It’s safe to say many PC gamers have been waiting for Alan Wake… for a long time. With a hefty five year development phase before it landed on Xbox 360, and a further two years until it hit PC, Alan Wake promised to bring us a ‘riveting plot’ with ‘multilayered character interactions’. But have Remedy Entertainment, creators of Max Payne, managed to pull their half a decade promises out of the bag?
It’s immediately apparent that this game has had multiple influences, all culminating in its particular “feel”; Silent Hill, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and multiple references to various literary authors, Stephen King most frequently, gives you an idea of what to expect.
The concept of the game is certainly interesting. The idea of a small town in which darkness is given life, in which every shadow exudes danger, is one that a player immediately feels uneasy in. The opening of the Nightmare sequence that Wake describes is an immersive tutorial, feeling more like an interactive nightmare than getting to grips with the games mechanics.
You soon learn that there is more to fear than the darkness itself. From the shadows, creatures called “The Taken” regularly stalk the author. These are townsfolk fallen foul of the evil in the town, shrouded in a swirling darkness that one must evaporate with the use of Wake’s flashlight before more conventional weapons can be used to dispatch them entirely.
Of course the light aspect of the game draws comparisons to Alone in the Dark, yet this game makes the mechanic its own. Not only is the light used to take care of enemies, it is a literal haven, a save point and a welcome sight after running through seemingly endless dark forests. The feeling of seeing a working streetlamp in the distance has never evoked more relief in a survival horror game before.
The use of both light and conventional weapons brings about an interesting duality to your conservation of items. Not only are you keeping an eye on ammunition, but the batteries and strength of the flashlight you carry. Later in the game these weapons merge in the form of the indispensable flare gun; in many ways the game’s rocket launcher if you will, in addition to flares and flash-bangs; life-savers on more than one occasion.
This game is genuinely frightening at times, with even the most hardened of survival horror fans likely to be caught out by at least one of the events of the game. Darkness is a fear inherent in all of us, and this game certainly plays on that.
This is a game that begs you to play it in the dark and its scares are all the more interesting as they often come when you least expect it. No matter how on guard you are, at one point or another, Alan Wake will catch you by surprise.
The PC version of Alan Wake comes in six bite-sized episodes, typically lasting around 1-2 hours each depending on the level of exploration, plus two bonus missions that were paid downloadable content on Xbox 360. Similar to Left 4 Dead, each episode has its own goals, over-arching story and purpose. The regular checkpoints also make this game a joy to play in even ten minute segments; giving you the feeling of progress with even the shortest of sessions. The two additional missions offer up more varied and unusual gameplay in the form of spacial awareness puzzles and the manifestation of Alan’s written words. It’s hard to clearly explain without spoiling the game’s ending, but, put simply, these additional missions are a refreshing addition to the series.
Speaking of spoilers, the story of Alan Wake is gripping. Sure, it isn’t the most original, especially for a huge horror film fan such as myself. But this is exactly what’s so endearing about the plot. The pages you find throughout the game do a brilliant job of foreshadowing what will occur next and the building anticipation of what you’ve just read works wonders.
The only problem in terms of story comes with the ending, which may be a little too ambiguous for some, a little too much food for thought for others. Many will take comfort from the fact that the two additional missions; “The Signal” and “The Writer”, continue the story after the events of the main game. Be warned, however, that upon completing these extra missions Alan pretty much finds himself in exactly the same position he was in at the end of the main game anyway!
This game plays brilliantly, but moreover, I felt the same kind of emotional attachment usually reserved for a good movie or book. When found in a game this is something wonderful. As each episode came to a close I couldn’t wait to progress to the next section to find out what happens after each inevitable cliff-hanger.
This game is also a veritable treasure trove of references to those in the know. The first being the obvious “A.Wake”, but followed by more Stephen King references than you could shake a stick (or torch?) at, not to mention the FBI agent that revels in calling Wake every other author name under the sun.
Alan Wake is full of imagery to be interpreted, much like the episodes of Twin Peaks it so lovingly re-appropriates elements from. It offers a new level of re-playability, not one based solely on trying to gain those missed achievements, but on understanding the game on a new level. Five minutes into replaying the opening, I was already inwardly cheering as I spotted Night Springs on a sign. Speaking of which…
Night Springs is a reason to buy this game on its own. Alan Wake is littered with radios and TV’s with which Wake can interact, also offering a welcome respite to the terror of the night. The most interesting of these asides by far is the episodes of Night Springs. Sure, listening to the town’s night radio station is great, but the pseudo-Twilight Zone black and white shorts are stunning. Each mini-tale is not only brilliant viewing in the heat of the moment, but increasingly relates to Wake’s story.
All this without mentioning the music. Ah, the music. Each piece of music is used with great aplomb in the course of the story, especially the song intrinsically tied to the story of Wake himself. Also, Poets of the Fall’s track “War” is especially moving when it appears, a real-life song placed in the games world with such skill, I was nearly speechless. Not to mention the Rock stage showdown… I’ll say no more.
Of course, there are always downsides, and I feel I am nit-picking a little with this since I did enjoy the game so immensely. One has to be the facial animations. You would have thought that after half a decade’s development it would be a little smoother. Still, there seems to be a patch in the works for this so it might not be an issue for too much longer.
Another issue might be that throughout the course of the story you actually feel more in touch with all the other characters than with Mr. Wake and his wife. Barry, his agent, steals the lime-light, almost making you want him to be a constant companion for his hilarious asides.
Review Round Up
Graphics: 3/5 – Compared to the Xbox 360 original, the PC version has a cleaner crisper look to it, but that doesn’t stop the graphics of Alan Wake looking a little outdated. The difference between the lighter gameplay and the more Film Noir-esque cut scenes can be a little jarring at first, but they each work in their own respect. The character animations are slightly off, too. That said, as previously noted, the facial animations might be getting a patch overhaul, rendering that a null point.
Sound: 5/5 - I cannot stress how much I personally fell in love with the soundtrack to this game. Each track is so brilliantly slotted into the story that it becomes a part of the experience. I understand that it might not be to everyone’s cup of tea, but I honestly feel it adds to the experience of the game.
Gameplay: 4/5 – The gameplay for me is as uncomplicated as you could wish it to be. Despite the various weapons on offer, the duality of weapons and flashlight, flow very well. The dodge mechanic might take a while to master, but once you understand the timing, the cinematic angles you are rewarded with are well worth it. The two downloadable expansions play with the concept of the power of words, and feature more varied puzzles, setting them apart from the main game experience.
Longevity: 5/5 – I’ve never been one for re-playability but even I can understand this game has quite a bit. Of course, the main story will be the same, with the only thing changeable being the difficulty. Yet, for some, the references they missed the first time will be more than enough for at least another play through or two. There are dozens of annoying collectibles to pick up through the game which will occupy completionists for a good long while. Including the two bonus missions, The Signal and The Writer, at no extra charge makes this a very attractive package.
Overall: 4.5 scares out of 5
I’ve nailed the reason for me liking this title so much down to one of two reasons. One, as stated, I’m a huge horror fan and as such am a little more forgiving of generic tropes. Two, I didn’t follow this for five years like a lot of people. Whether it is one of these reasons or I’m completely off the mark, I can safely say without reservation that this game, to me, is stunning. It is more than worth the purchase and I’ll be playing it through again just to see all the extra references I missed. One thing’s for sure, after playing Alan Wake, I’m not sure I’ll look at the darkness the same again for a very long time…
- Luke Mears