Sunday, 27 June 2010

Alan Wake

Alan Wake is kind of unique. In the endless sea of samey shooters with very little story (take Call of Duty - OH GOD! THE RUSKIES HAVE INVADED! FIRE THE DEATH BEAMS!), Alan Wake is entirely story driven.  The premise is that an author (the titular Alan Wake) with writer's block goes on holiday to try and get some R&R and restore his passion for writing. Things don't go entirely to plan when his wife, Alice, reveals that she brought along a typewriter. Alan storms out, his wife screams, she's gone. He dives into the water, thinking that's the only place she could have gone, then wakes up a week later with no memory of what happened in the intervening time. Not exactly the week of rest he was expecting, then.
Alan Wake's gimmick, if you will, is how you deal with the Taken (the enemies of the game). To kill them, you first have to eliminate their cloud of darkness with your flashlight, then shoot them. The premise, here, then, is that the Taken are possessed by the 'Dark Presence' (the mysterious antagonist of the game) and that they're after you for unknown reasons. The 'fight with light' gameplay works well, adding an extra dimension to pointing and shooting. Unlike other games, the protagonist isn't an all-powerful space marine and so isn't really skilled with a gun. Lock-on is almost non existant and you feel that much more satisfied when you take down a pack of enemies.
There aren't many weapons in the game, but that's a good thing - all of the weapons included, from the revolver to the hunting rifle and the flare gun, perfectly fit in with the setting of a sleepy town with an annual hunting festival. The flare gun, too, is your ultimate weapon - able to disintegrate Taken with ease, it's the rocket launcher of Alan Wake, according to the developers. Naturally, then, ammo is scarce for it, but when you get it, don't save it for a boss fight - you lose all your ammo at the start of every chapter.
The beauty of Alan Wake is its story, so I won't spoil it here. However, the ending is absolutely incredible. It ends suddenly and leaves you working things out through the credits. You'll eventually reach  'Oh, so THAT'S what happened moment,' when everything comes into focus and you realise what the whole story means.
Alan Wake is a 'Psychological Action Thwiller' according to the game's designers. It's a thriller, so there are some occasional scares. I'm gonna keep this fairly ambiguous, so you're not ready for it, but one of the most memorable, for me, was when I was tasked with retrieving something in chapter 2. I had grabbed it and thought I was completely safe, strolling slowly towards my destination. Suddenly, a Taken jumped out at me and made me literally shout out in fear and surprise. What followed was one of the most hectic battles of the game for me, as I fumbled the controller with my trembling fingers, trying to defeat one Taken.
A game that can scare you with just one enemy is doing pretty well.
The characters of Alan Wake are a mixed bag. Both Alan and Alice Wake aren't really explained as characters, not really evolving from the start of the game to the end. Barry Wheeler, Alan's agent, is the comic relief of the game and you'll either love him or hate him. I, personally, found him brilliant, but I can see how people would hate him. Sheriff Breaker is the archetypal tough female, who softens up by the end. Nightingale is the grizzled FBI cop who doesn't exactly develop his character through the story, more develop his accent. The characters are kind of typical, but the player can empathise with them, which is important. This, I think, is the biggest failing of the game - none of the characters are particularly interesting and, outside of Barry, none of them are memorable.
Alan Wake isn't a long game. It took me maybe 10 hours to complete on hard difficulty, including time spent scouring the game world for manuscript pages and other collectables. I'm currently replaying it on Nightmare difficulty and this time, it's taking me even less long. However, the length is suitable for the game - it means that the gameplay doesn't outstay its welcome and the story isn't too long and confusing.
Alan Wake, then, is a great game. The story is engaging, the combat, although pretty samey, is fun and it is just the right length. Although the characters can be wooden (not helped by occasionally very poor voice acting), the game is good enough to allow the player to skip over the poor characterisation and still enjoy the underlying story.