Looking back on Alan Wake, more than a year and a half after its release, it's still one of my favorite games. The graphics and ambience have held up well in comparison to any other story driven game, and it's still the best third-person horror game out there, in terms of gameplay. Given how few horror games are actually out there this generation, I would definitely recommend giving this game a try since it's dirt cheap to rent or buy.
The following is an original review of the game, and at the bottom are links to other musings on Alan Wake, favorable or not.
Alan Wake is this generation's Silent Hill. It's not perfect, but what it does well no other game can imitate. There are no spoilers in this review, so feel free to read on if you're curious about Alan Wake.
Alan Wake goes to a small town for a vacation at the urging of his wife. They're having marital troubles over his inability to write another novel for over two years. Once there, his wife disappears and Alan must fight to rescue her.
The game is divided into six different sections, called episodes, just like a television show. For the first three episodes, the quality of the story is questionable and you're wondering if it's going to go anywhere. The mystery is thin, the enemy vague, and the dialogue and voice acting is average. The characters in the town sound one-dimensional, like the waitress Rose or the motivational guru Emil. Rose's first introduction at the diner during Episode One felt uninspiring, as if the voice actress was just reading a script. There was no life or energy in her lines. The only character who benefits from dialogue is the character Barry. He begins as an annoying douche and ends up having some of the most hilarious lines in recent memory.
The game starts to come together in the last three episodes. Halfway through the game, starting at Episode Four, the story picks up into a type of roller coaster. You could call the first three chapters the ride to the top—slow moving and not going too far. By Episode Four though, the floor drops and the game finally starts to address the mysteries of what "The Darkness" is and their plan with Alice, your role in this adventure, and a history far preceding Alan Wake.
The game promised a psychological suspense thriller, and after Episode Three, it finally delivered on the psychological aspects of it. This is a non-spoiler review, so there can't be any details, but it all comes together at the end to deliver something truly puzzling. Like any good story of this type, the clues come from everywhere—the scripts sprinkled throughout the episode, reading material outside the game (The Alan Wake Files from the Collector's Edition), the title songs for each episode, and the nightmare at the beginning of the game. When you piece them all together, you get a story and a history that is coherent, yet not completely figured out. There is a timeline, but there are questions. Trying to fit what goes where and why after the game makes it feel a lot like Lost or Twin Peaks. Personally, after finishing the game, I must have read over two hours worth of theories online—there was that much to discuss and resolve!
The story only comes together during the second half of the game, but the gameplay shines from the very first episode. Alan is easy to control and the light/gun combination makes it more interesting than just shooting enemies dead. Unlike many games where you only stick with just one or two out of the many weapons given, all of the weapons in Alan Wake are used often. Flares, shotguns, flare guns, and other items were used extensively in each of the episodes they were available. Wake also has a great dodge move in combat that is a major help when being snuck up on from behind, which is often.
Each episode had different starting conditions and enemy situations to overcome, adding to the suspense and gameplay. From starting with no gun or light, to collaborating with other characters to get through the level, Alan Wake as a game is not a lonely experience. There are people that help you fight and guide you through the level, adding good banter and additional information to the story. The enemies start to come in larger and larger groups, from all angles, and even objects become possessed. And enemies will often favor a side or back attack compared to a frontal assault. Sometimes you have to make a stand, creating short Left for Dead type finale situations in certain episodes.
One of the best things—when it comes to scares and suspense, this game does not take the cheap way out. This is the only game I can think of that did not have one grotesque creature covered in blood, emanating the all-too-familiar shrieking sounds that we're so used to in horror games. The enemies in this game are shadows and possessed individuals and items, yet they feel no less scary or dangerous. Remedy, the developer who created Alan Wake, needs to be given credit for creating such a tense atmosphere without resorting to the usual cheap conventions. Personally, I love this aspect because I can't stand movies like Saw or those "horror movie of the months" that Hollywood shells out, relying on crude gore, blood, and shock violence to sell tickets.
Graphically, the game has a stunning atmosphere. The characters are average and the resolution is sub-HD, but these things are not center stage—atmosphere is. The lighting during the day makes everything come alive; a daylight scene looks like it's really bathed in light. At night, the mist and simulated wind and storm conditions increase the sense of suspense. It's no longer a character going through the woods at night, but a character who's going through the ever-changing mist conditions that affect the wind and the depth perception in the forest. When the mist is most violent, there is this fear that the enemies will appear at any time, but how is unknown. These atmospheric conditions create a terror of the terrain itself, as if it's another enemy to add to the list of things that are against the player—not just something you traverse upon.
Alan Wake raises the bar on what a suspenseful game should be. In other suspense horror games like Silent Hill, bad gameplay controls were forgiven because all games of that genre played just as badly. Alan Wake plays better than most action or adventure games, and the atmosphere in Alan Wake is as good, if not better than the original Silent Hill. The story and the mysteries of Alan Wake are also a cut above this genre. Once you finish Silent Hill or Siren-type games, there is no need to dig further into the lore or story. In Alan Wake, the ending opens up discussion and everything is questioned. The story actively goes through a retelling by different players who piece together clues, but can't quite put it all together. That's what is great about this game, fun to play and interesting to talk about afterwards.
Despite some negative aspects in the game, the parts where it excels make this game worthy of being the suspense horror game of this gaming generation. Not since Silent Hill has a suspense game come close to creating such an amazing experience all the way to the end.
Load Save Grade: A
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