I remember a friend showing me screens and trailers of a game in 2005/2006 he was totally jizzing his load over the lighting model and high resolution textures. It was to be the next technical masterpiece on the PC platform, something that would raise the bar for the rest of the industry the way Half-Life 2 had done a year or so previously and as Crytek have done with their Cry Engine since.
2010 and it’s finally here! Alan Wake! Unfortunately the PC technical masterpiece was shit-canned, but in its place we have an Xbox 360 title that looks none-too shabby.
The game is a story-driven action-adventure title, as such I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice to say the story is a supernatural survival horror piece drawing significant inspiration from the works of Stephen King – the great one is even referenced by Alan Wake in-game as a hero.
Alan Wake is a writer, he goes on retreat to the mountain town of Bright Falls with his wife when a supernatural evil Darkness shows up and ruins Alans vacation.
The entire game is concerned with the contrast of Light and Dark. The enemies (or Taken) are enshrouded in Dark and Wake must utilise Light to defeat them.
It’s an interesting mechanic which requires somewhat of a different mental approach in comparison to the majority of similar games. Your basic armament consists of a simple torch (or flashlight if you prefer) and a 6 round revolver. All Taken are light-sensitive and the torch can be used both defensively to dazzle/knock back and offensively to strip enemies of their protective Darkness shroud while the revolver is used to finish them off.
As you progress through the game this basic armament is supplemented with additional tools to fight the Dark. Ultimately the arsenal available in the game is relatively small, but everything has its use and you’ll have to learn how to use each tool efficiently in order to survive. The torch is your basic tool against the dark (replacements can be found in various sizes and strengths as the game proceeds) but against large groups of Taken you’ll find it just isn’t enough. You can buy yourself some time by setting off a flare, this causes the Taken to recoil and retreat a safe distance allowing you to regain a bit of health, reload your weapons or fire a new battery into your torch. The flare won’t kill the Taken outright but it can take out a good chunk of their Dark shroud if they’re close enough when you set off the flare.
Some of the Taken take a significant amount of light to de-shroud, when attacked by a big group of these bad boys torches and flares alone won’t cut it. The game allows you two WMDs for these situations, the flare gun and the flashbang grenade. Both have a similar largish area of effect packing enough power to de-shroud and kill any Taken in the immediate blast zone outright. The only real difference between the two is range, with the flare gun the longer.
The six-shooter isn’t your only source of firepower though, you can upgrade to one of two variants of shotgun (double barrelled or pump-action) or a hunting rifle. You can only carry one long weapon at a time, but ammo for both tends to be on the scarce side so you’ll find yourself switching to whatever is available on your path. You can put down the tougher Taken quicker with these guns, the shotgun can even take out several in one shot if you pick your shots well enough.
One thing I really like about the guns in this game is the reloading. Tapping the reload button reloads faster. It’s a nice little touch, it gives you something to do during the reload animation and stops you feeling like you’re waiting around while it happens. It’s a bit like the Gears of War active reload system, it turns reloading into a little mini-game rather than a wait-out.
Sorry Remedy, but for me there are quite a few consistent annoyances throughout the game.
Frequent unnecessary use of slow-down. Successful dodges are “rewarded” with slowed down “cinematics”. They look fine, and in a cutscene they’d be awesome, but when you’re actually playing the game they’re more of a pain in the arse than anything else, they interrupt the flow of combat and can cause the camera to swoop away causing you to lose track of the position of your enemies. I know Remedy are famous for “bullet-time” style slow-down from the Max Payne series, but unlike in Max Payne where the slow down was a gameplay mechanic, in Alan Wake it’s just a useless tack-on. In one particular section a train car rolls down a hill, each bounce of the train car results in a blast of slow-down, even after the car is off-screen. WHHHHHYYYYYYY? Just calm it Remedy, all this slow-down doesn’t enhance my experience, running up a hill with periodic slow-down is not a better experience than running up a hill without. It’s slow and jerky and pretty frustrating.
