Alan Wake has finally been delivered to Xbox 360 owners after so many years of waiting and hoping, and like all healthy newborns, it’s come out screaming and bloody. It shrieks, “I am Twin Peaks! I am The X-Files! I am Stephen King! Love me, for I am more than just a game!” While it is a decent one, Alan Wake is very much a game, just like so very many other games. But it could have been special.
Things start out inspiringly enough in the game’s idyllic but eerie scenery of Bright Falls, when vacationing out-of-sorts author Alan Wake and his wife make a brief sojourn to a diner. The range of personalities on show, from a waitress who has an unhealthy obsession with Wake to the two peculiar ex-rockers bickering in the corner, captures the murky-behind-the-smiles atmosphere of Twin Peaks’ titular setting. Concerns about awkward facial animations and inconsistent, sometimes dated-looking textures are ignored as the plot gently suckers you in.
Events soon unfold, as Wake’s wife is mysteriously kidnapped and the author inexplicably finds himself in a crashed car teetering over a cliff’s edge. He escapes safely, but now has to trek through the night and density of the small town’s surrounding forest. This would be easy, if not for the army of demonic, shadowy creatures hell-bent on cutting him into bits.
And for the first half, a good five hours, this is mostly what Alan Wake amounts to: dodging and taking down dark enemies, collectively known as the Taken. Destroying these creatures requires shining a flashlight on them before using any weapons. It works neatly thanks to some clever lock-on implementation for the light, but it pangs of repetition by the game’s halfway point. You have to stay alert though, because of the many directions enemies can attack you from. Sometimes this feels a little cheap, but through things like flare guns and flash-bangs–which play cleverly on traditional gaming weaponry like rocket launchers and grenades–it can be mastered.
Even with these twists on gaming staples, Alan Wake’s combat remains traditional. With your flashlight (and hence your focused aim) set to the left trigger and the gun to the right, shooting down the Taken reminds of firing against zombies in recent Resident Evil games.
The atmosphere, however, is appreciably chilling. While never really bordering on scary, the disjointed screeches of the Taken mixed with the unpredictability of their attacks and the isolation of the moonlit forest’s expanse grants an uneasy feeling throughout. Somehow, though, this unease is both strengthened and weakened by the game’s prime narrative tool – the manuscript.
Along his journey, Wake finds scattered pages from a manuscript. What’s freaky, though, is that its narrative seems to be coming true in front of his eyes. This creepily prophetic manuscript is what gives depth to Alan Wake’s admirable and well-paced plot, both by adding storytelling layers to forthcoming scenes and by providing more substance and information to events that have already happened. In a first half that limits direct exposition to a brief flurry of cut scenes here and there, the manuscript is what hooks you in to pushing through the forest and trying to work out exactly what’s going on.
Unfortunately, the method of this delivery is inherently flawed. To read the manuscript pages, you have to access a screen displaying the page, reading it while Wake himself reads it aloud. After gamers reveled at how Dead Space kept them locked in its interface-less action at all times, such a backwards, atmosphere-breaking piece of design is curious.
It’s even more curious when you consider how developer Remedy could have directly lifted the idea of audio recordings from Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper, especially since Wake narrates all the stuff on the page anyway. It would make sense; some high profile authors make audio recordings for someone else to type out for them. Crucially, it would keep you in the game and within the constricting darkness of Bright Falls’ perimeter. A bonus side effect would be that Wake could actually reflect on what was in the manuscript. Given that he narrates his journey to us throughout, it’s so odd that he doesn’t ever pause to reflect on the content of these all-important pages.
It’s an oversight but it’s forgivable because the game picks up the pace in its second half. Wake gains some companions, and this allows for more organic in-game exposition as they converse. The landscape also becomes a lot more interesting, finally freed from the confines of grey trees and rocky terrain. The plot lurches into action, and most of the game’s highlights are provided in its closing moments as events become more and more screwed up. There’s even an X-Files-like crescendo as everything comes together for that one crucial moment in which everything, every facet and every nuance, is laid out to bare, only for meaning to be snatched away with an appreciably obscure ending that keeps you hooked for more.
Alan Wake is indeed like the X-Files. It’s also like Twin Peaks. Yet it’s not up to the standards of those celebrated psychological thrillers, no matter how many references to authors, scenes, films, and TV shows are chucked around. You could argue for it simply being a love letter to these inspirations, but it’s equally arguable that it’s demanding recognition and comparison to them with its seemingly endless catalogue of references. There’s almost a pretension about it, especially in the decision to name chapters ‘episodes’ and use ‘previously on…’ video segments to introduce each of them. It says, “I’m different. Judge me differently.”
It must be asked, though: what intelligent, thought-provoking TV show has you spending so much of the time watching repetitive action sequences, or demanding that you read something on screen for a minute before returning to the good stuff? When you have a story that’s worth raving about, why pad it so and not provide more active opportunities to really explore it? Why not stretch the way that you tell the story so that it sits comfortably alongside the bizarre narrative styles of the works you allude to?
Alan Wake is a respectable thriller of a video game, with a strong story, some excellent touches, and a bevy of exciting moments. What it isn’t, however, is a game changer, and while this review may seem harsh in relation to what’s actually a strong score, it is that way because the game so obviously could have been more.