When a game gets stuck in development for a few years longer than it's meant to have been, it often turns out to be, well... A little rubbish, to be honest. With a whopping five years under its belt (an eternity in game development terms), it's safe to say that most people were a little bit concerned about what that meant for Alan Wake.
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Thankfully, as it turns out, the end result is a game that's more polished, and more immersive than most games that came before it. What started out life as a free-roaming survival horror game starring a man with a scarf gradually evolved into "psychological horror" you see before you, a game that takes heavy cues from film and TV, starring a man who wears a hoody with a tweed jacket.
You play as Alan Wake, an insomniac author with writers block who visits the picturesque small town of Bright Falls to relax away from the pressing concerns of his editor, who's eager for the next bestseller. Unfortunately, all is not as it seems, as on his first night in the town his wife Alice disappears, and he wakes up a week later having crashed his car off a cliff. With a missing wife, a week he can't remember, and the discovery of a mysterious manuscript with his name on, that he can't remember writing, the mysteries start coming thick and fast.
Unlike similar games, Alan Wake's (the game, not the man) combat isn't just a case of "Spot enemy - shoot in head". Because the creatures of the night (also known as "The Taken") thrive on darkness, just shooting them does nothing. Instead, you need to burn away the darkness using whatever light source you can get your hands on, and then shoot them in the head. Quite often the light source in question is Alan's (the man, not the game) trusty flashlight, but you can also use mounted spotlights, flares, and flashbangs, depending on the situation. We'd recommend you save your flashbangs for when you get ambushed by a large group of Taken. Throw one at your feet, and when it explodes it obliterates everything in sight. Apart from you, obviously. You're not affected by the light.
This method of taking down the shields before being able to kill them means that battles which would normally be quite easy and settled in three headshots, whilst you're not even scratched, become a lot more heated, and you'll find yourself having to focus the light on one Taken before changing the batteries in the torch, moving the light to the other Taken that's suddenly right on top of you, then focusing it back on the original Taken, finally taking down his shield before desperately pulling the trigger three or four times, before going back to finish off the other guy... er, thing. There's an almost constant feeling of urgency, and when you realise you're out of ammo and there's no streetlamp of safety in sight, the panic starts to set in.
The atmosphere, and world Remedy have created in Alan Wake is superb. For the first few night-time sections you'll be constantly focusing your torch on every bush that breezes as you wander past, and unloading bullets into deserted cars by accident. Unfortunately, you'll soon realise that every time you're going to get set upon by the Taken, the game will helpfully inform you by going into bullet time, and swinging the camera round on the gang sneaking up behind you, whilst they, somewhat bizarrely, shout helpful facts at you ("OMEGA 3 FATTY ACIDS ARE GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH"), so you can quickly sweep round with your torch and pre-empt them. While this helps to make sure that you're never assaulted from behind without a chance, it also tends to ruin the suspense that they've tried so hard to create.
These bullet time sections are just one of the ways in which Remedy have tried to make the genre more accessible for first time players. The bullet time, hand in hand with the adaptive difficulty make it so people who've never played a third person adventure game before will be every bit as able to finish the game as the more hardcore survival horror fan. I just wish you could choose to turn the bullet time off.
We went into detail in our hands-on preview about the adaptive difficulty, but we'll recap it here too. According to the game's developers, they don't want you to die while playing Alan Wake. They realise it's a frustrating experience to repeatedly die whilst trying to get past the same section, so they've introduced an system of adaptive difficulty. What this means in real terms is that, while you may die the once, twice, or three times as your attempt a section, you'll notice that with each attempt, you manage to get closer to the end. The enemies take less hits; you can withstand more damage, and there may even be less enemies. By the time you've died four or five times, you've sometimes practically become a virtual tank, and although your health drops down, and the screen pulsates red to get your heart going, the game does everything it can to make it so you can actually complete the section, and get to the end.
The radio stations and Twilight Zone-esque Night Springs TV Shows also help to add to the atmosphere of the game, and really give the impression that you're wandering around a town populated with actual characters, instead of a ghost town.
