Sunday, January 2, 2011

REVIEW - Alan Wake.

Remedy Entertainment has a great deal of credit, with me. When Max Payne arrived it seemed so far ahead of its time - a game that actually models the bullets you fire - incredible! Max Payne 2 was the first game I ever played that used the Havok physics engine - it was a revelation to shoot a dude, see him crash into a shelving unit and watch its contents go flying.

The Finnish studio has always been on the cutting edge of technology, but more than that their games stood out with a great sense of time and place, and silky-smooth playability. It's not an exaggeration to suggest I enjoyed the simple act of playing Max Payne 2 so much I beat its campaign about fifty times.

That's rare.

Alan Wake shares all those strengths, works the Xbox 360 hardware like a sweating draft horse and boasts remarkable use of technology in service to its singular visual design. It's the rest of what Remedy is known for - overwrought, ultra self-conscious storytelling - that grips Wake about the arms and holds it, struggling, from reaching its ambition as a psychological thriller.

The wordy, winking, extraneous dialogue and expository voice overs of Max Payne are here in full force - in fact, the ratio of words words words to gameplay seem to have multiplied like nymphomaniac rabbits in the seven years since Remedy's last game. Unlike Payne's noirish, ironic pastiche - where it still managed to work, no matter how ridiculous it was - the sheer volume of redundant dialogue in Alan Wake handily and repeatedly shatters the tension so carefully and beautifully crafted with the visual arts and sound design.

It's... well, it's a fucking tragedy.

The player will do something like enter a big shower room. All is silent. Sweeping their flashlight over the space, the beam finally lands on an evil demented clown head with serrated teeth emerging from the central drain. Terror grips them. What could this possibly-

"There was a clown's head with serrated teeth coming out of the drain," Wake interrupts.

I know, I can see it. There goes my suspension of disbelief.

"This is just like in It, by Stephen King."

I know...

"I love Stephen King."

I guess that slipped by me, what with the first two spoken words in the game being "Stephen King." Shut up. There was some great tension there, and you just fucked it right up.

That wasn't a spoiler, by the way - there is no clown's head - but the game will continually build up this fantastic tension and smash it away with the unrestrained pen of scribe Sam Lake. To reach its full potential, Alan Wake needed subtlety, and between this and Heavy Rain, I'm beginning to wonder if that's something ambitious European studios can manage.

The story-telling is often (not always) terrible, corny, and packed tight with blunt-force-trauma foreshadowing that leaves little to the imagination.

Odd then, that while it's told with all the grace of a newly-hobbled Paul Sheldon, the story itself is actually pretty good. As in the most memorable Stephen King books, the quaint, pretty, isolated town of Bright Falls is full of good people and good intentions, surrounded by natural beauty. Gorgeous mountains scrape at the sky beyond, and every character - save Alan's barely-there wife - is well-realized, and tangible.

It's true, they also tend to come across as hollow, 3D marionettes, but still...

The world you explore often feels very real, and despite facial animation that's rather last-gen and hit-or-miss voice work, it's hard not to become involved in things, and find yourself absorbed in the mystery that haunts Cauldron Lake.

The game is an unqualified success in terms of visual artistry. Remedy mastered the rendering of a believable urban landscape in Max Payne 2 - so the homes and stores of Bright Falls hold no great challenge for them - but few are the titles that can make a good-looking forest. Alan Wake's forests are absolutely incredible.

Things look better-than-good as you're trudging along, but when The Darkness that stalks Alan comes into play, it becomes a glorious, swirling miasma of distant, calling light and inky blacks, curling around trees and steaming from the possessed mountain folk that stalk you.

In these moments, Alan Wake handily summons that, deep, oft-forgotten evolutionarily-ingrained fear we all share of the dark.

That sounds excessive, doesn't it? It's not. It's apt.

