Alan Wake

Game: Alan Wake
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Nordic Games
Year: 2012
Reviewed: 2013
Platform: PC
Genre: Survival Horror / Third Person Shooter
Reviewer: ValkyrDeath

Well, here we are at last with Alan Wake on PC. Considering the fact that the PC was one of the originally intended platforms for the game, we got it fairly late when it was released in 2012, two years after the Xbox 360 release. I’ll hold no grudges against it though. Alan Wake is here, and it’s fantastic.

Alan Wake Hut
It's never worth hiring those cowboy builders.

Alan Wake follows the titular author as he visits the small town of Twin Peaks Bright Falls for a holiday. Obviously things don’t go as planned. Strange things begin to happen when it’s dark and Wake starts to find pages from a manuscript that he doesn’t remember writing, yet which seems to describe events which are coming true. Sometimes they describe events that haven’t even happened yet. His wife disappears and he sets off to uncover the mystery of what is happening. To go into much more detail about the plot would spoil the discovery, but it’s a great story that’s extremely well told.

This is a game that not only wears its influences on its sleeves but also wears them on its shirt and tie while shouting about them through a megaphone. The author haunted by his own creations and the breakdown between reality and fiction are common themes in Stephen King’s work and his name is the first thing uttered by Wake in the opening cinematic. Other clear influence is taken from Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, especially the small town with dark undercurrents feel of Twin Peaks. Often these references are explicitly referred to at some point, while other times it’s more subtle. Too much referencing can become irritating, but it never does here. Thanks to the theme of the game, it actually fits perfectly. The boundaries between reality and fantasy are blurred more and more as the game goes on, to the point where Sam Lake, the game’s writer, briefly appears alongside Alan Wake on a chat show on a TV set at one point.

Alan Wake Patient
A patient gives the semaphore signal for the letter Q.

Am I a game reviewer, or am I just a character that’s been written as a game reviewer? Or did I write a character that wrote me as a game reviewer? Maybe I’m just a character written into Alan Wake’s novel. I don’t know anymore!

The main form of action in the game comes in the form of combat between Wake and his shadowy aggressors. The majority of enemies come in the form of town residents that are shrouded in darkness, giving them a slightly distorted appearance and otherworldly jerky movement. In this state they’re completely immune to regular guns. It’s here that Alan Wake’s unique fighting-with-light system comes into play. You can only kill opponents by first eliminating the darkness surrounding them. Usually this is done by maintaining the beam of your torch on them for several seconds, though you get access to things like flares and flashbang grenades later on too. In places there are also environmental lights which can help you, though trying to activate a generator while under attack can lead to them killing you before you’ve even got it up and running.

Your flashlight has limited power to prevent the game from becoming trivially easy. It’s on continually but to defeat enemies you’ll have to use the boost button to brighten it. This eats through a full battery in about 10 seconds. (The batteries are Energizer. It’s a strange piece of product placement. It’s unobtrusive, which is a good thing, but why would Energizer want to be associated with batteries that run out in seconds?) The torch does inexplicably recharge itself when not being boosted though, even though it’s still on. That’s no help in the middle of combat of course, so you’ll find yourself tearing through packs of batteries at a rapid rate. Because of course, torch batteries can be changed in a fraction of a second in the middle of combat. Frankly, the battery system has no real world basis if you think about it too much, but suspension of disbelief while playing means it has no real impact within the game. And after all, maybe Wake has just written things that way.

Alan Wake TV
I wonder who's on TV now.

The combat works surprisingly well, adding a great deal of tension to the battles. Having a large group of enemies armed with hatchets and chainsaws heading towards you with only a torch to welcome them off is a welcome change to the overpowered weaponry provided in most games that are supposedly survival horror these days. And even once the darkness is removed it can still take several shots from your gun to take them out completely. The game does vary the action a bit at times too, and in one place finds a way to cleverly invert its own formula. You also get to drive vehicles at certain points in the story, their headlights replacing your torch and your guns being replaced by running over people. The car controls are a bit simplistic but it provides a welcome change of pace.

On the other hand, the third person camera does feel a bit strange at first. Alan Wake stands way over towards one edge of the screen but walks towards the centre of the camera, which means Wake is always moving in a slightly angled direction. You quickly get used to it and adjust automatically, and it doesn’t cause many problems then, but the game does very occasionally throw a platform style moment at you that the controls really aren’t suitable for. It’s a small issue, but a noticeable one considering the quality of everything else.

