|What do you get when you combine Stephen King's writing, Silent Hill's horror and Uncharted's epic production values? THIS AMAZING GAME!|
Although once infamous for incredibly atrocious voice acting and meme generation it is hard to deny how far survival horror games have advanced in over-all presentation with stunningly gory visuals, frightening sound effects and at least decent voice work (no more "masters of unlocking" or "Jill sandwiches"). But sadly the genre has waned down to pretty much just the Resident Evil, and Silent Hill series. However 2010 saw the release of a new horror game that made the upper tier of many top ten lists of the year and that game was Alan Wake for the Xbox 360.
Made by Remedy Entertainment; the same studio that brought us Max Payne, Alan Wake saw a rather long development time of five years, upon its release though it seems that those five years had payed off as Alan Wake enjoyed great critical reception and awards from many magazines and websites. While technically in the horror genre the game is more accurately described as a "psychological thriller" with its blend of horror, action, and story-telling.
As the game begins we are introduced to famed thriller novel writer Alan Wake who is suffering from an extended case of writer's block and is vacationing with his wife Alice in the small town of Bright Falls Washington to relieve the stress of his previous book tour. However the idea of a peaceful vacation is immediately cut short when Alan and Alice arrive at their lake cabin and Alice reveals she had brought a typewriter in hopes that Alan might find his muse somewhere in this town and get back to writing as well as wanting him to visit a special clinic for artists in the town. Frustrated and enraged, Alan storms out of the cabin only to hear the blood curdling scream of Alice being dragged into the lake by an unknown force, Alan dives in after her and blacks out.
After regaining consciousness Alan mysteriously finds himself with a concussion in his wrecked car teetering on the edge of a cliff and confusedly goes to find help, while on the way down the path he comes across pieces of a manuscript titled Departure and apparently authored by him, despite him not remembering ever writing it, and even more mysteriously the manuscript tells of Alan being attacked by a shadowy axe-murderer which actually ends up happening much to Alan's horror. As he ventures down the path he runs into more murderous shadowy figures known as The Taken, as well as more pieces of the manuscript which successfully predict more future occurrences. Alan must solve the mystery of the manuscript as well as the town itself, and find Alice while dodging the many shadowy figures and dangers that lie waiting for him.
The story-telling and narrative pace of the game is simply incredible. The story is presented in a fashion similar to a novel as Alan subconsciously narrates the events of the story and interacts with the various characters in Bright Falls. The story is broken up into several episodes similar to a thriller TV show with recaps in the form of "previously on Alan Wake" segments occurring before each new episode in order to quickly remind the player of past plot points that will be crucial to the upcoming events in the new chapters. And as a nice little homage for fans of horror novels, Alan Wake contains several nods to horror related books and films such as Stephen King's The Shining, and Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds which are quite cleverly integrated into the overall story.
I'm just gonna come out and say it here; Alan Wake has one of the best atmospheres of any horror game I have ever played. Since the main action takes place at night and the overall story is that of a horror story it is to be assumed that the game is going to have a dark, foreboding atmosphere; this game more than surpasses these expectations with its intense use of lighting, and sound. For a town called Bright Falls it is surprisingly dark and eerie, the night time sections have Alan running through beautifully designed land-scapes which are completely devoid of any light other than that of the moon, your flashlight, and the occasional camping lamp or street-light. Running through the dark in this game is very similar to running the foggy streets of Silent Hill in that it practically reeks of the tension of wondering around not knowing what or who lies in your path ahead. In fact I'd say Alan Wake manipulates tension just as well if not better than Silent Hill (well minus the M rated monsters).
As with any good horror movie or game, music and sound play a big role in overall atmosphere and the sound or lack thereof is used to great effect. As you walk the darkness alone the sounds of your footsteps, the night wind, and the cries of animals in the distance are your only companions and add to the overall feeling of loneliness and tension. The same goes for the encounters with the Taken, as chilling music begins to play when the Taken emerge from hiding to strike at Alan, as the encounter grows more intense, so does the music. Sound effects ranging from the insane babble the Taken spout as the chase you, to the chilling rev of a chainsaw are also guaranteed to provide nightmare fuel for weeks to come. Chills aside, Alan Wake has a really good soundtrack consisting of vocal performances from original artists Poets of the Fall, to songs from already famous artists such as Depeche Mode, Roy Orbison, and even David Bowie.
Alan Wake's control scheme is similar to Uncharted as Alan can move in full 3D,but when aiming the camera shifts to an over the shoulder view. Alan can run, jump and climb to get to where he needs to go which more often than not will be in a hurry, fortunately the controls are fluid and responsive with very little trouble or delay. The camera can go a little wild sometimes but it almost never causes major issues during the platforming.
