reviews\ May 4, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Alan Wake Review


Like most writerly protagonists, Alan Wake is struggling. He's famous enough to have cardboard cutouts in bookstores and attract cameras in every corner of the country, but he can't put pen to paper. In case you need more proof of Wake's authorial status, he's a developing alcoholic with rage issues, and wears a tweed jacket with leather elbow-pads. His wife seems to think an excursion to Bright Falls will release the inner muse, but this is not what she had in mind. She disappears, people start attacking, and a vicious darkness threatens to unravel Wake's threadbare remains of sanity.

The Taken come by night, citizens enveloped in a black, surreal haze. They ramble maniacally, spewing meaningless fractions of conversations from previous lives. Wake's only hope for survival is to cling to the light and wield it as his sword and shield. Taken can never be attacked directly. They must be cleansed of their black armor with flashlights, flares, or even the headlights of a car. Only then will bullets have any affect. Wake is no action hero. Taken are faster, overwhelming Wake at every opportunity with a maelstrom of sickles and axes.

Combat is wonderfully nerve-wracking. It's almost a relief when you're faced with a lone Taken, versus the usual swarms that clamor through windows and skitter through the bushes. Wake dodges with fluid precision, but footwork is always second to quick strategy. With only one flare left, do you light it and make a last stand with your shotgun, or do you haphazardly dash for the shack in the distance and use the flare to shield you while starting the generator. The darkness is unrelenting, determined to halt Wake with legions of Taken, possessed construction vehicles, and debris thrown from the sky.

The fear is most powerful when the game keeps you actively engaged. This sounds obvious, but horror games typically fall into one of two categories - atmospheric, ala Silent Hill, or intensely action-packed, ala Dead Space. Alan Wake wants to be both, but falls into routine as it slides back and forth. Wake narrates the next objective, the world gets deathly quiet, things attack, and Wake unlocks a door to proceed. There are a few startling curveballs, but generally, you quickly learn when it's safe to relax and when you're about to be assaulted.

Alan Wake has been overly-tuned so that the player regularly feels like a rat in a single-corridor maze. Secret stashes of supplies are hidden a few steps off the beaten path, but almost no opportunities for significant exploration exist. Planks tumble to conveniently block doors, abandoned cars are impeccably parked to form perfect walls on streets, and Wake has the power to move one-ton mine carts, but he can't bypass a cardboard box.

There is ample room to maneuver in the forests, and plenty of panicked, disoriented moments, but you will soon hate the woods if you don't already. The foliage is gorgeous, even as the ominous winds of the dark presence rampage through the trees, but this is not supposed to be a hiking trip. To be blunt, there were times when I wanted to quit out of sheer boredom.

The most atrocious evidence of Remedy's constant guiding hand happens with begrudging regularity. Don't get too attached to your weapons, because they will be stripped away, repeatedly. I can understand why Wake would have to ditch the handgun and the shotgun before going to the Sheriff's office, but not for an uneventful scene-change. When Wake takes a nasty fall, I pretend that my ten flares, 20 packs of batteries, three flashbangs, and hunting rifle flew out of my pockets (and never came down?). That doesn't explain why my heavy-duty flashlight, still clutched firmly in-hand, has reverted back into the basic model.

The civilized regions of Bright Falls are no less dangerous, but far more captivating. Remedy uses the environment to empower the narrative with meaning that you don't get from dialogue and cutscenes, but only if you keep your eyes open. From stuffed animals mounted on walls, to historical plaques and even a board game strewn about a table, Alan Wake is rife with evocative symbolism. Not everything is a psychological construction though. Listening to a caller on the radio talk about fishing, and then seeing him with his fish back in town, gives Bright Falls a life of its own. With or without Wake, life rolls on.

'The manuscript' is a constant plot-device in Alan Wake, and a main source of contention. The pages litter the landscape, waiting to be found. Wake appears to have written them, although they often describe events that haven't happened, but certainly will. On one hand, the manuscript adds another layer to the already thick mystery of Bright Falls. On the other, it ruins many of the game's surprises. Many pages provide deeper backgrounds for the inhabitants, but serve to highlight characters that feel like vaporous loose-ends in the grand scheme. Then again, perhaps their stories will be told through future content - content assured by the final line of the closing credits.

Alan Wake flip-flops between brilliant and mundane, a powerful example of gaming at its finest, and an average thriller. The environments are beautiful, and saturated in subtle allusions and symbolism. Pretty scenery can't mask grievances such as disappearing weapons and formulaic progression though. Alan Wake is rarely terrifying, but the mysteries and revelations of Wake's journey bear more than enough weight to pull you through the rough spots, and towards the extraordinary finale.


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