Last time we played a finished Remedy game Max Payne and Mona Sax were machine-gunning their way through hoodlums while exchanging whiskey-soaked comments dripping with an overblown Raymond Chandler wit. That was 2003, and in the years since the Finnish studio that gave us bullet time has been cobbling together Alan Wake. It moves away from the crime rings and nighttime streets of New York City to a fictional town called Bright Falls in the mountainous Pacific Northwest with great results.
The protagonist, Alan Wake, isn't initially an action hero. He's a popular fiction writer attempting to escape the pressures of fame and creative expectation whose vacation in Bright Falls quickly turns Twin Peaks weird. His wife goes missing, and his search to find her is swiftly diverted into the realm of the paranormal, forcing him to pick up a gun and pull the trigger to stay alive. It's an adventure heavily informed by television shows like X-Files and Twilight Zone and horror fiction from Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. Presentation, character building, and plot twists take on just as big a role as the tightly wound action gameplay you'd expect from a Remedy title. The result is a swirling tale of fiction that's endearingly self-aware, that occasionally sputters and stumbles, but offers enough scares, laughs, and thrills to keep you hooked.
The story spans six episodes, each crafted like part of a TV miniseries. After the first episode's exposition each that follows ends with a cliffhanger, fades to a title screen (strangely without credits) as songs from the game's excellent licensed soundtrack play, and then transitions into a plot recap as the next begins. Even if episodic gaming isn't particularly original at this point, the style of the presentation fits with what Remedy is trying to accomplish here; delivering a videogame experience that feels like a novel presented as a TV show.
This blending of different arts touches all aspects of the game, from how the story is told within each episode, the way the characters are developed, to how you interact with the environments. In place are standard cut-scenes where characters interact and advance the action along with plenty of inner monologue voice over from Wake as he comes across new and strange phenomena. Like in a written work, this allows for insight into the protagonist without the need for overly artificial character interaction to draw it out, and various other storytelling devices further fragment the order of reality. Techniques to convey the unfocused rage of Max Payne, which fans will find references to throughout Alan Wake, are used more subtly here to generate a sense of mystery, isolation, and creeping dread.
By leaving the straightforward path to the next checkpoint and exploring the surroundings, radios and television sets can found in spots like wooden lookout towers and construction site trailers. It may be tempting for some to plow past these extras to get to the end, but I'd strongly advise you take the time to listen to and watch everything you can. It highlights what a great job Remedy has done building a richly detailed game world that retains authenticity even as its plot spirals further into the mists of the fantastic.
Details delivered through radio broadcasts and the Twilight Zone-esque live-action "Night Springs" television show poke fun at the genre's conventions, build out character, and dump more self-referential slabs into Remedy's melting pot of mediums. Wake frequently stumbles across manuscript pages which, like audio logs in BioShock, serve the purpose of providing perspective from other characters not otherwise possible, foreshadowing events to come, as well as explaining bits of the backstory. The twist is the pages were written by Wake himself, something he can't recall doing. Making sure you explore and collect as many as possible helps to more fully develop the world and story, as well as building tension as the game blurs truth and fiction.
Bright Falls and its forested mountainous surroundings are masterfully realized and resonate with realism. Wake is a famous figure everyone recognizes, all the townsfolk know each other, and they seems more concerned and excited over an upcoming town festival than they are with the dangers encroaching from all sides. Of course everyone has their secrets, some malevolent and some hilarious, and sifting through the radio programs, manuscript pages, and talking to everyone helps solidify their identities. While many still come off as stereotypical – there's the staple comic-relief character, the batty old woman, the good-hearted local cop, the troublesome FBI agent – the way they behave and interrelate keeps them entertaining. Remedy built in a large amount of extraneous dialogue that's worth hearing so if you find a character be sure to hang around and listen to what they've got to say, even if not all the voice acting is of the same high quality.
Additional character is exuded by the design of the environments. Remedy's skill with crafting spaces that feel lived in is readily apparent. Locations are packed with detail and feel rusted and worn. Weeds choke the back lot of the police station, surrounding the husk of a long forgotten vehicle. A recliner ringed with beer cans sits atop a construction container overlooking a brilliantly lighted power plant, reinforcing the idea that there isn't a whole lot to do for fun around these parts. A mental therapy building is lined with inspirational posters and idyllic paintings that reflect the ego of the proprietor and function of the establishment. This intimate scale of detail is then juxtaposed with sprawling vistas as you peer deep into moonlit mountain valleys rippling with shadow. It gives the game a sense of place and purpose. It isn't a copy and paste environment, but a space of routine and work, making it an easy world to accept and identify with.
