Tuesday 24 July 2012

Alan Wake

The Title Screen

Alan Wake is a third person, "psychological action" game by Remedy. Originally released in 2010 for Xbox, the port over to PC was organised by Remedy themselves in 2012 (the long gap due to seeking permission from Microsoft). It features a single player campaign only. This review is on the PC version, available on Steam.

The First Thing
An experienced PC gamer will always be a little apprehensive when playing a new game that was released on consoles first. So it definitely hit me immediately what a good job the port was. In fact it is an example of "doing it right" that the rest of the industry should take notice of. A full graphics menu, rebindable keys, well implemented mouse control (with the ability to turn off acceleration) and improved graphics for the main game to satisfy the more powerful hardware PC base. It was even released at the lower price point that PC gamers expect and still met the development cost within 48 hours of the first sale.

Plot & Devices
Alan Wake is a successful, yet troubled writer who has not penned anything in two years. He is on holiday with his wife Alice in a remote mountain town to relax. Despite the seemingly idyllic location, something is amiss in Bright Falls. During the night Alice is kidnapped by a shadowy presence that also renders Alan unconscious. Waking in his crashed car, Alan discovers he has lost a week of his memory. Despite his head injury, Alan must discover what is wrong with Bright Falls, how to save Alice and how to stay safe from the enveloping shadows that appear to be hunting him.

Alice is kidnapped

The plot of Alan Wake is intentionally modelled on the horror genre. There are many references, both indirect and direct, to works by well known authors and television shows. The general idea is that Alan is experiencing a horror story, but for real. The plot is really what drives Alan Wake and there has been special care paid to its implementation and devices. In a nod to the Twilight Zone, the game is split up into episodes with each episode ending on a moment of drama and some licensed music. Then the game continues with "Previously on Alan Wake" and a mini recap. This does not serve as a level break, just as an interesting gaming experience.

Alan provides retrospective narration throughout the game, as if telling the story afterwards. It is similar in style to narration in Bastion but not quite as frequent. This allows the player to identify more with Alan's thought processes, much like a book. In keeping with the horror story theme, the player can find loose pages of manuscript which Alan narrates. The manuscripts contain snippets of information either about unseen events, or events that will happen to Alan in the future. Given that horror is often about suspense, this unique plot device might seem counter productive but I found that they actually heightened emotional immersion. Upon discovering a bad event will happen your first instinct is to be on your guard and try to prevent it - not laconic acceptance.

In-game conversations, radio broadcasts, readable signs and short cut scenes all help flesh out the setting with extra detail.

Exploring in the dark

The Game
Alan Wake calls itself a "psychological action thriller" and that seems pretty appropriate. Set in the third person, the player must traverse the town of Bright Falls and its surrounding forests and mountains. There is a strong focus on exploration and story meaning that other aspects of the game are comparatively simplistic. There is plenty of combat in the game, but it is not complex. There are only a couple of guns and only necessary items can be interacted with (guns. ammo. flares. required keys etc). The HUD is therefore quite minimalistic as well. Along the way the player will have to complete infrequent, basic platforming challenges as well as occasional quick-time events. There are also a few sections of gameplay where Alan can drive a car but it is never required, just advisable.

Alan can carry a pistol, a rifle or shotgun, a flare gun, flash grenades and flares. The torch he carries nearly all the time is pivotal to the tone of the game and also functions as another weapon in combat. The torch has an energy meter that depletes when it is focused and will recharge slowly during normal use. In emergencies a new battery can be used to 'reload' some of the energy. Health also regenerates slowly except when standing in pools of light, when it recharges much faster. Occasionally the player will find paint on objects or walls that can only be revealed with torchlight; providing hints or locations of secrets.

Enemies are infused with shadows and are invulnerable until they have had their protective darkness removed by light; which is where the torch comes in. Adversaries will be momentarily stunned/blinded by intense light and enough light will remove the shadows from them; allowing them to be killed by regular weapons. Since the torch has limited power, combat is just an exercise in priority decision making as to which enemy to shine the light on for how long. Large packs are trickier but can be handled with the use of flares and flash grenades. Sometimes possessed objects will attack Alan and require light to be destroyed. The player also will encounter stationary items that generate light for use in defence.

