It’s been a long time coming but Alan Wake is finally here and now all it has to do is live up to the tons of hype that has steadily built up around it since the game was announced nearly five years ago. Great horror games are few and far between, so only a few titles end up standing above the rest to define a console generation. The last big hit to grace our consoles was arguably the Necromorph infested Dead Space, but we’ve also had Resident Evil 5, Dead Rising, Condemned, Left 4 Dead, and a slew of other titles.
So does Alan Wake redefine the horror genre? Take storytelling in video games to new heights? Is it actually fun? How good do the trees look? All these questions and more are answered right after the jump. The horror genre used to be infamous for its clunky controls, but it seems as if we’re outgrowing that this generation as more and more games gift us with capable protagonists to control. Silent Hill: Homecoming replaced the horribly tank-like controls it had relied on for over a decade with a guy that could hold his own, even against hellish creatures from the Otherworld. Dead Space gave us Strategic Dismemberment (need I say more?)
Thankfully, Alan is limber enough to dodge the oncoming axes, pickaxes, chainsaws, and other melee weapons coming his way, as well as take out a few shadowy enemies without too much trouble. The dodge move isn’t easy enough to work every time (unless you have insanely fast reflexes) and you can strafe so you never have to stop moving.
Alan Wake is a linear game, maybe too linear at times, but the level design cleverly hides this fact by giving you plenty of room to explore while on your linear path. This is why having a capable hero is crucial, because enemies can flank you from all sides (since you’re usually surrounded by forest), so it’s important that we’re able to stay and fight or take off screaming for our mommies. In case you were wondering, I tend to take the latter approach.
Prior to the game’s release there was a lot of talk about it being the best looking title of the generation (so far), but that really isn’t true. Alan Wake looks stunning and does some thing particularly well, namely light and shadows. But it’s far from being the visual sensation many were making it out to be.
There are a myriad of really spectacular effects like sparks flying off enemies when you shine your light on them, or the slow motion that’s enabled when you light a flare. But my favorite effect occurs when the Darkness comes, because that’s when you can see fast moving shadows on the ground, strange sounds in the distance, and a strong wind that makes the gorgeous trees shake.
Did I mention the trees? It might sound strange to spend time discussing a game’s foliage but you do spend a majority of your time surrounded by them so it’s rather important that they look realistic. And they do. In fact, there’s a section (worry not dear reader, no spoilers lie here) where people wielding flashlights are chasing you in a forest. This area was particularly memorable because it combined many of my favorite features: white hot beams of far away flashlights cutting through the densely packed trees that occasionally shake and stir when the Darkness arrives. It was really amazing and I would’ve stopped to take it all in if I wasn’t, you know, being chased.
You might not have noticed but Alan Wake is a game that prides itself on its strong storytelling. One might say it’s the type of game that considers itself “story-driven.” This would imply that the story is engaging and pulls you in like a good book. People still read, right? At the end of each Episode lies a cliffhanger ending that, for the most part, is usually fairly surprising. I’m not saying your jaw will drop at some sudden plot twist, but the game certainly has its fair share of immersion and the pacing is fantastic enough to keep the game from ever getting dull.
When it comes to the story, the game’s strong point ends up being the characters and how they develop as the story progresses. Alan is the type of guy you can empathize with, his wife and her unfounded(?) fear of the dark is unique, for a grown woman at least. And there’s a plethora of original characters you’ll come across in the secluded mountain town of Bright Falls that will either fill you with dread or put a grin on your face.
Of course, it’s not all bright and sunny in Bright Falls; there are some minor things like aged character models (no doubt because the game was in development for so long) and awkward driving sections, but my major complaint is how little time you can spend with it. You also have a modestly sized single-player campaign with essentially nothing in the form of stuff to do outside of the main game other than collecting items. The game also at times feels a little constricting in its linearity; you need to this or that before you can move to your next destination, than repeat. The missions are fun and well designed but offer little in terms of variety.
If you don’t mind a single-player only experience and are patient enough to wait for the upcoming DLC that will expand on said experience, this is a truly amazing game. It’s emotional, engaging, highly polished, and intense. One minute you’ll be walking along a quiet forest floor and the next you’ll be surrounded by shadowy enemies, fighting for your life as you try to find a source of light. Alan Wake takes the overused Light versus Dark plot and makes it tangible. The Darkness hunts you, it’s intelligent, cunning, and will stop at nothing to keep you from achieving your goals. The only question is: are you afraid of the dark?