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Alan Wake (X360)

Alan Wake (X360)

ALAN WAKE
Six years in the making with the best part of one of those dedicated almost entirely to fine-tuning, the story behind the game shows in itself how frustrating the creative process can be. However unlike the main character in this game, a writer who is struggling with his latest novel, Remedy have finally put something out there and now must face the anxious wait to see how it’s received by their public.

The creative process has proved especially frustrating for Mr. Wake. Out of his mind with a lack of creativity he ups sticks and takes a holiday with his other half to the scenic Bright Falls in a bid to recharge the creative juices. It’s not long before he’s wishing he’d instead chosen Disneyland after his wife goes missing and everything goes a bit weird. And by weird we mean all kinds of weird… The surrealism of Twin Peaks, the paranormal activity of the X-Files, the twisted reality of the Twilight Zone and the slow, creeping horror of H.P. Lovecraft. All of that with likely shift the writer’s block however Alan is now faced with the more pressing matter of survival. Damn.

Gameplay
It is amazing how from something so seemingly generic, something so rich and entertaining can spring forth. On the surface this is a third person action adventure with survival horror elements where the protagonist has to rely on his wits as much as his weapons as he takes on a horde of zombie like creatures… Don’t be deceived though – this is every bit its own game and it delivers on all fronts. It blends both traditional gameplay aspects with some innovations and dozens of nice touches, not least of all the way the game is split into episodes playing out like a mini-series.

The structure of the game would have felt cleverer had it come out a few years ago but that doesn’t stop it exuding charm. Each part of the game is book-ended with a previous chapter recap and an end credits in a self-reflexive nod to its small screen cousins. In addition to this the plot is driven by character conversations that provide objectives to be completed, that in turn progress the overall plot of the game, which is pretty “out there” on the whole. However the game is so well executed that anyone playing it will forgive the clichéd characters and an ending that paves the way for a sequel no-one will want to wait six years for.

The combat system is brilliant. Having to use your flashlight or flares against enemies to not only drive them backwards but to also wear down their shadow armour. Once that is out the way then they become vulnerable to the arsenal of weapons at your disposal, which include guns and melee items found throughout the game. Not only that but Remedy bring back elements of their previous series, Max Payne, through use of bullet time. Attacks can be dodged in gloriously cinematic slow motion but timing has to be absolutely spot on for it not to end badly. There are also some nice slow down effects as Wake delivers his coup de grace.

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There is tension at every turn and while the gameplay does recall Resident Evil 4 in parts, especially in the way multiple enemies swarm to where Alan is stood, there are plenty of shocks and surprises. In some areas of total darkness if not equipped with light the environment itself will come to life and assault Alan, hurling objects in his direction and forcing him into a hasty retreat. Some of the action set-pieces in the game are incredible generating that queasy nervous excitement as the guns run out of bullets and the torch runs out of batteries. There are even some old fashioned “boss fights” thrown in for good measure, adding some welcome brawn to a game full of brains.

It’s good to see a game unafraid of sticking to a linear storyline in a time when “open-world” and “sandbox” have become completely over-used concepts. In truth, how better to tell a story. Could a best-selling novelist stand to be involved in something that wasn’t taut and well structured? It’s unlikely and each episode has a strong beginning, middle and end that make them perfectly formed within themselves.

It’s also refreshing to see a game that knows the protagonist isn’t an action hero. Alan Wake is a writer and like most in our profession he seems to have very limited physical strength and fitness. He can’t simply climb everywhere and getting to the high ground can require taking the long way round. His jumping is like something more in keeping with what would be found at a Fat Camp aerobics session and when it comes to running away from the enemy he only seems to be able to sustain sprinting for a few moments before he is out of breath and sluggish.

At various points – true to the genre staple – the game will require Alan to solve a puzzle or two, such as finding objects to combine, or hitting switches that will unlock other parts of the environment. While the “puzzles” in the game aren’t exactly what would be required for a membership to MENSA they are a welcome break from the action that does come surprisingly thick and fast once the storyline for that episode has been set up. Truth be told though, this is no criticism as we all hate those mini-games that are overly difficult and detract from the main gaming experience.

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On the downside, and there are few, like a lot of third person games the camera angles can be annoying to say the least, especially during crucial moments in the game. Any sudden movement on your part can cause the third person viewpoint to end up behind a tree, a rock or a wall and in the vital second it takes to either correct itself or for the character to move something bad can certainly happen. In boss fights it is usually fatal. Fortunately it doesn’t happen often so it can be forgiven to a certain degree but it is amazing that this problem is still present in games after all this time.

