Well, I finished Alan Wake earlier and I thought it deserved a review! I did start playing with slightly less than high expectations. I had heard several mixed views on it and a seemingly unanimous view on every character having fugly faces, but I pressed on. I also forked out a bit for the collectors edition which contained a heap of stuff: unlock codes, bonus disc, soundtrack and an actual book adding to the story. Not to mention the packing was made similar to that of a rather large hard-bound novel. Fitting!
One of the things that seems to be said about Alan Wake is that controls are finicky and strange. Rubbish! Once you get a hang of the slightly bouncy camera control, everything is fine. During the night sequences, the camera control also acts as your torch direction which is also how you aim your various weapons. Straightforward but it does have a subtle impact on the atmosphere being presented. (You can only see what your torch sees.) Basically, you point your torch at a bad guy (they are called the Taken), whittle down their darkness level (there is a much better description in-game) and then fire at will. Sounds simple but allows for some interesting tactics. Apart from guns and torches, you can acquire flares, flare guns and flashbangs which all become extremely useful in sticky situations. If I could count the number of times pulling a flare out prevented me from dying, I would have a very large number. Overall, the combat is fun, stressful and exciting.
The enemies are quite varied but there are about four types that you constantly encounter. There are sort-of boss fights, i.e. when you meet a new kind of enemy or possessed vehicle. These are great, especially the possessed vehicles, but are usually over within a minute. The main evil you fight occasionally pulls out some tricks while you are walking around at night, for instance, a giant boat landing directly in front of you. The enemies do have enough variation but their scariness is amplified when they appear in groups of five or more. It becomes extremely tough and rewarding. Much more rewarding if, for example, you get control of a searchlight and exterminate a couple of dozen enemies without a problem. Also, I’m sure you’ve all heard of the fun that you get to have with the possessed combine harvester. Rather exhilarating albeit over rather quickly.
There are a few driving sequences which are fun. Nothing really to write home about. Little bit too bouncy but thankfully there aren’t too many of them and squishing Taken is fun.
There are several extra things you can take part in while progress through the story. One task, collecting the lost manuscript pages, is actually crucial to the main story but it is entirely optional if you want to collect them all or not. Some are pretty hard to get and there are a few which you can only get in Nightmare difficulty mode. You can also watch TV shows and listen to radio chatter. The TV shows that you can watch, apart from the ones that appear in the story, are from a Twilight Zone-esque serious called ‘Night Springs’. The first one you see will make you want to see them all!. There are some funny extras as well. Collecting 100 coffee Thermoses is hilarious (more so if you know that the Finnish are the highest coffee drinkers in Europe!) There is also knocking down pyramids of cans. Hilarious!
I should probably mention the daytime play. Pretty much identical except it is all about exploring the town, meeting the residents and learning the history. Of course no torches nor weapons required! The people are all well done and the ones you actually interact with are great characters.
Ok, the story was amazing! Simple as that. The episode format worked a charm, especially as all episodes ended on cliff-hangers where you find yourself clutching your head, screaming “WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?!” I won’t say much about the story apart from it was pretty damn flawless. No plot-holes and no overly pointless stuff either. At the end, you are left asking some questions, but I’m sure either the DLC or second game will clear them up.
The TV shows that you can watch are not just animations, Remedy have actually filmed these, with real people (shocking, I know!) and made the shows seem like a poor quality Twilight Zone. It really adds to the atmosphere and the story. Plus seeing real people on a small screen in a game helps humanise everything a bit more. The radio shows are done very well also, but that is more to do with the characters.
The characters that you interact with are incredibly detailed (in personality) and are very human. One character, Rose, who claims to be Alan Wake’s biggest fan, is hilarious and a little bit sad. Alan’s agent, Barry, is almost comic relief at points but he actually has a slight depth of emotions. My favourite characters though were the two old rockers that you meet a few times. I won’t say any more about them. One character I did have a problem with though was the entirely random FBI agent who was overly clichéd. He keeps referring to Alan by different author names such as H.P. Lovecraft and James Joyce. Hilarious a couple of times but then it gets old.
Now something that seems to divide people, cutscenes. Personally, I love them, no matter what and Alan Wake did not change my mind at all. There are lots of them and they help break up the game-play and make you focus on the story. Really useful and they are all extremely well done. The coolest thing about the cutscenes though is what happens if you quit and comeback in mid-chapter. A recap of what has happened in the chapter until your exit plays, making it feel like you are really playing a character in a TV show. Also, really useful if you’ve forgotten a few things. I did kind of hope that there would be a “next time on Alan Wake” thing but that would have probably ruined the story at times.
I should at least talk about the scariness of the game. If you don’t mind jumping in your seat a few times or feeling generally uneasy for a few hours of play, it’s great. Although it’s a pretty emotional story, it just doesn’t quite hit on the same level that Heavy Rain did, but then again Heavy Rain was made to really effect the player emotionally.
The sound effects were brilliant and matched everything perfectly. Well, all except the car sounds. They just weren’t that great or even that believable. A very minor flaw in an otherwise perfect sound design. The audio cues that played when enemies appear were quite chilling and especially hearing the shrill sounds of several hundred crows does send shivers down one’s spine.
The music was incredibly fitting, powerful and emotional. Petri Alanko’s compositions were magical in places, haunting in others and it builds up the atmosphere tremendously. No over-the-top orchestral pieces though, every piece was -almost- minimalistic, which was great for the cutscenes and the atmosphere.
The voice acting was stellar, really. The voice of Alan was perfect as were the voices of every other character. Not much else to say there.
The graphics seemed a little bit outdated (maybe beginning of 2009, late 2008) but still in the upper echelon of graphics on the 360. The colour scheme was great, lots of greys and browns, really added to the atmosphere. But the most amazing thing with the graphics were the lighting effects. These were just phenomenal. The bright enemy deaths, the blinding flares, the lights of the speeding bullets, all just meshed together beautifully.
All the cut scenes were pre-rendered and looked stunning. They too have great lighting effects. The apparent ‘fugliness’ of faces I think comes from that when the characters talk in cut scenes, their mouths open a little too wide for what would be considered comfortable. Nothing distracting in the slightest.
Late in the game there are some texture popping issues which are a bit distracting. There aren’t any real clipping issues or extreme oddities that occur. Strange as most games have at least one or two really strange issues.
The UI was very minimalist and intuitive. There are whole screen warnings when you lose health and when get below a threshold. When an enemy appears behind you or you dodge an enemies attack, the game goes into slow-motion for a couple of seconds. Coming from the people who made bullet-time a workable feature in games, the slow-mo here looks stunning.
As soon as I’d finished the game and was sitting through the credits (which contains ‘Space Oddity’ playing) I was regretting finshing it so quickly. Ah well, maybe soon, when the DLC comes out I’ll play it all again! 😉