Monday, 24 May 2010

Review: Alan Wake (360)

I can tell you two things right here about Alan Wake. One, that this isn’t quite the game you might have expected it to be. And two, that what we have been given is a mostly fitting reward after five long years of waiting; an alluring adventure which although doesn’t quite reach the bar set by the likes of Silent Hill or perhaps Resident Evil 4, is a firmly solid attempt at crafting a new kind of exemplary survival horror.

Alan Wake may have started out as a free-roaming action thriller, with the emphasis firmly on the thriller part, but its final appearance as a far more straightforward action game isn’t to be looked down upon. Remedy have provided a title with incredible atmosphere, an intriguing storyline that keeps you guessing, and a lovely looking playground in the form of Bright Falls, all of which envelops you as you try to fend off numerous amounts of ‘Taken’ along your travels.

The action is tightly focused, and most of all, edges just enough on the right side of being fast-paced without feeling too much like a shooter, and instead more like an tense psychological ride into chaos. That said, the experience isn’t quite perfect, and there are times in which the game would benefit more from you actually driving forward the story through investigation and discovery, rather than scripted point to point moments. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that Alan Wake is as tightly controlled and linear as Resident Evil, because it really isn’t, and often allows you to wonder off the beaten track into the foreboding wilderness in search of that next vital manuscript.

Interestingly, the story and narrative structure is presented in a similar style to an episodic TV show with a defined beginning and end to each episode. Each one starts with an opening cinematic recapping past events, or an introduction the first time you play the game, although there is no mock credits sequence which is a little disappointing, and would have made the TV show effect much more convincing. Whichever way you look at this, it definitely makes a change from the ‘end of chapter’ and ‘score tally’ used in most survival horror games.

Cut-scenes are pretty short for the most part, and are mainly used to gel together the other forms of storytelling keeping that TV show feel consistent throughout the game. The vast majority of the narrative is driven forward by the use of in game dialogue, and the many pages of manuscript left lying around Bright Falls. These pieces of manuscript reveal interesting snippets of backstory surrounding the ‘Taken’ and the town of Bright Falls, whilst also describing key occurrences which happen in the game. Sometimes you will find a page that blatantly describes an event that is only moments away from happening, taking any feeling of surprise and significantly reducing the amount of fast-hitting tension you’d otherwise be presented with.

Alan will himself also sound off one of his many monologues during his time spent in Bright Falls, mostly speaking out on his thoughts and innermost fears as you explore the shadowy landscape so beautiful but foreboding in nature. Like with the manuscripts, Alan has a tendency to describe the obvious. A lot of the time he will simply describe just what is happening in front of him, rather than shed light on what he thinks might be going on. Towards the end of the game, his little mobile soapbox moments actually begin to feed the player deeper into the story and the twists that it provides. It goes from a vaguely pointless inclusion, into an essential part of driving forward the experience.

Thankfully, there is a reason for both the initially obvious dialogue choices, and some of the seemingly pointless manuscript pages – it’s not quite as well thought out as you might think, but the continuing script and storyline is rather cleaver overall, revealing that it isn’t just trying to state the obvious for lack of originality, but instead attempting to direct the player down various paths and conclusions. Everything that might at first feel quickly rushed in, serves a deliberate purpose. And later on in the game those revelations start coming thick and fast.

To this end, some of the writing and voice acting is a little contrived, and in rare occasions pretty hoaky overall. Regardless, it can be totally captivating at times, and never falls into the artsy and often-pretentious trap that Heavy Rain went down. At the same time some of the game’s big reveals aren’t perhaps as psychologically cleaver as you’d hoped them to be, feel a little bit dialled back for the sake of presenting the player with another large action sequence, and of course the inevitable sequel.

No sooner after Mr Wake and his wife have touched down in Bright Falls and made their way to a quaint secluded cabin retreat, the wife mysteriously goes missing, and Alan finds himself bruised and battered in the middle of the forest with no recollection of what happened. Strange events and occurrences begin to happen, and people with a thick black mist surrounding them start attacking you. A mysterious voice calls your name, and a bright light shines out drawing you ever closer to its source. All the while a sinking feeling hits your gut and shivers run down your spine, as you reluctantly take the first steps into a world about be turned upside down.

There are two parts to the actual gameplay featured in Alan Wake, two individual elements of the experience that are intricately linked together, but at first seemingly at odds with each other. You have the fresh and sedated daylight sections, in which the bulk of the main story progression and characterisation occurs; and the night time scenarios in which most of your time will be spent, fending off scores of ‘Taken’, and avoiding a range of deadly supernatural presences.

At first the hellish events that occur at night are largely unseen by the people of Bright Falls, with the odd disappearance or two being the only evidence to show something’s gone awry. But as you delve further into battle with the dark forces at work, and become closer to finding your wife, the events in one world begin to radically affect the other, with the ‘dark presence’ ultimately taking hold of the entire town, providing you with a series of spectacular set-piece events.

