Despite the critical and commercial success of Alan Wake, it’s a game I’ve always held an underwhelming preconception of. Perhaps my interest died when the PC version was canned in favour of an Xbox exclusive. Perhaps I didn’t hear or see enough people talking about the Xbox release of 2010. Perhaps I missed the fanfare heralding the eventual PC version which hit the world about this time last year. Maybe I just read the wrong press. Ultimately, my housemate’s brief review was representative of my impression: “yeah, it’s alright actually”.
So when I finally got around to playing Alan Wake a few months ago, my expectations were pretty low. To my surprise, I was blown away by the quality, ambition, originality and excitement offered by this third-person horror/shooter/weird’em’up. Had I played a different version to everyone else? Had my low expectations offered me an improved experience? I didn’t know. I didn’t care – I was just hooked. I totally bought into the game, warts and all.
In case you’re completely in the dark, here’s a brief overview. Alan’s a struggling author of horror stories whose creations seem to be coming to life around him. As the narrative spirals into plot within plot, the boundaries between the real world, Alan’s stories, and even Alan’s dreams begin to fold in on themselves. It’s only by shining light on the the many murderous manifestations of evil that Alan can muster any defence. What good is a shotgun shell against a shadow? The result is a tense, atmospheric horror experience, rich in exploration, action and story.
Alan Wake is a game which doesn’t quite reach greatness. There are great things about it, though; and it certainly has great moments. But it also has flaws. Significantly, Alan Wake himself is a bit of a tool. The game tries to carry its complex and driving story on the shoulders of an protagonist who is really, really unlikable. For all the grim melodrama of his narrative voiceover, in conversation Mr Wake is arrogant, rude and insensitive.And some of the supporting characters – not least the sorta-comic-relief editor – lack the charisma tp pick up the slack which Alan keeps dropping through his greasy paws.
But here’s thing: if you let it, Alan Wake will stay with you long after you quit-to-desktop for the final time. It’ll get under your skin, into your heart, maybe even into your dreams. After a while, the desire to punch Alan in the slightly-wooden face recedes as the mystery of his plight thickens, as the dark woods deepen, and as the shadows grow longer. It’s an experience which is hard to forget, greater than the sum of its parts and a credit to the art form that is gaming. Even if it has a few awkward moments, even if the moment-to-moment gameplay doesn’t always convince, the overall experience is rich and compelling.
Graphically, Alan Wake is gorgeous and looks great on PC. The graphics engine is superb, rendering apparently huge environments very convincingly and in great detail. The secret is that it’s beautifully lit: from shaky halogen bulbs, to the flimsy light of your torch, to the blinding dazzle of flares, to the lush ochre sunsets which illuminate the sky.
The lighting does more than just make the game’s elaborate set look pretty, though, and here’s where Alan Wake starts to stand apart from many of its peers. Light is a consistent theme of both narrative and gameplay. It’s all about the interaction between light and shadow, good and bad, certainty and paranoia; ideas which materialise wonderfully in the humble torch. Alright, so this core mechanic takes a few liberties (self-charging batteries, a focusable lens, etc), but you quickly learn to accept those. The torch becomes one of modern gaming’s most interesting weapons – a fragile, shimmering defence against evil forces. Few weapons make you feel so powerful and so vunerable at the same time.
Of all Alan Wake’s achievements, perhaps the greatest is how well it engenders a sense of place, of a consistent world. Bright Falls is a place which feels alive and laden with small-town intrigue. You often feel like you’re going on holiday to visit strange in-laws, rather than just walking around a hand-built map. Subtly clever world design means that highly visible landmarks recur throughout the different environments, allowing you to stop and trace your journey from the highway, to the radio station, to the water tower, to the town itself. Alan Wake is a masterpiece in world-building, creating natural and visible connections between its locations.
This illusion is maintained by discouraging players from venturing off the beaten track. The deep pine forests that surround Bright Falls and shepherd your journey are terrifying. The further you stray from the core route, the scarier the game gets. The wind picks up, the light dims, the shadows loom longer. You rush back to the safety of the trodden path – not because there’s nowhere else to go, but because the alternative is too tough to stomach. One of Alan Wake’s greatest tricks is to funnel your movements away from artificial walls well before you ever stumble into one. You rarely, if ever, see the seams between the levels. The result is an overpowering level of immersion.
Good though it is, it’s not perfect. The episodic structure of the game is a little odd, especially considering the game was only ever released as a whole unit. Each chapter comes with a TV-style introduction and conclusion, and this is perhaps one of Alan Wake’s most divisive issues. They’re stylish, exciting and useful (if, like me, you only get time to pick a game up twice a week). But they’re also a little redundant, immersion-breaking and tacky. Alan Wake owes a great debt to made-for-TV horror like The Twilight Zone or Twin Peaks. But these sequences might well have been a step too far.
There are other issues. Boss fights tend to be a little underwhelming, the poltergeist activity is often annoying, rather than frightening, and the ending is perhaps too loose to be satisfying. But these are small concerns in a game which is consistently challenging, atmospheric and entertaining.
If you missed Alan Wake’s PC release last year, I highly recommend you check it out. It’s an effective horror title which relies more on atmospheric spookiness than cheap scares and jumpy it’s-behind-you moments (I’m looking at you, Doom 3). It’s got a strong story, believable game world, and an original set of gameplay mechanics. If you can get past Alan’s rather punchable personality, you’ll find a game with very high production standards and an engrossing story.