Some of the tension can be ruined somewhat by the choice of exposition method, which is to tell parts of the story via collectable manuscript pages. While they are often concerned with what has happened in the past, on a few occasions they do reveal what is about to happen in the immediate future and as such the resulting intended scare can fall a bit flat, sort of like someone hiding behind saloon doors. This still doesn’t stop the big scares from hitting home and when they do they will make players jump as much as any cheap shock employed in a movie.

Another minor quibble is that at the end of each episode any equipment acquired disappears forcing Alan to have to go out there and find some more. A persistent arsenal would have been better, removing some of the more frustrating elements of gameplay and providing a better continuity for players.

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Graphics
The best looking game of the year so far? More than likely. Never has a game made such clever use of lighting and not only in the sense that it is directly used in the game for both exploration and combat. Each setting has its own level of darkness and gloom, whether it is a cluttered abandoned house illuminated by a 2 watt light bulb, or the sprawling darkness of the forests that are carpeted with the mist from Evil Dead 2. Penetrating the darkness with your flashlight always limits the field of view and ramps up the atmosphere no end.

Not only that but the effects in the game are also dazzling. Enemies burn up in luminous incandescence and sparks fly through the murky air like fireworks as they disintegrate before your eyes. The water splashes and crashes onto rocks and looks like a menacing moat preventing not only access to other areas but also making a break for freedom. All objects can be interacted with and the environment is completely believable.

The attention to detail in the game is frightening and anyone playing it will want to take their time over it. Wandering around Bright Falls will reveal movie posters, in-game TV shows, signs and other small pieces of content that give the game its big personality.

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Audio
Again, hugely impressive. The score and soundtrack in this game is absolutely amazing and deserves all the praise it will undoubtedly get. The action just seems so perfectly accentuated by the stirring strings and there are some genuinely nerve wracking parts that are set up by some sinisterly quietly music. In the daytime and around the people of Bright Falls the music again reverts to being more upbeat and fitting for a holiday residence.

The sound even contributes to plot devices and more exposition that helps build up a rich background of information that contributes to the meta-narrative. Radio broadcasts can be listened to and the Twilight Zone inspired Night Falls TV show – complete with Rod Serling impersonator – are all brilliantly realised.

In game sound effects are also of a high standard. While the guns and explosions are loud, some of the rumbling and as parts of scenery are destroyed – such as trees being uprooted from the ground – is truly deafening and it all adds to the experience. Some segments of the game feel like almost apocalyptic and key to that is the sound.

Finally we have the voice acting, an area which often lets down games which are otherwise excellent, jarring the user out of the gaming experience. Thankfully Alan Wake suffers no such problem and the dialogue matches the production values seen in other aspects of the game.

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Summary
While the game does have some elements that would feel less dated had it not been in production for so long the fact of the matter is the time spent polishing it was worthwhile. Even with some minor innovations here and there it shows that a story doesn’t need to be completely original if is told well.

The atmosphere in Alan Wake is incredible and it draws comparison with Silent Hill 2 for just how psychologically affecting it is. An intriguing storyline that makes use of gaudy characters is underpinned by some subtle exposition and a rich backstory told in a variety of subtle narrative devices. If it’s possible to blend something that cerebral with something that is equally visceral then it is always going to be a winner. While the plot and storyline will feed the brain the action won’t disappoint either and it’s rare as a gamer that you get the best of both worlds.

Gameplay 90/100 A great combat system with some nice innovations is at the core of a game that doesn’t mind conforming to the genre staples. Shame about the camera angles at times but it is by and large an extremely satisfying experience.
Graphics 96/100 Breathtakingly beautiful, awe-inspiringly atmospheric and endearingly eerie, the time spent on production here is there for anyone to see.
Sound 92/100 Soundtrack and score are incredible and the sound effects in the game add to the atmosphere in a way that is often overlooked by developers.
Value 90/100 Hard to tell if the game feels short because it’s so enjoyable or because the game is actually quite short in length. It does lack some replay value, apart from the difficulty settings and a few unlocks but the game is such a good experience that it must still be regarded as a definite purchase.
Overall
(Not an Average)
93/100 A high quality, traditional, single-player action adventure with bags of personality, the game reaffirms Remedy’s status as a creator of great games. Let us hope that they do not take the same amount of time over the inevitable sequel.

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ALAN WAKE

About Author

Stuart Davidson

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