The ‘dark presence’, which manifests itself as a veil of black fog, can take over both living and inanimate objects, called the ‘Taken’, presenting you with a danger beyond possessed townsfolk and into the realm of the insane. Light is your most important weapon against this evil force, with you having to use it to burn away the foggy shroud before you can either kill the people behind it, or extinguish the control the ‘presence’ has over lifeless objects.

Your arsenal initially consists of just a pistol and a lowly torch, but as you make your way through the town facing increasing amounts of ‘Taken’, you are given everything from high-powered industrial torches, to flash bangs and flare guns to take down your adversaries. The left trigger controls your torch, and pushing it down gives off an intensely bright light that helps burn away the ‘Taken’ more quickly, but at the expense of battery life. It is possible to aim the torch at enemies by gently holding down the trigger, allowing the initially weak light source to impact their progression before using your firearms to shoot them down.

High-powered torches weaken enemies more quickly, also using more batter power; flares instantly remove all traces of the fog allowing you to focus on immediately gunning down the people underneath before they get to you; flashbangs explode and destroy all enemies in the blast radius instantly, as does the powerful flare gun, which all help greatly in battling off the various supernatural sources at work when surrounded by them.

The more powerful the items, the more battery power they use. However, along with the inclusion of several torch upgrades, you’ll also find longer lasting lithium batteries, which give off a stronger blast of focused light, and faster power regeneration abilities.

Better guns can also be picked up as you make your way through the game, with several types of shotgun, and a powerful hunting rifle, which can kill most ‘Taken’ in a single shot. Ammo is in fairly short supply, and the game often sets up encounters with scores of enemies requiring you to leave that trigger happy persona at home and conserve the ammo you have, using a range of guns, flares, flashbangs, and the environmental light sources in order to stay alive.

The first half of the game is largely based around slowly giving access to all the tools you’ll need to battle the ever-increasing strength of the ‘Taken’ as it sifts through Bright Falls. Sadly, after the first two or three hours of play, the game starts going through the motions of constantly surrounding you with enemies, and having you deal with them by routinely cycling between, and using, various weapon types and well-timed evasive techniques.

About halfway through, this familiarity begins to fade, and as the game pushes further towards its conclusion, starts to up the ante, with large and particularly intense set pieces steadily growing as you reach the end of the game. These become somewhat ridiculous in nature, taking a fairly believable supernatural horror and turning it into a bombastic struggle for survival. During these latter parts of the game, you’ll once again be forced to battle everything from possessed construction vehicles, to roofing structures, along with what looks like the bulk of the now ‘Taken’ townspeople.

Perhaps this was a step too far, as although stunning to look at and exciting to play, these parts are also the most frustrating in the game. It is also at this point that some of the game’s rather cleaver narrative choices betray itself, with some of the big reveals being somewhat of a let down compared to the mysteries they provided. The lure of DLC and continuing story means that Remedy are content to almost use this first instalment as an opening episode as such, delivering what looks like a conclusion (at this point I haven’t quite finished the game) but at the same time leaving other questions left unanswered.

One thing that is so exceptionally good about the whole experience is that one more go factor that Alan has. Every time I sat down to play a short one or two-hour session, I was hooked for nearly double that before having to drag myself away from the controller. It’s a sign of truly engrossing game design and masterful atmosphere creation, all of which leaves you wanting more until the end of chapter cut scene finally plays out.

Alan Wake’s biggest success however, isn’t the incredibly polished gameplay mechanics - repetition aside there’s very little to complain about - but instead the ability to create a deeply dark and disturbing atmosphere in which to completely immerse the player. With shadows crawling all over the surrounding environment; the rustling wind blowing through the tress; and the eerie mist flowing throughout the air, the game’s night time sections are utterly gripping, and often veer on edge of your seat territory.

It’s this atmosphere, and suspenseful nature, which is really Alan’s talking point. Many people speak about immersion, about disconnecting the player from reality and into the game world. And at times, this is exactly what Alan Wake does, combining cleaver storytelling and visceral action-packed gameplay to form a largely compelling, if not slightly cheesy ride into psychological madness and supernatural chaos.

Beyond the impressive graphics, solid gameplay, and mixed storytelling devices, Alan Wake is a mostly sublime experience. Not quite as refined or perfectly scripted as it should have been after five years of work. But nevertheless, a highly promising first outing for a franchise that has enough potential to really turn into something awe inspiringly good. Remedy aren’t too far away from that point, and whatever issues I have with Mr Wake, I was utterly gripped whilst playing the game, not wanting to put the controller down even in the most frustrating of situations.

Alan Wake may be at heart, a Stephen King inspired Resident Evil, a title that clearly wears its influences on its sleeve, and one that isn’t afraid to still feel like a traditional videogame. It isn’t quite as revolutionary as I’d first hoped, and in that respect the question that bubbles around in my head – does it really need to be? – Is a hard one to answer, as all throughout my time in Bright Falls, I was almost completely hooked every step of the way.

The tense atmosphere, partially original narrative approach, and exciting action sequences highlight just some of the things that Remedy’s five-year opus does so well. But they also highlight a realm of missed opportunities and a conscious decision to tow the more traditional gameplay line, a line that could have been broken down, thus creating a true masterpiece rather than just a extremely entertaining, and often excellent experience.


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