Five years is a long time to wait for a video game, but that’s how long it’s been since Remedy Entertainment first announced the follow-up to its Max Payne series, Alan Wake. Moving on from Max Payne’s hard-boiled pulp noir, this time Remedy has drawn upon the likes of Stephen King, Twin Peaks, The X-Files and Lost to create a creepy horror tale that exploits our primal fear of darkness.
The game starts as troubled novelist Alan Wake and his wife Alice arrive in the sleepy American northwest town of Bright Falls. Alice hopes that the seclusion will free her husband from his torment and help him to get over his writer’s block. However, there is a dark presence lurking in Cauldron Lake that has other plans for them both.
You are quickly drawn into a roller-coaster ride in which Alan Wake must save the woman he loves in an epic battle of light versus darkness. The Taken, hunters possessed by the dark presence, haunt the town and surrounding forests by night. They lurk in the shadows, usually with bloodied axe in hand, hell bent on stopping Alan from reuniting with his wife. Alan Wake’s story is well told, in a similar narrated style to Max Payne, which is hardly surprising considering they share the same author. My only complaint would be that by episode four, the game has pretty much put all its cards on the table.
During development Remedy ditched its initial open-world aspirations for the game. The result is a tight and focused action adventure game, the likes of which would be very difficult to achieve with an open-world sandbox. That said, the game doesn’t feel overly scripted, nor does it play like it’s on rails, and the environments are still big enough to get lost in. I think it was a good design choice and the game is much better for it. This extra control has also allowed the developers to better pace the game using the day/night cycle.
The daytime sequences allow you to catch your breath, and interact with the townsfolk and drive the story; after dark things get a little more sinister. The ‘fight with light’ combat system works very well. Weapons alone have no effect in the game. However, shining your torch at The Taken will keep them at bay, and you must boost the beam to burn away the darkness that protects them. Boosting uses up batteries, which you can replace if you have any. If not, you must wait for them to recharge. Without the darkness, The Taken are vulnerable to bullets. It is easy to get overrun as you change batteries and reload your guns. Thankfully, flash-bangs and flare guns will instantly send The Taken to the hereafter.
Throughout Bright Falls you will find weapons and ammo caches signposted in light-sensitive paint; it seems that Alan Wake has an unseen ally in the town. The same Good Samaritan has also marked the way to the game’s brightly lit safe havens, usually streetlights that also serve as game checkpoints.
Scattered around the level are manuscript pages from a novel that Alan Wake doesn’t remember writing. This novel is the story that you are playing. Finding and reading the pages will reveal additional information about ‘off screen‘ events and sometimes even tell you what is going to happen next.
There are three difficulty settings: Normal, Hard and Nightmare. On Normal, playing at a leisurely pace, the game should take you a good 15-16 hours to complete. As well as the manuscript pages, there are plenty of other secrets to find. Collecting the secrets and completing the game on the harder difficulty modes gives the game some good replay value.
There are references and sly winks for fans of the horror/mystery genre peppered throughout the game. The biggest nod to the game’s inspiration is the way that the game plays out as if it was a six-episode TV show. Each episode even starts with a ‘Previously on Alan Wake‘ recap, which is a nice touch.
The visuals are very detailed and atmospheric. The wind effect in the woods, with the light dancing between the swaying branches, is particularly impressive. The graphics occasionally appear a little more jagged and pixelated than I’d like, especially the background environmental effects. That said, there is often a lot going on and yet the game always maintains a very decent frame rate. The presentation quality of the pre-rendered cutscenes is a bit disappointing, ranging from nasty-looking to passable. The videos suffer from compression artefacts that I thought we had seen the last of a decade ago. Even the best sequences are dark and muddy when compared to the palette of the in-game graphics engine. But don't let any of this put you off; overall the graphics are quite good and these little niggles do very little to detract from the game experience.
The soundtrack is great, and can be directly accessed via the extras menu as you progress through the game and unlock the tracks. It features licensed songs by Roy Orbison, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Bowie and many others. There are also a couple of awesome tracks credited to the in-game band, The Old Gods of Asgard.
The riveting plot and perfectly paced action make Alan Wake a piece of gaming genius. Rather than go for the gross-out horror style of Silent Hill or Resident Evil, Alan Wake is more of a psychological horror story, one that will continue to unnerve you long after you have switched off the game. The graphics, especially the cutscenes, could have been better, but with an experience as rare and exquisite as this, one really shouldn't get hung up on minor grumbles.