Alan Wake – XBOX 360 (game review)

“Wake me when Alan Wake is released.”

That used to be my running joke when my most anticipated game announced in 2006 failed to materialize year after year. In fact, for a spell of time between late 2007 and early ‘09, the game completely vanished from Microsoft’s radar, leading many to believe that it had been unceremoniously cancelled. Then, at last year’s E3 conference, Remedy finally exposed their labor of love to the light and allowed the gaming press to fawn all over it. Previews raved about the game’s taut mix of action gameplay and a driving narrative ripped from the pages of contemporary pulp fiction.

In Alan Wake, you take control of the titular hero, a popular scribe suffering from a maddening case of writer’s block. He follows his wife’s advice and visits the bucolic burg of Bright Falls looking for a little R & R in a bid to jog his mind loose and get busy with his day job. Bright Falls, like its sister city, Twin Peaks, is a seemingly peaceful Northwestern locale that reveals its dark nature the second the sun goes down. Within moments of checking in at a quaint lakeside cottage, Wake finds himself immersed in a nightmare scenario seemingly lifted from the pages of a manuscript he doesn’t recall writing, yet which bears his unmistakable writing style.

This leads you through a linear journey in which you guide Wake in the third person as he looks to shed light on the dark presence that has vexed this tormented town. Early on, Wake discovers that his trusty flashlight, combined with a small but potent arsenal, weakens the forces arrayed against him. Your journey takes you through the dense woodlands surrounding Bright Falls, with periodic stops at scenic tourist traps that hide malicious intent the moment the sky darkens, and ultimately into the writer’s mind as the game toys with perception and reality.

For a game four years in development, Alan Wake impresses immediately with its well polished visuals. Bright Falls feels like a real place, and the developer’s decision to begin each chapter with a slower-paced investigation in broad daylight makes for a compelling design choice, as the later segues into darkness leave you with that false sense of security so integral to good survival horror. Wake is arguably at its best in its early hours, as you investigate the seemingly normal trailer parks, diners and lumber yards that dot Bright Falls. Revisiting these locations under cover of darkness adds a suffocating air of menace that causes you to slow your progress as you shine your light around every corner. That’s survival horror done right.

While the character animation isn’t to the level of an Uncharted, it’s pretty close, which is a plus for a game that began when that narrative adventure was merely a twinkle in Naughty Dog’s eye. I bring up Uncharted for good reason, as both games work overtime to blend the line between game and cinematic entertainment. Where Uncharted aimed for summer blockbuster status, Alan Wake simulates the serialized television format (i.e., Lost), in which each chapter gives you another chunk of the plot before ending with a cliffhanger. Each subsequent chapter even begins with a “Previously on Alan Wake” recap. It’s a neat idea that might not be brand new (the Alone in the Dark reboot did it a couple of years back), but it does compel one to journey forth to see how Wake’s tale will twist next.

Unfortunately, the game’s narrative does grow thin the further into the game you delve. Aiming for a David Lynch mind meld, I found that the story, which had me engrossed three-quarters of the way through, just grew silly the closer I got to the end. The fact that the actual gameplay descends into rinse-and-repeat tactics (just flash your light on the small assortment of beasties before capping them with your gun) exposes the plot holes even more.

That being said, Alan Wake is absolutely worth playing for those stellar first and second acts. While Remedy might not stick the landing, they do offer a unique experience that sucks you in before the game swerves off the road near the end. Unfortunately, the gameplay does little to deviate from the same formula they applied to Max Payne almost a decade ago (just replace flashlight batteries with pain killers and you can see the parallels between their gameplay hooks tethered to pulpy narratives). Despite these flaws, I’m intrigued to see where Remedy takes Alan Wake’s journey in DLC. Given the episodic nature of the game, a second season delivered digitally might work to fix the flaws in this game’s fiction. Either way, there’s enough compelling content here to make Alan Wake appointment gaming.

[game 4.0]