Rental Review: Alan Wake

Posted: July 9, 2010 in Rental Review

Now that I’ve caved and bought an Arcade Xbox360 to replace my dead Pro model, it’s time for some more HD goodness 7 days at a time from the video store!  So I’m a bit late with this one, I was busy playing the shit out of Forza 3 for more tuning guide goodness, but now it’s time for a palate cleanser.  I was looking for Sin and Punishment: Star Successor instead, but no copies were available to rent so I walked over to the other side of the rack to find a 360 game that looked interesting.  Since I was rather excited for this game not so long ago; I figured I’d give it a try and see if it’s worth a purchase.

Rental in hand, it’s time to see if the manual is sufficient for our general gaming needs.  The booklet included with the game is just that, a booklet.  Only 30 pages and not much there really.  Looking at the controller map it doesn’t seem to complicated.  If it’s like any of the other story driven games I’ve played, there’s probably a lot of slow bits at the beginning to get you acclimatized anyway.  Let’s pop the disk in and see what we’re up against huh?

So, to get started we learn that Alan Wake is a best selling horror writer, with writer’s block and he and his wife, Alice, are away on vacation in the town of Bright Falls.  Alan’s wife believes that a vacation should clear his head enough to write again, but she has no idea what’s about to happen…

First, the tutorial level.  The game pretty much dumps you in head first without a paddle, it’s a good thing that this level is a dream sequence.  In the dream you learn about the Taken: people who have been possessed by the darkness and have become violent.  You learn that the only way to defend yourself is with a light source, like a flashlight, spotlight or street light to shine the darkness away, the Taken can then be harmed by conventional weapons.  Flare guns and flashbangs are very potent weapons in your arsenal against the Taken as they can both shine away darkness and kill the Taken in one shot.  Save points are street lights along the way, also called safe havens.

Since this is a story based game I’m going to go ahead and just say that the story is fairly good.  It’s full of nuance and atmosphere which is paramount as this game’s main mechanic has to do with a light and dark dynamic.  Also since this is a story based game, it’s completely linear in nature.  There’s plenty to explore, as the rails are quite wide, but it’s linear nonetheless.  Wake’s wife has a fear of the dark which becomes quite evident in the first chapter (episode?) of the game which foreshadows the rest of the events to come.  When the Wakes arrive in Bright Falls the receive the keys to their cabin on the lake where they are to spend their vacation.  Then it all goes haywire!

After a fight with Alice, Alan goes outside for some air with his flashlight, knowing that his wife will not follow in the dark.  Alice screams as the lights go out and Alan runs to her aid, only it appears she’s gone out the window into the lake below.  Alan follows into the dark, murky waters only to awake in a car crash a whole week later.  This is where the game proper begins.

At this point is where you realize that Alan Wake has lost about a week of time between his wife’s disappearance and his awakening (lulz, puns built in by the game).  Wake is tasked with getting to a gas station for help, through a dark forest.  This is basically how the game’s levels pan out, you’re one place and have to get to another through dark, spooky environments.  Each episode starts you out with nothing.  No flashlights, flashbangs, flares or guns so it’s pretty scary at first with no way to defend yourself but frequently placed street lights signal your safe havens and usually a stash of weapons and ammo.  It’s after a few jaunts to and from a few safe havens that you realize you’re not going to be suffering by a lack of ammunition as there’s usually more than you can hold in your inventory by the middle of the level.  You’re going to need it with the sometimes unfair ambush attacks the Taken seem to be so fond of.  This in itself wouldn’t be an issue if, say, there was less ammo and running away was a viable tactic as this would heighten the sense of fear.  Unfortunately running away seldom, if ever, works as most Taken can run faster than you and don’t tire out like Wake does (who then slows to a walk).  When you’re jumped by four or more Taken, things get too hectic and not in a good way (in a horror sense).  Some Taken have chainsaws, some sickles and others throw axes.  It’s the axe throwing type that will get you killed and there’s usually one or two of them along with a melee type.  Hitting the Taken with a boosted flashlight beam will stun them for a second, even if you don’t manage to shine out the darkness it’s useful, but when there’s more than two coming at you at once it’s futile- you’re going to take damage and/or die.  Once you know they’re there and what to expect it’s not too bad to get through the ambush, but the tension is gone and you’ve gone from panicked to pissed off.  This is not the best way for horror to work and it’s frustrating for an action game.  The near brokeness of the “dodge” button made for even more frustration.

Horror games work off the threat of death, not death itself.  The player must feel in danger, but not actually be in it or the mood is ruined.  Alan Wake relies on multiple deaths and surprise ambushes for it’s difficulty and it truly ruins the mood.  Another thing is that the story is told in too many ways.  I don’t need collectible manuscript pages, voice over narration, movie-like cut-scenes and an internal monologue all muddying up the lines of communication.  The internal monologue was the one that spoiled it for me.  Every so often Mr. Wake decides to think to himself “Self.  I really feel uneasy here…” or something similar and wouldn’t you know it?  Hey look!  Some dark guys with scary edged weapons are coming for me with a spooky sound effect and everything.  Was I supposed to be scared here?  Because Mr. Wake has just telegraphed that one to me already.  Thankfully it didn’t happen to often, but the fractured storytelling was distracting. As good as the cut-scenes are, being pretty much HBO series quality the facial models were a little too far into the uncanny valley for me and the lip-syncing was terrible.  Wake’s mouth usually moved along with the words he spoke, but the other characters barely move their mouths at all.  The voice work is stellar however and suits the characters well.

Even though Alan Wake breaks many horror conventions it is still a good story, if a little contrived, and still scary at moments.  I can forgive the game for it’s horrible dodge function, it’s too heavy feeling protagonist and ambushes but the game is simply too short.  There are only 6 episodes in Alan Wake and then, you’re done.  Aside from collecting all the stuff laying around the linear levels, there’s really no point to playing it again after you’re done as there’s no branching storyline or good/bad ending to explore.  Once the story is done, there’s no surprises left, only higher difficulty levels, which as far as I could tell simply up the Taken’s hit points, lower yours and get stingy with the weapons and ammo.  The game is enjoyable, but unfortunately shallow.  A few branching bits of story that could have taken it to other conclusions would have been great if only for replayability’s sake, but it’s not.  There’s apparently episodic DLC to come for this game, but I don’t know if it would be worth it really.  If each episode was a new, continuing story I think that would work, but I’m not sure.  If they’re stand alone episodes they’re not going to be more than a couple hours of gameplay max, so I don’t think it would be worth it.  Though I’ll reserve judgment until I hear more about it.

BUY-RENT-PASS

Played on the Xbox360 using a standard controller, approximately 20+ hours.  Completed the story on Normal difficulty, and 3 chapters on Nightmare difficulty.

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