In the shadows, light is a weapon

Alan Wake is quite linear but the focus on story, as well as some intelligent level design, does well to disguise it. Exploring the level fully will result in collectibles and items useful to combat - which is important in the first half of the game as ammunition is scarce. The soundtrack is appropriately atmospheric and especially cinematic at times of high tension. Several licensed tracks have been used, helping create a "real world" feeling to it. Voice acting is of good standard, although a little emotionless at times.

Graphically the game is superb and although most of the gameplay does take place at night, it just illustrates the excellent quality of the lighting effects. The graphics menu is highly customisable and includes an FOV slider. Much attention has been paid to creating atmosphere through visuals. The shadows are prominent, the fog moves and swirls in the wind and filters are applied to the world when the Dark Presence is close. A definitely feeling of nervousness arises when the fog starts moving and the world becomes a little more blurry and threatening.

Alan can move, jump and sprint for a limited time. There is a dodge mechanic rolled into the sprint function and all keys can be rebound. Interacting with objects is handled by a visible prompt. I found the default controls fairly intuitive with only a minor change needed to suit my playstyle. The menus have full mouse support and the in-game mouse control is smooth and excellent - as long as mouse acceleration ("direct aiming") is turned off. Alan Wake opts for checkpoint system that is reasonably forgiving.

It took me 13 hours to complete on normal difficulty and this included a fair amount of exploring and collectible finding. Some collectibles are only available on nightmare difficulty mode.

Wrap Up & Negatives
There is nothing overly wrong with Alan Wake but there are definitely some little things that may cause annoyance. There is a lot of narration which may annoy some and once or twice it can override ongoing NPC conversation if the player accidentally moves too fast which is very irritating. Manuscript pages can also only be narrated from inside the manuscript menu and I would have preferred Alan to narrate them over the gameplay so it does not break up the flow as much.

Bizarre cutscene facial features

The focus on making the PC port look fantastic unfortunately results in making the cut scenes look horrible by comparison  - and they were clearly not that great to begin with. Horrible lip-sync, disturbing facial construction and occasional emotionless performances serve to make cut scenes unpleasant at times. There are also a little too many for my liking but they are instant and flow fairly well so it can be overlooked to a degree.

It would also be perfectly understandable if players get bored of the level design. You have to really like the mountainous american north-west as 80% of the gameplay takes place in dark and foggy forests. They atmosphere is fantastic, but it definitely can feel a little repetitive. Towards the end it starts to feel as if the game is contriving reasons to get you back into the forest at night. Considering the sameness of the design, levels can start to feel a bit too long sometimes and this then puts off exploration. On normal difficulty the game definitely was not challenging, but perhaps that is to be expected.

One particular gripe I had was to do with picking up specific items. If you need a particular item, then it can be difficult to pick it up if it is right next an item you have maximum capacity of. More than once I used a battery or fired a shot just so I could pick everything up. Combat as well can start to be feel repetitive, especially when ammunition conservation stops becoming an issue in the second half of the game.

I liked Alan Wake a fair amount. I have a thing for horror games and although this is not really 'horror' it has a lot of the features good horror games have; like story and exploration. In my opinion, the story is also really quite unique and interesting. It can seem a little fantastical/coincidental at times, but I maintain that is part of the point. I do admit to becoming less enamoured with the game as it went on due to the seemingly little variety in level design.

Outstanding visuals

It is definitely a great feeling to play a game that has been ported to PC with care and desire to create a good gaming experience. It is just a shame this is such a rare occurrence these days that it becomes something noteworthy. But they did a fantastic job and should be commended for it. I immensely liked the original Max Payne games and as this is by the same developer there feels some definite similarities - but it is certainly a different game and experience.

If you want a straight combat or horror game, perhaps this is not for you. If you are the kind of person who likes a bit of intrigue, exploring and an interesting story approach then I would suggest giving Alan Wake a shot. Oh. Also if you like Stephen King you should try too. The game certainly mentions him enough...

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