During the day in each episode Wake can wander and talk to NPCs, but once the clouds roll in and the moon lights up it's a whole different beast. Shadows flit across the ground at supernatural speed like X-Files black oil when threats are imminent. The lighting effects can be stunning. Moonlight pours from above, streetlamps and construction bulbs indicate the way forward, and Wake's all-important flashlight is a tool for exploration and, more importantly, to vanquish threats. Just because there's such a focus on story and presentation doesn't mean the game lacks a responsive and satisfying combat system.
Wake's arsenal isn't gigantic, but everything's useful. Emerging from the woods are humans infected with darkness, voracious birds, large pieces of machinery and automobiles that get tossed around like toys, and even massive construction vehicles that burst from their resting places to flatten you. The first order of business in stopping anything taken by darkness is to hit it with light. Wake's flashlight is the most direct method. Point it at a dark target and a shower of sparks like a circular saw on sheet metal go flying off. Sound effects shriek like power drills and with continued exposure to light the darkness surrounding a target is shattered. Follow it up with a shot from a pistol, shotgun or hunting rifle and you've got a kill. It's a simple interplay that's helped along with some smooth animations and weighty sounds that give firearms and collisions a powerful feel.
The more you play, the more variety is added to the combat. Flares sparked in Wake's hand push back the shadow enemies, keeping them stumbling for the light's duration. For a quick escape Wake can drop it to the ground and dart off while the stick burns down. Running away is frequently an option in the game, though limited in a few ways. Enemies are fast, attack often by swinging shovels and knives or by tossing axes. You have a dodge move that can duck under individual attacks, but it requires precise timing. Combine that with the fact that Wake does not have an unlimited sprint and you'll have difficulty running to the next lighted checkpoint with regularity, forcing you to consider ammunition reserves, distance to the next checkpoint, and how thoroughly you want to explore each area before advancing.
When packs of foes gang up Wake can also take advantage of other light sources. A flare gun acts like a rocket launcher by detonating in a brilliant bang, disintegrating any in range. Flashbangs burst like grenades, clearing enough room to let you squeeze through or duck behind cover to try and regenerate health. Environmental hazards can be utilized as well by ducking out of the way as an enemy lands a blow into exposed electrical wiring, detonating an explosive container, or flicking on construction lamps. Foes advance at different speeds and getting familiar with the wrinkles of combat – like a how a concentrated blast of light can momentarily stun – can help keep things in order and allow you to pick apart the shifting shadows one at a time. It's a system that's best when it's challenging, so crank the difficulty to hard if you've got any experience playing games. The normal setting is very forgiving and it's tough to appreciate how rewarding a killshot can be if you haven't put much effort into the process.
Combat progression culminates in a handful of thrilling sequences that I can't really describe in detail here for fear or spoiling things, but Valve fans might find one to be especially familiar. In open spaces enemies can attack from all angles, meaning you need to be constantly on guard and must shift the angle of the camera to get a good view. This also leads to one of the game's issues where it's easy to get the camera rotated behind a tree or other environmental obstacle, obscuring the action. In many cases on a high difficulty setting this means an axe to the face or step off a nearby cliff, which can be unfortunate if it's been a fair amount of time since the last checkpoint. It's not a major flaw but it's noticeable enough to make an impact on the experience.
As for the actual story, it's a case where the questions raised are often more interesting than the answers, and where deeper meaning is often brushed aside in the name of entertainment. By the time everything's wrapping up at the end you might feel a slight pang of disappointment since enough loose ends are left fluttering to allow for future episodes, and the climactic encounter teased throughout the course of the game leaves quite a bit to be desired. To learn everything about the world and the story a second playthrough on Nightmare mode is required since that's the only way to collect all the manuscript pages, some of which aren't especially interesting and too plainly written. Nightmare mode is still at least worth a look to relive events with full knowledge of how they'll eventually play out to get a true measure of how well you can fight.
Exploration is limited to small areas around the linear path forward and, aside from the radios and televisions, there are a wealth of collectibles to pick up and hidden ammunition and weapons to uncover. Occasionally Wake will have to hop into a vehicle instead of proceed on foot in which case the headlights can blast away darkness from enemies and a tap by the car can put them down for good, but these parts can't really compare to the excitement of the on-foot action. It's a welcome change of pace to be able to get out and cover large distances swiftly while admiring the scenery, but you lose the sense of vulnerability and isolation felt as Wake ventures into underground mine shafts and hedge mazes as the wind howls and strings surge on the soundtrack.
I also have to point out that the choice of product placement in Alan Wake is absolutely atrocious. There are less offensive examples like branded batteries and car radios, but one particular television broadcast and a number of roadside billboards are heinous eyesores. I suppose these were necessary to get the game out the door, but it's still an unfortunate commercial blight on an otherwise excellent game.
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