I got a copy of Alan Wake, for Xbox 360, this weekend. I started to play it and didn’t really know what to expect, I knew the game had been in development for a while now, but that was pretty much it. I didn’t know what it was about, the story, the genre, the world or anything. So I approached it with no expectations whatsoever, and I must say that perhaps that was for the very best.
The moment I started the game I felt a strong atmosphere, not that of an horror game, but that of a reality, the game’s reality. Much like a TV show, which has its cast and its set of events and this feeling is hugely aided by the format of the game. It’s great and fits perfectly with the story in a lot of ways. For those of you who haven’t played Alan Wake yet, the game is divided in episodes, much like a TV show, like Supernatural, if you will. Each episode takes from 1 and half to 2 hours, depending on skill level and knowledge of the story. They usually end in a cliffhanger or a revealing moment and the beginning of each new episode starts with a “Previously on Alan Wake” presentation introducing some important facts for the current episode. Having this episodic format helps the game to keep a great pace and maintain a seasonal feeling. Which includes the fact that more episodes will come in DLC. Episodes also reference back to books, which is what Alan Wake does for a living, he writes books. And it’s what the game revolves around, a manuscript Alan allegedly wrote.
Detail seems to be a big deal to Remedy, since you can spot places you were in different episodes and see places you wish to go in the distant landscape. In one episode, I could see a couple of floodlights bathing the clouds above the town and kept wondering what it was. After some time I found myself there and I could see the very street I was when I looked up and had that thought. And this is not a one-time thing neither. During another moment, you have to make you way through the mountains and more than once or twice you can see the places you’ve been in the distance, including seeing places you have visited previously, in other episodes, that led to different places.
The soundtrack is one thing that really surprised me. At the ending of each episode you have a featured song, which usually refers to some part of the episode, which makes you think they were either expertly crafted for the game of carefully picked to fit it, which again, makes you think back to how much thought and care this game received. Sound was also used very intelligently, for example, there’s only one sound for a locked door, but it’s such a generic SFx that you don’t get exactly sick of it, instead, you quickly relate it to doors you won’t be able to explore. And there’s not a single door that’s closed and doesn’t play that sound in the game. There’re sounds for everything in the game, from reloading your weapon to the flickering of your flashlight if it’s weak on batteries, going through the swaying of leaves in a tree out in the courtyard during a brewing storm. And it’s those same sounds that help you check if you’re OK or if it’s time to start searching for some bigger light source.
When dusk comes, Bright Falls becomes a hostile environment which you quickly come to get anxious and nauseous about. Specially when you’re wandering the dark woods. When you’re alone and slowly walking among trees and rocks in the dark, silent woods of Bright Falls’ forest you come to think of your flashlight as your best weapon. The Taken, which are your primary enemies in the game, are like Shadow minions, so if there’s shadows, they can pop up there. Now imagine being lost in a forest at night! How many shadows are there? They can practically come from anywhere. So if you turn you back at then and start simply running, they’ll appear right behind you, thus making just running a bad idea. The only way to keep them at bay and possibly get away is to keep them in the light with your flashlight, that makes them a bit uncomfortable and halts their charge, but point enough light at them and they become vulnerable to gunfire, which might at first seem like a good thing, but there’s a catch here.
As they become vulnerable, which means, the external darkness fades away, they can be killed with bullets, but light no longer affects them so hard. Which means you either kill it fast, or it’ll close in on you fast. It’s a nice gameplay feature, because although it changes the game, it still balances the danger. Once you get rid of the darkness in one of them you must commit to killing it, otherwise it closes in on you much faster.
The atmosphere is superb, when you’re walking in the dark you can see nothing but your flashlight, and these environment sounds around you keep you thinking if it’s an enemy, or just noise. You’ll be turning for a door and meeting enemies at point blank, ready to cut your arm off more times than you’d like to. Which is something great, because it keeps the tension on. You’re never really safe. It mixes exploration with action, something Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (a similar game in more than one way) failed to deliver.
The items you find are simple and clear on how to use them, which is always good news for newcomers. But the enemies are resilient and numerous enough that you will find yourself in though situations and forced to expertly use your resources, which will please the more hardcore gamers playing the harder difficulties. Revolvers, Double-barreled shotguns, pump-action shotguns, hunting rifles and flare guns and the only weapons you’ll find, which are weapons you would inevitably find in countryside houses and towns. Emergency flares and flashbang grenades are also on the list, as throwable weapons. The flare gun is the most powerful weapons in the game, and the most rare one to come across until later in the game. One shot from it will eliminate any enemies unprotected by darkness in its area. If you want something more direct, you could try shooting one of the flares into an enemy and see it explore as if it were a 4th of July firework.
The dodge system is very simple, and reminds me of Resident Evil 3: The Last Escape. Press a shoulder button at the right time to dodge. The difference is that this time the dodge works all the time, even if you don’t synch it. And the animation for it is not something expertly done. It’s more like a fumbled jump to the side accompanied by a ducking move and it works beautifully, because that’s exactly the kind of movement you’d expect from someone that’s not an athlete. If you do synch the dodge with an incoming attack, you trigger a slow-motion cinematic dodge, which lets you breath for a little longer and allows you to take a better look at the situation.
The writing is a brilliant work of creativity, there’s no logical explanation (at the very least, not yet) for the events and the entities that haunt the place. Which conflicts with the writer’s very beliefs, or disbeliefs for that matter. Alan Wake is a skeptic, his only perception of the supernatural was that it was a huge metaphor for the human psyche. When this happens to him, the writer, it’s like it’s happening to ourselves, because the majority of gamers are seeing the game as a work of fiction and are also disbelievers at some level. So both objectives line up.
Another interesting fact is that the story of the game is about a script you wrote, and the script you wrote is about the story of the game so you’ll be finding loose pages of the manuscript around the world, and get to read about events that have or not yet happened to you and while this may seem strange at first it’s actually a perfect way to prepare the player or leave a mysterious air about something, or even explain something. The words in the pages are loose, and usually depict a very particular scene that is impossible to determine when it happens or what it’s about unless you’ve already been through it. So if you have experienced the sequence, the script serves to explain things that were either left unanswered or that the player had no way of knowing. If you haven’t though, it serves as a shock moment, it’s saying that something will happen but there’s no way for you to pinpoint when it’s happening, so you can only try to make true sense of it. And sometimes you can’t even believe what you’ve read, it makes you anxious to know what happens next and sometimes it makes you nervous about what can you really do about it when it happens. When said event does come around the manuscript page gains new meaning and assumes the former use I mentioned. It’s a very interesting use of the story in itself.
The overall feel of the game is amazing, and you feel more like in a TV series than in a game, except it’s you controlling the character and it’s your choice happening on the screen. Honestly, I’m more excited about how Alan Wake’s story continues and ends than I ever was about how Lost ended. So I guess it’s that good and that better. Go see for yourself.