Before embarking upon Remedy Entertainment’s eagerly awaited Alan Wake, most players will have two particular questions that they’ll want answers for above all others. Firstly, are Remedy going to acknowledge the huge debt that they owe to the work of Stephen King? And secondly, can a game that has been in full development for half a decade possibly live up to expectations? The answer to the first question appears four seconds in, with a fitting quotation from the author. The answer to the second comes as the game winds down from its outstanding finale. And it’s a resounding yes.
Although the aura of all things King hangs fairly heavily over everything, the most pertinent comparison deserves to be made with the comparatively uncouth and demented John Carpenter flick In The Mouth Of Madness. Like that film, Alan Wake is just as concerned with honouring its influences as it is with establishing its own personality. It achieves the latter through an array of very interesting contrivances, the bravest involving the titular character himself. Wake begins the story as a passive/aggressive, mildly abusive and self-obsessed bastard, and empathising with him isn’t initially very easy.
This is a pretty gutsy move, and one that is massively uncommon in this infant medium. But how it strengthens your involvement in the game’s story (and the character’s progression through it) is truly marvellous, and hopefully it’ll inspire other developers to take similar creative risks in the future. The supporting cast don’t fare anywhere near as well, but this is purely down to the unfair comparison. Conversely, the game’s town of Bright Falls is extremely familiar, and deeply reminiscent of Stephen King’s fictional Maine towns of Derry and Castle Rock. However, although you’re only able to maneuver through it in a mostly linear fashion, it is nothing if not expertly drawn.
The game’s story is structured like an episodic television show, and it’s an idea so brilliantly sustained that you’ll probably be left wondering why nobody has done it before. Each chapter is capped by a strangely haunting piece of licensed music, and each new one begins with a TV-style “Previously On Alan Wake” recap. It’s an entirely original stylistic flourish, and it contributes quite substantially to the apprehensive and unearthly tone of the story. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks will probably come to mind during these segments, but like all of the neat little nods toward the game’s hefty bevy of genre influences, none of them intrude, and all are respectful and shrewd.
Though the story is pure horror (buoyed by a wealth of expertly-placed shocks) Alan Wake plays like a relentless action game, and the two gel absolutely perfectly. The gameplay is structured around the exploitation of light, which functions as a healer, illuminates each level’s primary pathway, and acts as your single greatest weapon. Wake’s flashlight merely repels enemies on its normal setting whilst simultaneously depleting their defenses very slowly. Burning through batteries to empower the torch is essential when time isn’t on your side, and deciding when you need to do this imbues the combat with an (occasionally nerve-wracking) element of strategy.
The decision to make all of your enemies invisible to the game’s waypoint/radar system is incredibly frustrating in the beginning, but before the first chapter is over it’s readily apparent that this was a decision borne of real conceptual nous. You never quite know where your attackers are, and the fact that some of them are capable of moving at the speed of light at a moment’s notice, makes almost every single encounter quite extraordinarily tense. You’re never encouraged to just run and gun, and you’ll never want to; primarily because you never quite know what’s in the darkness, either in front of or behind you.
In addition, the supplemental collectibles are excellent, with the discarded manuscript pages in particular dragging you ever more vividly into Alan Wake‘s tormented nightmare. The game finishes on a note that suggests that a sequel is definitely in the offing. Hopefully this time it doesn’t take five years to show up, because that game is now surely as eagerly anticipated as this one has been for the best part of five (very long) years. No mean feat.
Watch the Alan Wake trailer here…