“Hello! I am a bad guy and I’m going to attack you now!”. Ok, nobody actually says that, but they might as well, the approach of Taken is almost always telegraphed with more infuriating slow-down and camera swooping. This is supposedly a Survival Horror title, but stupid crap like this lessens any suspense and atmosphere that the game had. The Taken are supposedly possessed by the Darkness, they should be coming at me unexpectedly from the shadows, from behind the trees, from above, I should need razor sharp reflexes to avoid that first surprise attack. But that’s not the way it is, most of the time the game gives me a crap load of time to de-shroud and finish off the majority of Taken before they get anywhere near me. Maybe it’s a difficulty issue, and maybe it’s something that’s creeping into more and more games, but “Normal” mode doesn’t seem to be posing the challenge it really should.
Wake can only sprint for 7ish seconds. 7 seconds? Come on man, pregnant ladies can manage better than 7 seconds. Fair enough if you want to put some form of stamina in the game, that’s realism, I like realism, 7 seconds is not a realistic sprint length.
Poor aiming mechanism. There is no targeting reticule as such, instead the cone of light from your torch does the job for you. It’s just not a very good replacement in my opinion. If they’re going the no-reticule route I’d have preferred that the camera swoop in and let me aim down the gun sights. Just a preference thing perhaps, but it’s something that irritated me. In addition to that the focussed shine of the torch has an irritating amount of auto-aim that can make quickly changing targets unnecessarily jerky and difficult.
I suppose this ties in to the aiming mechanism: there seems to be little difference in damage dealt by shots to the head, torso or anywhere else. It’s just a bit irritating that taking the time to aim at what should be a critical region nets me no (or at least little perceivable) reward over rough point-and-shoot.
Dude: Where’s my gear? Alan Wake is good at losing stuff. Given the scrapes Alan gets in to it makes logical sense that he loses all or most of his gear between certain sections and chapters, between others however: not so much. For example: if I finish one chapter with a good stock of gear and nothing happens in the story that would logically result in losing said gear, why am I starting the next chapter with nothing? Kinda hedging your bets a bit if several nights in a row you’re being accosted by an evil dark entity, but decide to discard all the gear you found the previous night and then… what? Hope they’ll just have fucked off this time or you’ll just find shit lying around like last time. Riiiiiiight. Worst offense: After defending a chopper prior to take-off, I’m tooled up to the eyeballs, Wake falls out, he’s lost all his gear: this is perfectly reasonable, he’s fallen out of a freakin chopper. But he still has his torch. He still has his torch, but it’s not the torch I had when I got on the chopper. I had the big ass lantern, now I’ve got one of the smaller models. It doesn’t make sense, it’s irritating. And maybe Barry coulda chucked me a couple of flares or something?
Nightmare mode. Hardest difficulty in the game. Locked until you’ve completed the game on another difficulty. Ordinarily if the hardest difficulty is locked it’s because it’s so hard you need a run through on a lower difficulty to prepare you for the hardship. Nightmare mode was, in my honest opinion, kinda piss easy. Ok, maybe piss easy is harsh, but it wasn’t a Nightmare to complete, I think I could’ve made it through as a first playthrough. If you’re a bit of an achievement whore like me then Nightmare mode is worth the 2nd playthrough for the gamerscore, but to a casual gamer there really isn’t enough challenge and due to the games linearity nothing new to see in terms of story to really warrant another playthrough. As such I have to conclude that the replayability of Alan Wake is low.
Worth the Money?
Alan Wake is an interesting game, one I’d recommend gamers play at least once, but I wouldn’t pay much for it. Rental is probably the best option. The games linearity and lack of replayability deny it full-price status for me, furthermore the DLC released for the game has been criticised for adding little to the story and for representing poor value for money in relation to its length (The Writer DLC in particular amounts to ~£5 for 30 minutes play).
A sequel seems to be on the cards. If Remedy go ahead with it I would urge them to revisit their original plans for a more free-roaming game. Get a bit of investigation and discovery in there. Maybe a bit of replayability. Gimmie something I want to pay for.
freedoms_stain, not taken by The Taken, out.