I don’t consider this a review, as I only really feel right reviewing a game I’ve beaten, and I don’t see myself beating Alan Wake anytime soon, if at all. Allow me to explain why.
From a storytelling perspective, Alan Wake is a Max Payne game that is trying very, very hard to be taken seriously, and failing. For those who never played them, Max Payne and its sequel were a pair of third person shooters developed by Remedy (the same minds behind Alan Wake). They starred the titular Max Payne, your standard cop with nothing to lose, in a gloriously over the top modern day noir. Max narrated his adventures with ridiculously florid, hard-broiled dialogue, and as dark and the games were, you could tell that Remedy was well aware of how absurd it all was and reveled in it.
Anyone who has played either Payne will immediately notice that those games share a number of storytelling methods with Wake: the protagonist’s near constant voice over, the weird little TV shows you stumble across that use real actors, and so on. The difference is, as dry as it was, Max Payne always had tongue planted firmly in cheek, never intending you to take it too seriously. Alan Wake on the other hand, would like you to take it very seriously.
Alan Wake bills itself as a “psychological thriller,” but basically it’s a horror story. If you’ve read anything by Stephen King, you’ll find yourself in familiar territory here. The goal of the game, is to keep you tense and a bit confused as to what is going on, in that exciting way that a well written scary story does. Unfortunately, the tics the game has inherited from Max Payne end up working against this end. Much like in Max Payne, Alan Wake’s protagonist (who, if you haven’t guessed, is a dude named “Alan Wake”) narrates pretty much constantly. Unfortunately, whereas Max’s narration was amazing, overflowing with extended and absurd hard-boiled metaphors and allusions, Alan’s is boring. And stupid. In fact, I think the game might think the player is stupid, because most of the time Alan simply ends up describing exactly what is going on, just in case you weren’t actively engaging and interacting with everything that is happening. Which you are. Because it is a videogame.
While Max Payne’s narration enhanced the tone of each scene, Alan Wake‘s detracts by pointing out the blindingly obvious, in the most uninteresting way possible.
Furthermore, for a game that opens up quoting Stephen King, explaining that in the best horror stories much goes unexplained, Alan Wake sure likes to explain an awful lot of shit to you. In addition to Alan’s first cut of Bladerunner-esque narration, there is pretty much nothing going on in this game that is left to mystery. The plot finds Alan, a best-selling author, and his wife visiting a small northwestern town named Bright Falls. Without spoiling too much, Alan almost immediately finds that the town is home to some ghostly dark presence, which lives in the shadows and possesses town people towards nefarious purposes. Could such a fantastic premise possibly be real, or is Alan simply descending into madness, and the whole scenario is a product of his overwrought writer’s imagination? Nope. The game makes it abundantly clear, very early on, that the dark presence is real. It attacks a number of others, who all work to confirm Alan’s belief and point out, in detail, that he’s not crazy.
Well surely it must delay the reveal, if not reveal at all, the source of this presence? Nope. It basically explains what’s going on and where all this came from a bit of a ways into the second chapter, even giving the dark presence a name: The Dark Presence. Economy of storytelling at work, folks.
At least the townspeople must be oblivious to the Dark Presence, and unawares of the ghastly goings-ons, right? Ok, that one is true, but for the life of me I can’t figure out how. Every night DP (as I like to call it), comes out and basically starts tearing shit up. Ripping giant trees out of the ground, filling the sky with hundreds of evil, black birds, possessing lumberjacks left and right, and just murdering the fuck out of any supporting character who is unfortunate enough to be granted a name. Seriously—DP aint subtle. The only reason I can think of that this is even remotely possible, is that the townspeople are well aware of what’s going on, but figure if that they close their eyes, wish hard enough, and pretend it doesn’t exist, DP will just go away. Like I said, I haven’t beaten the game yet, maybe Alan Wake will deem fit to explain to me that that is exactly what is going on later. It’s pretty much the only question I have left unanswered, anyway.
Actually, I do have one other: Alan Wake is supposed to be a popular writer, right? So, is he supposed to be really hacky as well? The game is littered with his writing in the form of “manuscripts” you collect, and well, it’s all pretty sub-par. Now, I know that oftentimes “bestselling author” does not equal “most talented author,” but I’m pretty sure that’s what Remedy is going for. This is the risk of making your protagonist another writer, especially a great writer: you better be pretty confident that you yourself are a great writer, or you just better not show any of his writing, at all, ever.
Also, Alan’s fucking manuscripts shift constantly between the first and third person, and that shit just drives me crazy.
Graphically, the game is just confusing. The environments and the shadow/lighting effects (which play a key part in the gameplay, as I’ll get to later) are amazing. In fact, the lighting is some of the best I can ever remember seeing in a game ever, and with all the beautiful games coming out recently, that’s really saying something.
On the other hand, the character models are so bad it’s jarring. Faces are stiff, plastic, and inhuman (Alan’s wife is the worst victim of this), looking more like mannequins brought to life than actual people, and for a game that revolves around telling an engaging story, I have never seen worse lip-synching in my life. None of the character’s mouth movements are even close. This was actually the very first problem I noticed, and I found it so distracting I couldn’t even focus on what was happening. Not a good idea if you’re trying to craft a “psychological thriller.”
The gameplay itself consists of segments of either walking around talking to people, or running around somewhere dark (typically a forest), and fighting enemies. The enemies are called “Taken,” and they’re people possessed by DP, who are wrapped in shadows. As Alan, you have to shine the beam of your flashlight onto them in order to burn the darkness off, at which point you can unload into them with whatever firearm you have handy. It’s a clever concept, and the game does a good job of finding ways to mix it up, giving you a variety of light based weaponry such as flare guns, flashbang grenades, and searchlights. Unfortunately, the combat grows tiresome pretty quickly. You fight a lot in this game, and at no point is it ever very challenging. You will quickly find the proper rhythm with which to best win each and every fight, at which point the only problem you have to deal with is the fact enemies never stop coming. You start to fear combat, not because it’s hard, but because it’s tiresome. You know that feeling you get in a Final Fantasy, or some other RPG that has random encounters, where you just want to explore the corner of a map somewhere, but get aggravated because every two steps you’re stopped and have to fight another group of trash enemies? That’s Alan Wake all the time. Combat in this game isn’t scary, and it isn’t fun, it’s just a grind.
Alan Wake also has some of the most egregious product placement I’ve ever seen. Normally product placement doesn’t bother me; in fact I think that including real brands can often times help a setting feel more genuine. Alan Wake’s is just so damn ballsy though, that I have to point it out. As I mentioned, combat revolves around using your flashlight. Obviously, flashlights don’t last forever, they need batteries, so throughout the game, Alan has to keep collecting batteries. Energizer batteries. Giant frigging blister packs of Energizer batteries. It’s so blatant and shameless that you sort of have to stand back in awe.
The reason I’m so hard on Alan Wake, is that I admittedly had high expectations for the game going in. It’s no secret that most videogame stories are simply terrible, and when I heard that this was a game built entirely around telling a story, my hopes were raised. There are games out there that are well told, but unfortunately Alan Wake doesn’t appear to be one of them. Who knows though, I haven’t beaten the game yet, and if nothing manages to distract me, and I’m able to keep my interest, it’s possible it may yet change my mind. I’ll let you know if it does, but don’t hurt yourself waiting.