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Alan Wake

Alan Wake

Famous novelist Alan Wake and his wife Alice yearn for a bit of peace and tranquility away from the bustling New York City life. While on vacation out in the Pacific Northwest in the quaint town of Bright Falls, Alan begins having strange dreams and hallucinations that he can’t distinguish from reality. When his wife suddenly goes missing, Alan begins a desperate search through the dark hours of night. What he encounters along the way are walking darkness, entities of the Bright Falls citizens possessed by a malignant force, and scattered all throughout the town are pages of a manuscript ascribed to Alan that he does not remember writing. The pages detail the events as they transpire, and Alan soon realizes that the words he has apparently written are coming to life.

You’re immediately thrust into this strange world from the first few moments with the game. Bright Falls is not the quiet little safe haven it seemed like in postcards, and the strange happenings of the town appear to revolve around the pages of Alan’s manuscript. The story unfolds with brilliant pacing, though much of the game’s intended suspense and thrills are unfortunately soured by those very pages you’ll find. Should you choose to read them, they’ll often describe events that have not yet happened in the story, often ruining the sense of surprise that games of this type rely on. That said, Alan Wake still manages to adequately compel and move you forward with great interest. Inspired by famed TV series of the past Twin Peaks and the Twilight Zone, the latter of which is spoofed in the game as a faux series known as Night Springs that you can watch occasionally, Alan Wake is a roller-coaster ride of absolute insanity, confusion, and torment. Don’t expect to have every piece of the puzzle in place by the end, however, as the game leaves off with a mighty cliffhanger to whet the appetite of Remedy’s follow-up installment. The downloadable episodes that are included with the PC version expand on this ending, but don’t necessarily explain it.

With a name like “Bright Falls,” how could this town possibly be evil?

Alan Wake is the first in a planned series (the recently released Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is not a sequel, but rather a loosely related spin-off that acts as an episode of the in-game television show Night Springs). Alan Wake’s story also plays out like episodes from its own TV series, with each major arc broken up into six different chapters, and each chapter concluding with a return to the game’s logo screen with a different theme song playing in the background. Upon starting the following chapter, you’re given a recap of the events so far. This storybook structure provides an even more intimate connection with the situation and characters just as any well-written TV show would do.

Perhaps Alan Wake’s most notable feature is its interesting combat mechanic and use of a light-based system. While not the first to use this – notable games of the past being The Darkness and Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay – Alan Wake simplifies it and puts the power of the light literally in your hand. Whereas in those aforementioned games, the darkness was your friend, here, Wake’s flashlight, street lamps, and flares are the strongest tools against the manipulated living known as the Taken. The flashlight’s beam can be shined directly at enemies to weaken their guard. The flashlight’s more intense beam drains it of its batter life, so take care when using it. Once a Taken is sufficiently weakened, you can damage them.

Use the light to weaken them before wasting any precious ammo.

The mechanic demands that you be on your toes. You cannot just run and gun everything in your path and hope to succeed. Bullets against a Taken whose guard has not been destroyed will do absolutely no damage. In addition to your flashlight, you can use flares, a flare gun, and flash bangs, the latter two providing some very entertaining kills. Combat is fun and can get very intense during some moments, particularly near the middle and end of the game. However, like with the manuscript pages spoiling upcoming events in the story, the game often ruins the surprise element that enemies have by showing you when and where they appear. The game will go into slow-motion whenever a new wave of enemies shows up and zoom out to show you exactly where. While this ruins the initial attack, because all combat takes place in the dark, it’s still very hard to keep track of where they‘re moving to, so this is not an excuse for you to get lazy.

The checkpoints are frequent and you’re often treated to numerous ammo and battery supplies, so you’ll rarely be in need. Streetlamps and other sources of major light will speed up your health regeneration. You’ll often come across hidden messages written in invisible yellow paint on walls either leading you to a cache of supplies or providing warnings. In addition to finding the manuscript pages scattered around, you’ll come across various radios and the aforementioned TV sets which serve to bring the town to life just a little bit more. The radio broadcasts will sometimes talk about the events going on in the town involving Wake’s appearance and the TV will simply offer a nice little break to show a two to three minute episode of Night Springs. Certain TV sets in the game are story related and are out of your control; they’ll simply power on automatically upon entering the room. Let’s just say they are appropriately bizarre.

For a game that spends the bulk of its playtime in the dark, and for one that makes extensive use of light for combat, the lighting must be perfect. And it certainly is. It’s a subtle touch, but the behavior of the flashlight’s beam illuminates the environment appropriately. The woods, in which you’ll spend most of your time, are surreal and dreamlike, with intense motion blur and darkness obscuring the distance. Character animations in pre-rendered scenes look noticeably awkward and facial expressions seem stiff. The soundtrack is an absolute treat to listen to and the songs used after each chapter’s conclusion are wonderful. Several of the game’s most notable tracks are composed and performed by Finnish rock band Poets of the Fall and feature heavily into the context of Alan Wake’s story, including a particularly outstanding set piece near the middle of the game involving a concert stage.

Behold the power of rock!

Something that always interests me is the use of live-action scenes in a video game. The Night Springs TV show uses real actors and there are also a few scenes where you’ll see taped recordings of Alan Wake using the actual person who provided the motion-capture for the character with his lips synched to the voice actor’s words. The terrific voice acting does justice to the wonderful script by Sam Lake of Max Payne notoriety. As an aside, there are three manuscript pages that can be found in Alan Wake that are taken from Wake’s last novel, The Sudden Stop, which, when read, are read by James McCaffrey, the voice of Max Payne, and are direct references to those games.

Alan Wake follows the tradition of Remedy’s magnum opus Max Payne with powerful and emotional storytelling while combining innovative gameplay mechanics and a cast of likeable characters to create one of the most wholly fulfilling and absolutely bizarre titles this generation. From the fresh combat, to the creepy setting, this is a journey best experienced in your own darkness. The minor flaws which seem to take away from the game’s suspense don’t totally bury it in predictability, and the few complaints with animation fall short of making a huge dent in the experience. What’s left is a beautiful, if sometimes confusing tale that demands a place in the echelon of great storytelling.

Graphics:

Alan Wake is absolutely stunning and does for Remedy now what Max Payne did more than a decade ago: pushes the technical limitations of the hardware. Facial animations, however, still feel hollow and out of sync.

Gameplay:

Dynamic light and dark mechanics mesh wonderfully with traditional over-the-shoulder third person action to create a unique and tense experience.

Sound:

Outstanding voice acting and a truly memorable soundtrack make this one nightmare you don’t want to wake from.

Lasting Appeal:

Unlocking the Nightmare difficulty opens up a few more manuscript pages to find and an alternate ending, and the inclusion of the two sequel DLC insure that you’ll get more than your money’s worth of Alan Wake.

The Verdict:

Alan Wake is a superb tour de force of story, gameplay, and emotion.

Hard to enjoy a beautiful sunset when you know the dark is coming.

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