Alan Wake has topped my most-anticipated-games list since it was announced early in the Xbox 360’s lifecycle. It was unveiled as having a protagonist writer from the Northwest, a strong focus on plot and a mysterious light/dark dynamic that promised some intriguing gameplay. The only problem: the whole “early in the Xbox 360’s lifecycle” thing. Two games in the Gears of War franchise have come and gone since Alan Wake was first announced. Would the game still hold up graphically? Would the plot be refined or muddled? Would the gaming audience, myself included, even remember the new IP from Max Payne’s creators at Remedy? Well, rest assured that Alan Wake does not disappoint, in spite of its age. In fact, its age may be one of the things responsible for its delivery of a more intriguing and high-quality experience than I originally expected.
With so many years in development, Remedy could’ve lost its focus on plot, lost its ability to see the forest for the trees, or lost its original thinking. Instead, it seems like the developer was able to steep its idea for a richer experience, and maybe even borrow some of the best practices from games that have come and gone since its original unveiling by Microsoft.
To recap the plot of Alan Wake is to delve into an unforgivable world of spoilers, but here’s the 10,000-foot context. Alan Wake is a writer in need of some professional, and maybe even some personal, rejuvenation. To find it, he heads to a cabin in the remote forests of Washington State with his wife. And we all know what remote videogame forests mean, right? Alan’s wife goes missing, the town seems plagued by some zombies who emerge from the darkeness, and Alan struggles to differentiate nightmare from reality.
As trite as this oversimplification sounds, the story and gameplay remain surprisingly fresh, and Remedy manages to deliver an experience that makes the player struggle as much as Alan Wake to distinguish what’s real from what’s imaginary. Along the way, the gameplay mechanics immerse the player even further, much like Dead Space and Condemned: Criminal Origins drew players in with a bevy of tactics including scarce ammunition, playing light against shadows, and more subtle A/V illusions than you can possibly imagine.
Prior to its release, much ado was made of Alan Wake’s episodic structure — probably because people confused the term “episodic structure” with “episodic content.” Fret not: the entire Xbox 360 game is contained on the disc, and there’s no download required to have an absolute fantastic and complete time. What the episodic structure means is that the game is organized like a great novel or miniseries, with well fleshed-out acts (“episodes”) that weave a tale more developed than your average game’s. Second, almost as if Remedy knew that mature gamers won’t be able to pull off day-long gaming sessions, the game fires up each time with a TV-like recap akin to “previously on Alan Wake….” It’s a little touch, to be sure, but the recap is really nice for those of us who take a few days away from gaming for family duties, because within a minute or two we’re right back where we left off: immersed, engaged and ready to help Alan navigate the Washington forests.
Of course, the gameplay helps with that enjoyment as well. The reference above to Dead Space was no accident. Like EA’s great survival-horror game, Alan Wake forces players to think strategically while their mind races frantically through each harrowing encounter. The light/dark elements set an incredibly creepy stage at times, and the need to “stun” enemies with light before firing oh-so-precious bullets really messes with the mind. On more than one occasion, I just turned and ran to the next checkpoint out of “fear” and a lack of bullets, only to end up at a new save point with less ammo than I began with and more enemies chasing after me. Smart move? Not at all. Sign of an immersive, frantic experience? Absolutely.
The biggest surprise, though, not to mention the best considering the game’s “delay,” is just how good Alan Wake looks. The lighting engine is necessarily top-notch, but the textures and graphics on the whole are just as detailed, and even the animations are above average. The game does at times rely a bit too much on cutscenes, and just because they could animate an overabundance of demonic vehicles doesn’t mean Remedy should have, but at least it all looks good. And yes, like any good horror or Hitchcock film, the audio accounts for half or more of the overall intrigue.
Alan Wake could’ve been a flop considering the time between its unveiling and release, and it ran a very serious risk of seeming like anything but next-gen game. Yet Remedy used its time wisely, polishing the graphics, gameplay and story without straying too far from its original vision. The result is a game that may not be “best game ever” on any individual level, but taken as a whole provides one of the most immersive and enjoyable games to hit the Xbox 360 in years.
Click the following link to buy Alan Wake for Xbox 360. It’s worth the cash.
- Score: 9
- Gripping, intense and at times even scary, this one lives up to the hype and provides some reassurance that “mature” games really are continuing to be produced.
— Jonas Allen