There is something undeniably unsettling about walking through the countryside after dark. Every sense is heightened. Sounds and smells that you wouldn’t have noticed in the daytime resonate with far greater importance and every little movement in the undergrowth leaves you wondering if you are truly alone; or if you are, in fact, being watched. This primal instinct is invoked to some degree by Alan Wake, but the atmosphere and subtlety is countered a little by the sheer number of axe-wielding clones.
Alan Wake is a strange beast. Part action horror and part open world interactive novel, it manages to carve out a new niche for itself. Remedy clearly wanted to pay homage to Stephen King’s particular brand of fiction when they wrote the story. This is clear from the massive amount of spoken references made throughout. What they actually achieved though is far more akin to a parody of King’s work and it’s arguably better for it.
The story centres round horror fiction writer Alan Wake who has been struck with an awful case of writer’s block. Alan’s wife, Alice, decides to try and help him get his mojo back by taking him on a nice, relaxing trip to Bright Falls – a sleepy Washington town in the middle of a mountain range. Things don’t exactly go according to plan though, as shortly after arriving Alice is kidnapped by a demonic force living under Bright Falls’ Cauldron Lake. To top it all off, Alan wakes up having lost a week of his memory and discovers that he has written a full manuscript in the meantime. Until recently this would have been the answer to his prayers, but it turns out to be a waking nightmare as the story has been written about his holiday and the events in it are slowly coming true. Pretty soon, the town’s inhabitants start to turn against Alan, becoming possessed demons when the sun goes down. In order to save his wife and to stop the spread of the dark force, Alan must enlist the help of his chubby publishing agent, a friendly town sheriff and some clapped out rock stars.
Trust me when I say that the plot is far from terrifying. If you approach this hoping to have the pants scared off you, then are bound to leave disappointed. The demonic force is represented by a doddering old biddy for God’s sake! Look a little deeper though and you will find a lot to love about Alan Wake. Remedy has a knack for creating excellent tongue-in-cheek dialogue that really adds great comic relief to its games. This was very apparent in the original two Max Payne titles and, whilst the jokes may not be as self-referential as Max’s dulcet narrative, they still manage to break down that fourth wall at times. This is most apparent in the mini-series Night Springs that can be viewed at random TV sets throughout the game. It is obviously a parody of The Twilight Zone, but it also serves the purpose of simultaneously acknowledging Alan Wake’s slightly corny premise and foreshadowing other events that have yet to take place in the story. Other pop culture references include an Xbox 360 in a mental patient’s room, an axe crashing through a wooden door in a shockingly similar fashion to Stephen King’s The Shining and – bizarrely – The Lord Of The Rings.
That’s not to say there aren’t some scares to be found in Alan Wake though. The actual atmosphere created by the game world itself can be very unsettling at times. This is largely attributable to the fantastic lighting system and particle effects that looked very impressive on the 360, but really enter a class of their own with the PC version. Moonlight shines realistically through swaying treetops, eerily highlighting misty vapours clinging to forest floors. Every single plant and expanse of water seems perfectly rendered, whilst huge draw distances really give the impression of the vastness of nature. Sometimes I could feel my heart beating in expectancy as I trudged through the undergrowth, but this illusion was quickly shattered after encountering so many identical homicidal lumberjacks.
This is really my main criticism of Alan Wake. It spoils whatever fear it could have inspired in its players through shameless repetition. The basic idea for much of the gameplay involves dual wielding a gun and a torch to dispatch the hordes of “darkness” controlled enemies. This works by shining Alan’s torch on a foe before pumping them full of lead. The beam can be intensified by holding down the right mouse trigger, which removes the darkness faster but invariably leads to the torch running out of batteries quicker. Gameplay quickly becomes centred round this idea of balancing battery supplies with ammo and it may enter into survival horror territory in this respect; but it never really feels desperate enough to be classed as such. Everything seems just slightly too easy and whilst the keyboard and mouse controls are super responsive, you may find it more immersive to play with a 360 controller instead to make the aiming more ponderous. Hitting yourself over the head with a mallet to slow down your reaction times may also help.
Unfortunately, the mission structure of Alan Wake isn’t really any more inspired than its combat system. Although the game world itself is huge, Alan is inexplicably shepherded from A to B down linear paths throughout, knocking off demons on his way to another scripted cut scene. There is some relief in this respect though, as some levels are sandwiched with daytime explorations of Bright Falls in order to advance the story. These locations include a sheriff’s station, a trailer park, a cheery diner and a mountainside mental hospital. There are also some driving sections later on in the game too, which at least graduate the player from running through forests to driving through them. Overall though, it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to explore a fantastic open world.
Luckily, the sound design does a lot to redeem Alan Wake. Like the brilliantly rendered world, the audio cues and sound effects go a long way towards creating tension. Well placed violin strains can actually produce jump scares at times, whilst the creeping orchestral melody mixes eerily with the forest noises to create a degree of suspense. The soundtrack chosen for the game is also stellar, with standout tracks like Poets Of The Fall’s “War” and “Old Gods Of Asgard” (which were written specifically for the game) providing two of the most memorable moments.
All in all, Alan Wake is a wonderfully presented if slightly linear experience. People who are looking for a genuinely terrifying game need not apply, but those with a sense of humour and an eye for fantastic presentation will find a lot to love here. The game world is one of the most graphically detailed and beautifully realised I have ever seen. It is perhaps a shame then that the game itself delivers formulaic gameplay that doesn’t quite live up to its own lofty promises.