Alan Wake is a hugely atmospheric game thanks to some expertly judged pacing. As tense as the combat can be, it would wear out its welcome and could start to feel repetitive if the game was overloaded with it. Remedy know that it’s the quiet moments that make the combat work so action occurs in sudden bursts between periods of calm in the author’s journey through the night. These are separated further by the occasional story-focussed daytime segment. There’s a lot more going on that just an invasion of shadow creatures.

Alan Wake View
The views can be amazing, in the rare moments of daylight.

Also adding to the atmosphere is the return of the TV sets, as featured in Max Payne. This time they come on with footage of Alan Wake himself, further confusing your attempts to work out exactly what’s going on. Once per episode, they also play a brief live action episode of a Twilight Zone homage called Night Springs. These are entertaining segments in their own right; short stories with twist endings that send up the sort of things that happened on the classic series. (And in a slightly more subtle way than the brilliant “Scary Door” segments of Futurama.) It’s just a shame that they didn’t make these segments reflect the story of the game more, as they did with the various shows in Max Payne.

Television actually has more influence over the game than just that. The main game takes place over a series of six episodes which are designed like TV shows, complete with an opening “previously on Alan Wake” section and ending with a plot twist or revelation. The episodes are followed by two “specials” which continue the story slightly past the ending, forming an additional two part mini story and bridging the gap between this and the hopefully upcoming sequel. The specials were originally DLC on Xbox but are included automatically with the PC version. They’re not essential in terms of story, since the game ends well anyway, but they’re very well made despite this. They add about another 3 hours to the length of the game, which itself is a reasonable 12 – 14 hours in length. The first one is mostly more of the same, though with the occasional fun moment of variation, though it’s marred slightly by some blatant product placement with the mobile phone that the episode is based around. The second part is superior, playing out like a surreal dream sequence, with plenty of imagination. It’s an entertaining addition to the game.

Alan Wake Flying books
The Lesser Spotted Novel.

As mentioned earlier, on your way through the game you find manuscript pages related to the events going on around you. These become the main collectible in the game, and finding them enhances the story and adds extra depth to some of the scenes. One of the game’s few annoyances is that there are some pages that can only be collected in the Nightmare difficulty mode, and further still, this mode can only be played once you’ve already completed the game. I’ve never understood locking off the harder difficulty levels until the game is completed. I’d have though the sort of person who wants a challenge isn’t going to want to play the game on an easier mode first, and the sort of person who wants an easier game will want to focus on the story and isn’t going to want to have manuscript pages blocked off from them. The pages aren’t essential though, and the game is perfectly playable without them. Another thing is that you can’t change the difficulty setting mid-game, so you need to make sure you don’t get trapped in a difficulty you don’t want to play. Thankfully, the normal setting should be about perfect for most gamers who want a challenge without becoming stuck for lengthy periods of time.

Alan Wake Eye on TV
TV is bad for the eyes.

Other collectibles come in the form of coffee thermoses in the main game (another Twin Peaks reference?), and in the form of alarm clocks and Night Springs video games in the specials. These have no real purpose other than as an arbitrary collection to gain a random achievement. I’ve never got the point of these things, but they don’t detract from the game generally anyway.

Early in development, Alan Wake was advertised as an open world affair but somewhere along the way this changed and it became more linear. It was a wise decision, as it allowed for tighter storytelling. Alan Wake is a very good action game wrapped up in an excellent cinematic story. It’s one of those games that shows that you definitely can have both style and substance.

Save System Review: Checkpoint saves, but thankfully they’re well spaced and you’ll never have to repeat too much.
Graphics: Very good and atmospheric, with great use of light.
Sound: Excellent sound effects and atmospheric audio, as well as a great soundtrack. It also makes great use of licensed music with appropriate songs playing on the radio and at the end of each episode. The voice acting is strong too.
Bugs: No major bugs noticed during play at all.
Gameplay: Excellent light based combat with enough variety to support it through the length of the game.
Storyline: An excellent mystery story told brilliantly well.

Arbitrary Final Score: 4.5 stars

If you like this, you might also like: Max Payne series, Silent Hill series, Stephen King books, Twin Peaks

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