Now lets get into the main portion of the game, the combat. As stated before the main enemies are shadowy beings known as The Taken which consists of various people, animals, and objects assimilated by the Dark Presence haunting Bright Falls, their forces are comprised of mostly taken humans, but there are a few other dangers such as flocks of ravens and even possessed objects. Alan's main form of defense against the hordes of darkness are a variety guns found laying about and his flashlight, which must both be used in conjunction to take down the Taken whom are protected by a shroud of darkness, Alan must shine his flashlight on The Taken in order to burn away the darkness protecting them and then open fire to destroy them. You can enter aim mode by lightly holding the left trigger and can also boost the light by holding the button all the way down, boosting burns away darkness faster but drains the flashlight battery which can recharge on its own but rather slowly. Of course you have to constantly reload your gun but you must also use batteries to keep your flashlight working constantly or it will go out for a few seconds and you will be unable to boost it.
However since this is a survival horror game you will need to take evasive action on more than one occasion as you will either run out of ammo or need to conserve it. If there is an incoming attack from a Taken you can quickly press the sprint button and move the control stick in the opposite direction to dodge the attack (in cool slow motion) and sprint away from the enemy, however Alan while fairly athletic cannot sprint indefinitely and will slow down after sprinting a long distance and will need to catch his breath. And you will be dodging constantly as The Taken just love to appear behind you, so its definitely important to look around you at all times, and if you feel threatened, dodge.
It is important to remember that light is your strongest weapon against The Taken, if you are surrounded you can pull out a flare to give yourself breathing room as the Taken will back away from Alan to keep their shrouds from being destroyed, Alan can also use flashbangs and flare guns to wipe out multiple Taken in one fell swoop, but these weapons should only be used in severe emergencies as they are not commonly found. And if all else fails, it is sometimes much better to run, if you can get under a lit street light or into a lit building your health will regenerate rapidly and any Taken that follow you will either be destroyed or will retreat back into the darkness. You can also use light fixtures and spotlights to instantly remove the dark shroud from the Taken without using the flashlight. This light and darkness aspect is brilliantly implemented and makes it to where no matter what the situation is there is always a way out, even if it involves running like a scared child, as well as playing a major role in the overall story.
Collectibles abound in Bright Falls, throughout the game you'll constantly be picking up coffee thermoses that serve little purpose other than achievements and completion, finding these is a combination of rewarding and FRUSTRATING, as you must venture off the beaten path in order to find them which can be really dangerous as I encountered a nearly endless tide of Taken trying to find a single coffee thermos off the main path. You can also find hidden caches of flares, flare guns, and flashbangs, by following signs visible only by shining your flashlight on the walls. And most importantly as you progress you will find pages of the mysterious manuscript that will warn you of the incoming danger and provide back-story for events that happened off-screen. Most of the pages can be found on the main path but there are a few hidden ones that can be found only be exploration, and there are also a few that can only be found on the hardest difficulty settting. There are other side-things to do such as listening to radio broadcasts, and watching episodes of a Twilight Zoneish show called Night Springs from hidden radios and TVs which are both rather entertaining and provide little fun facts about both the town and Alan's former career as a television writer.
In short the gameplay is both very good and extremely thrilling! Combat is tense, fluid, and requires you to think fast to avoid an axe to the head, there is some frustrating collection side-quests but unless you are a completionist it is unnecessary but still rewarding as the Night Falls shows are all rather entertaining, and the manuscripts shed light on a lot of story points that happened off-screen.
Alan Wake clocks in at about 10 hours of gameplay making it a rather short experience. However it is highly likely that you will miss most of the collectibles during the first playthrough so what better excuse than to start a new one. If you play the game on anything lower than Nightmare difficulty setting you will be unable to find all of the pages of the manuscript, so this is definitely a game worth replaying at least once or twice in order to get the full experience, and while the story may be the same, discovering these new pages will add enough incentive to play through it again as it fills in any holes you think you have found with the games story such as the "origin" of the Taken and the back-story to many of the characters Alan meets. And finally there are two additional DLC episodes that expand the game's story, its about 10$ for both episodes and they are quite good but very different from the main six chapters, I can't say much about them though for fear of spoilers other than I feel that they are quite worth the price.
Alan Wake is a shining example of how the wall between film and video games is gradually being torn down. This game feels like it could have also been an Oscar winning movie or Emmy-worth TV show with its amazing writing, story telling, and incredible voice-cast. The gameplay however is some of the best I've ever seen from a survival horror game as it feels very natural and fluid yet compelling and incredibly fun. Since this game has been on the market for about a year and a half now you can find it pretty cheap at any gamestore or even download it from the Xbox Live arcade which make it a rather great choice for any gamer on a budget (......like me). Anyone who owns a 360 needs to have at least played this game so give it at least a rent on Gamefly and then buy it afterwards once you've fallen in love with it.