Alan Wake is proof that the Xbox 360 is more than just a three franchise console. With the release of Halo 4 earlier this month, many critics came out of the woodworks claiming that Halo, along with Gears of War and Forza, is the only thing the system has going for it. However, gems like Remedy Entertainment’s 2010 psychological action thriller shows that the 360 has plenty to offer if you’re willing to look deep enough into its catalog.
After a brief tutorial section, Alan Wake begins with the title character taking a trip to the lovely town of Bright Falls hoping that a vacation will help with his two-year bout with writer’s block. When he arrives at his cabin, Alan discovers that the trip was merely a ploy by his wife, Alice, who hoped that the small town would give the bestselling thriller writer the inspiration he needed to get started on his new novel. Angered, Alan storms out of the cabin, but when night comes Alice is dragged into a lack by an entity and though Alan dives in after her he wakes up a week later inside of a crashed car.
A key theme of Alan Wake is the difference between light and dark and the game is able to provide an excellent contrast between the two. When the sun is up, Bright Falls feels serene, calm – safe; however, once the sun sets the town becomes a totally different beast.
The nighttime gameplay is when Alan Wake truly shines. The graphics of the game aren’t anything to write home about, but it’s ample to send chills down your spine and draw you in enough so that you jump as you play these night sections. Armed with a flashlight and a gun, the player is forced to trek through places like forests thickened with fog as Alan searches for answers and his wife.
The flashlight is necessary to fight the Taken—humans possessed by the darkness—as they are impervious to damage until you burn away their darkness leaving them vulnerable so you can pump them full of bullets.
Through the gameplay may seem simple at first, the fame does a great job of filling you with a sense of dread as you trudge through these darkened places because you never know when the Taken will show up or how many of them will be thrown out at you at once.
These battles with the Taken provide a certain level of tactical gameplay as you need to decide on the fly who to go after first—as our flashlight can hot only one at a time and boosting the intensity of the beam drains battery, not to mention that some of the Taken can teleport—or if you’re in a dire enough situation to use your flare gun. The option to run away is there, but issues arise with Alan not being very athletic. He can’t jump very high or sprint too fast or for too long, and while he can dodge, the mechanics aren’t perfect and it’s possible to dodge a blow and then fall off a cliff your doom, so unless there’s a light source nearby you’ll be forced to stand and fight.
Light sources in the form of lamp posts or cabins provide temporary safe havens that allow your health bar to fill up and your heart rate to slow down as you take a moment to catch your breath and assess the situation. For a moment you feel safe until that feeling of dead creeps down on you when you realize that you’ll soon have to step out of your sanctuary and back into the danger zone.
Finnish developer Remedy Entertainment—known for their work on the first two Max Payne games—does a solid job of putting together a narrative that makes your care enough to step out of the light. And just like Max Payne, which innovated use of bullet time in a game, Alan Wake’s gameplay is unique in its own way which is a plus and both games feature the title characters thinking out loud throughout the game although it can seem unnecessary at times when Alan would state the obvious.
Alan Wake is able to separate itself from anything Remedy Entertainment has ever done by being presented as a game that plays out as a mystery television program complete with excellent end credit music and ‘Last time on Alan Wake’ segments. The game is split into six episodes with each unraveling a piece of the puzzle, and each taking you through a different part of Bright Falls—at one point Alan finds himself in a committed to a mental ward—and the game does a great job mixing things up so that you’re not always on foot. The game does such a great job of making you feel so isolated and alone that there’s a sense of relief when someone tags along with you, though it’s always temporary. While the pacing and execution of these episodes are great, it won’t take too long to get through each and the overall game is hurt by its shortness in length.
As with most single player adventures, there truly isn’t much reason to go back and play through the game again unless you feel compelled to play through your favorite episode again. There are hidden extras in the game such as radios that play different segments of a nighttime talk show and television sets that play different segments of a fictional Night Spring show that uses real actors and while missing these things won’t hurt your experience, they definitely enhance it. These shows are worth a watch as they’re genuinely interesting and entertaining with one episode showcasing a man trying to prove his immortality by shooting himself in the head.
The ending of the game itself also felt a bit weak as the story doesn’t come to a satisfying conclusion and instead sets up the tale to be expanded through the DLC packs that were later released: The Writer and The Signal (560 MSP each), and then Alan Wake’s American Nightmare released in 2012 on Xbox Live (1200 MSP) which serves as another story expansion before full-fledged sequel is released.
Overall, Alan Wake is an excellent game.