wake is structured in six episodes. Each episode builds on the story and adds new elements, but each is also fairly self-contained. It's like an ongoing TV serial. A series of six shorter arcs that add up to a full story is a great way to keep the pacing of plot developments and gameplay tight, and allows you to play through at your own pace without worrying about rushing on to the next scene.
...well, almost.
The problem with the episodic format is that it's a ten-hour game, but there are only six episodes - that's a bit over an hour and a half each. The idea may have been to model it after a TV serial, but in terms of length it's more like a series of movies. I never found myself playing one episode in a session because of the length. If the game were broken down into a larger number of shorter episodes - forty minutes or an hour - I think it would work much better for multi-session gaming, requiring less time to play through each arc.
Wake Is A Terrible Writer
This point is more funny than irritating, and the game may in fact be aware of it. Wake's manuscript pages feature lots of ridiculous metaphors and overdramatic lines. It could be that this is deliberate, due to some plot points I won't reveal right now, but it's a little odd for the bestselling novelist to use such awful and cliche lines. 
What bothers me a bit more is that he makes the occasional grammatical mistake, such as ending a sentence with a preposition.

The Bad

Mislabelled Difficulty?
When you start the game, you're presented with a few difficulty options: easy, normal, and nightmare. I chose normal. I found the game quite challenging at parts, and was surprised that I found it more difficult than just about any normal-difficulty shooter I've ever played. When I beat the game, I earned the achievement for clearing hard mode. So there's an inconsistency in the difficulty labelling somewhere. Furthermore, when I played through American Nightmare, there were only two difficulty settings: normal and nightmare. I found normal mode far easier than the main game's 'normal mode', so I suspect that the true labels for the main game should be normal, hard, and nightmare rather than easy, normal, and nightmare. Keep that in mind when starting the game.
Barry Wheeler
I don't like Barry most of the time. I understand the need for a release of tension in a relentless horror story every so often, but to me Barry doesn't feel like the right way to do it. The Old Gods  are much better at the job. When we're trapped in the middle of a town besieged by relentless nigh-invulnerable creatures of darkness, and they're cutting the power and bashing on the walls and doors, would anyone really complain about wanting a pizza? Sometimes Barry comes across as a very sympathetic, normal person, but often he just gets on my nerves.
Character Models and Animation
Most of the characters look like garbage. It's quite a disappointment compared to the beautiful environments and lighting. Wake's model is the best and does look pretty good, but the animation falls short and only manages a couple of facial expressions. Other than faces, hands suffer the most, looking wooden and failing to interact remotely realistically with any objects at all. 
Side note: Barry's coat looks quite nice.
The Verdict
Recommendation: play it.
Alan Wake is an excellent game all around, and presents some interesting ideas and game mechanics. The character models can be clunky, but the environments and lighting effects more than make up for it during actual gameplay. Combat manages to be tense and threatening, which is unusual for an action-horror game. If you've got a solid gaming PC, I recommend playing it there over the XBox, because the PC version's graphics and draw distance are better. But whatever system you choose, Alan Wake is a great experience that does a great job of blending mechanics and narrative.


  1. Just so you know, this review convinced me to buy the game when it was on sale last week on Steam.