As Alan Wake is an author, he tends to make references to his literary heroes through his internal monologue as you progress through the episodes. There are times when the references are slightly jarring, as the scene he's referencing is almost too popular to not be recognised by everyone. I won't spoil the scene for you, but you'll know the one I mean when you find it. With the exception of that one, the majority of the references are done quite well. The one that really stands out is when Barry (Alan's manager) phones Alan to inform him that "The birds are going all Hitchcock!"
In another move that's unusual for the genre, Alan Wake actually features a remarkable number of memorable set pieces. Each episode has at least one standout section that you'll remember (in the case of the Episode 2 set piece, you'll remember it for all the wrong reasons). But the best one by far is the concert scene you'll encounter towards the middle of the game. There's something special about fending off a stage invasion from hundreds of Taken whilst the Poets of the Fall (who play the in-game band, the Old Gods of Asgard) blare from the speakers as pyro explodes all over the stage.
You can tell Remedy have put a lot of work into the game by just listening to the soundtrack. Every licensed song sounds like it belongs there, especially when they're used in game on the radio stations. They tend to lull you into a false sense of security, and while you start listening to the radio, you'll find yourself getting jumped by the Taken. There's even two specially written Poets of the Fall songs in the game, one of which plays an integral part to the story.
It may well have been a long time in the making, but Alan Wake is definitely worth the wait, and with new downloadable episodes in the pipeline, it looks set to become a big series for the Xbox. Just as long as Alan Wake 2 doesn't take another five years...
The Alan Wake Limited Edition expands the game well beyond the disk, coming with a number of extra features that make it well worth a purchase over the standard edition.
- The soundtrack CD contains ten tracks lifted from both the game's orchestral OST, and its licensed soundtrack. It's a happy medium that makes for a great "best of" summary of the game's score - although we'd still happily pay extra for a full OST.
- The "Making of" DVD documents the game's journey from conception to reality, beginning with the game's initial reveal to the public in 2006, to the eventual release in 2010, with interviews with the game's creators, and key trailers along the way. It's an interesting look at how the game evolved over the years - and the disk also lets you install a video commentary, which enables a little window-in-window function when you're playing the game, as the creators talk you through the ideas behind certain elements. As if that wasn't enough, this disk also unlocks an jacket and scarf combo for your avatar, and a Bright Falls dashboard theme.
- A 129 page book, written from the perspective of Clay Steward - an ordinary man who becomes haunted by nightmares, and decides to investigate the cause of them for himself. Inevitably finding himself drawn to Bright Falls - the town he sees in his nightmares, the book offers a great insight into the characters from the town, and a preview of the things that lie in wake for Mr., er, Wake.
- The box also includes a card, which has a code printed on, to let you download the first Alan Wake expansion completely free. It's probably only worth 800 points, or £6.80~ in value, but it's still a nice gesture.
The whole thing comes wrapped up in a box that's been made to look like a book - bound in fabric, with Alan Wake printed on the front, like a hardback novel.
Like everything else about Alan Wake, the limited edition's had a great deal of thought and time poured into - and it certainly shows. A great accompaniment to the game, the limited edition really help expand Alan Wake beyond the game - and the book's a creepy read, regardless of whether you've played the game or not.
At just £10 more than the normal version, the Alan Wake Limited Edition is well worth the price - and when you can find it at places like GAME for the same price as the normal one, you'd be crazy not to buy it.
Second opinion: Ian Morris
One of the most impressive things about Alan Wake it that it's more than just another shooter. It's a game that you can't really put into a genre, because it seems to straddle three or four. It's as much a mystery, and an adventure, as it is a horror - arguably even more.
With a plot that has more twists and turns in it than a Scout's first attempt at a reef knot, Alan Wake will keep you guessing, as the characters, and the sleepy American town suck you into their intriguing tale. And it really is intriguing, especially with the amount of effort that's gone into creating the backstory - something that makes the limited edition well worth shelling out the extra cash for.
Alan Wake is so much more than just another shooter. It goes further than that, with a great story backed up by an epic soundtrack, and a cryptic, cinematic feel.
It'll keep you guessing, but it won't keep you up at night.
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360