You're never safe in the darkness in Alan Wake. In the dark is mystery and evil and terror - and before long you find yourself desperately dodging the frantic blades of your pursuers, tearing headlong for a lonely lamp post that will, for even a moment, let you stand in the light.

Let you be safe, and breathe easy. In that, it's an absolute triumph - and a realization of Alan Wake's central ambition.

There are a few light puzzle elements, but the core gameplay is run-of-the-mill third-person shooting. It's given a bit of a shake-up here with the need to shine your flashlight at an enemy to burn the protective darkness off before your bullets will harm them.

I played through on hard difficulty - perhaps it's not as engaging on normal - but I found it to be a very pleasurable title to simply play. You must very quickly choose your tools and form a strategy to defeat your shadow-cloaked foes. Keep moving, keep on your toes, keep the batteries in your flashlight fresh.

It's hectic but considered, thoughtful and immensely satisfying when you place the barrel of your shotgun against the chest of an enemy and watch them explode into a shower of fiery sparks.

"It's just like in Blade II!" Alan would point out.

I agree. The gunplay isn't significantly deep, but it's absolutely fun to play, rewarding and totally gorgeous.

Alan Wake is another hugely ambitious title from Remedy, and yes - it's a bit hit-or miss - but the final impression it leaves is not one of squandered potential.

The wonderful visuals, interesting story and enjoyable, satisfying combat make it a game that's just straight-up fun to play, and happily provides pleasure on repeat playthroughs. It's unfortunate that the central conceit and overall presentation suffers under the heavy-handed storytelling, weak facial animation and mixed voice work, but that doesn't stop Wake from claiming its own place as an enjoyable, interesting, singular title.

-seriously gorgeous nighttime forests, but very good-looking across the board
-an interesting story
-fun, satisfying gameplay
-fantastic lighting engine
-often manages to be very immersive and scary, before it unintentionally screws it up

-overwritten, redundant dialogue often stomps all over the tension and atmosphere
-heavy-handed foreshadowing claws at the story's potential
-hit-or-miss voice work
-crappy facial animation
-artifacting during pre-rendered cutscenes? Seriously?

Definitely check out Alan Wake - it's a fun game, but a bit of a mixed bag.


  1. My complaints with the game are

    1) fucking boob tube
    2) too many goddamn forests you have to traipse through
    3) the plot underdelivers with an unsatisfying ending that requires one get the DLC to experience the full story

    bee tee dubs, chance, you have to get the DLC for AW. esp The Writer, which is better than the game itself by far

  2. (1) I thought the TVs were a reasonable nod to the Payne games, and a welcome comedic respite from the straight-laced, stone-faced presentation that dominates the rest of the title.

    It was a good device for slowly allowing Alan to "remember" his missing week.

    (2) I dunno, I thought the forests were some of the best parts. It's definitely where the creep factor really delivers.

    (3) I actually rather liked the ending. The Signal didn't feel like The Ending to me, it felt like The Epilogue. The further adventures of Alan Wake - but not his defining moment - which is adequately covered in the central game. much does The Writer cost...? (Checks.) About ten bucks? That ain't bad, I guess - compared to a full-priced game. But I bought Wake for $20, which makes it a terrible deal.

    Does The Writer actually wrap the story up in a neat little bow?

  3. it's seven bucks in american dollars, chance

    400 ms points

    and yes, it neatly wraps up the whole story, is the by far funnest and best part of the AW story (seriously if the rest of the game was like the Writer it would've been a GOTY contender), and is just fuckin fantastic

    also boob tube is NOT the TVs. it's a specific tv in episode four that is insultingly stupid and awful. i agree with you that generally the TVs were totally baller but this one isn't

  4. Well that is a bit stupid.

    I heard what they wanted to do with the DLC was bridge the gap between Alan Wake and its inevitable sequel - none to pleased to hear that you have to pay to get the "real" ending.

    Still, I like Wake enough to put a few more funbucks towards it - and I would like to see him get out of that lake and back into the arms of whats-her-name.