Reviews

Alan Wake

I am a writer and I sit here staring at a blank document. There is a struggle in me to review Alan Wake as an interactive story rather than a video game. Then I think of a particular rock and roll moment and realise that no interactive story can provide a similar rush. Finally, I decide to drop the fancy words and tell you what I went through. If only Alan could get over his issues so easily. You see, Remedy’s latest protagonist is suffering from a two-year writer’s block and things just go downhill from there. His wife is kidnapped by an old biddy, he is chased by a trigger-happy FBI agent, and he wants to spend his vacation in a town which seems to be the setting for every horror movie. Sounds familiar? Reminds you of a certain cop? The nods to Max Payne are many, as are the nods to the supernatural.

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Alan Wake presents itself as a psychological action thriller. It would be better to classify it as a homage to the supernatural genre, and like Quentin Tarrantino’s homage to martial arts, Alan Wake borrows heavily from the genre and uses clichés as if they were going out of use (see what I did there?), yet can hold its own among the genre and will surely be remembered for its great narrative. There are too many moments to recount that elicited a chuckle from me – an axe crashing through a door, crows taking off from fences to circle a house, chainsaw wielding enemies.

The same applies for the supporting cast; everyone is lifted straight from your favourite supernatural movie – the aforementioned old biddy and disgruntled FBI agent, another mysterious old lady, two mad brothers, a sinister doctor, etc. You even get to jaunt through the environment with a couple of them and there’s some great writing at work. Barry’s dialogues can carry entire segments. It’s a shame that none of these characters are explored in detail and we get just a fleeting glimpse of them, leaving us to imagine what must be driving them.

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The story is split up into six chapters reminiscent of old TV shows, with a “Previously on Alan Wake” at the beginning of each chapter, and an appropriate cheesy title track at the end. At the end of the game, I had a profound respect for the story telling, and just wished that I could play the high points of the game without the monotonous trek through the woods. The premise of Alan Wake is simple – wife disappears and Alan wakes up in a car crash with one week missing from his memory. The gameplay is as much a discovery of this missing week as it is about figuring out why a place with a cheery name like Bright Falls turns into a setting for Twilight Zone when the sun sets. I leave you to discover the story on your own, and there are lots of subplots to discover.

Manuscript pages placed in Alan’s path are a must-read. There were two high points in the narrative and both came towards the end. I went back and analysed and turned the story upside down to come up with a plausible explanation, and I can say I am satisfied, because there are lots of questions which remain unanswered or ambiguous even at the end. Thankfully, the writers don’t think the player is completely devoid of intellect and they want you to figure out the story for yourself.

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The presentation of the game is mixed. When it was shown five years ago, it was pure eye candy. In 2010, it still remains eye candy, however, there are places where the sticky wrapper has started to show its sell-by date. There was tearing at some places, and some noticeable pop-in, which I will put down to massive draw distances combined with the limited memory of the console. Worse are the textures; some character models are very well defined, and some are totally bland. The frame rate holds up great even when there are multiple light sources and particle effects filling up the screen. Kudos to the engine for handling two of the most processor-intensive tasks with ease.

Special mention goes out to the lighting effects. Alan Wake has hands down the best lighting effects in any game. The play of flashlight on various objects and characters, the way shadows move and seem to take a life of their own, the ripple of the sun’s rays on water; all in real time. I could go on about the attention to detail, but words just won’t do it justice. I would love to see this game running in maximum settings on a PC, if and when it does comes out on PC.

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The reason I harp on the lighting and particle effects so much is that the gameplay revolves around it. If either of these were done badly, the game would be unplayable. Alan is being chased by creatures called Taken – shadowy forms that have risen from his books and want to ‘make their maker meet his maker’. They are covered by shadows, which form a protective shield and must be burned away by a strong light source. Light sources could be flashlights, street lamps, search lights, flares, etc. Once the shield is gone, Alan goes medieval on them with regular weapons. The combat is similar to many survival horror games – move slowly, focus the reticule, fire. Alan can dodge, and while he can’t carry too much ammunition, he rarely runs out.

There are a few combat moments that are superb and drive home the survival horror aspect. There are a couple of minor puzzles to solve, but they are laughably easy and seem tacked on rather than an integral part of the environment. A lot of the game consists of trudging from one point to the other and fighting a handful of Taken, with a haunted vehicle thrown in for good measure. It can get monotonous, and in the middle, it did get boring. The narrative rescued the game though. I would also have liked to see more variety in the enemies. Alan’s a horror writer after all and his hero Stephen King certainly thought of many more types of enemies; shadowy lumberjacks stopped being scary after the first appearance.

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There are a few sets of collectibles – thermos flasks that stick out like sore blue thumbs. Collectibles are a bane, especially if they don’t have anything to do with the game. There are also radio shows to listen to and TV shows to watch. The TV shows are a must watch, even if just for the obvious nod to Twilight Zone. As I mentioned before, the soundtrack is cheesy, and it fits the game perfectly. There are some wonderful tracks to listen to, and if you get hold of the Collector’s Edition, they are all available on disc. I would also urge you to get your hands on the book that comes with the Collector’s Edition. It’s a brilliant piece of writing/marketing. There’s an X-Files vibe to it as it explores events in Bright Falls from the perspective of an avid supernatural hunter. The presentation is near perfect with the faux interviews and photographs. That’s how a Collector’s Edition is done.

Conclusion

Alan Wake is a fine homage to the supernatural without being ridiculous. It takes everything that defines the genre – the campy characters, over-the-top camera angles, and clichéd plot points, and combines them with a great story to provide a lasting interactive experience. Minor niggles with the presentation or gameplay mechanic should not stop you from picking up this great adventure.

(+) Great storyline with some memorable incidents
(+) Innovative use of light as a combat mechanic
(+) Superb lighting and particle effects
(+) Daytime Bright Falls is a treat to watch

(-) Graphics are inconsistent
(-) Characters are not explored in detail
(-) Limited enemy diversity

How we score games

Title: Alan Wake
Developer/Publisher: Remedy Entertainment/Microsoft
Genre: Action
Rating: 16
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Rs 2,399)
Reviewed on: Xbox 360

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