Our Halloween reviews conclude with Alan Wake, from Remedy Entertainment. Previously they did a pretty good job with their hard-boiled action-thriller series Max Payne. Last year they tried their hand at horror. Here’s how it turned out.

General Information

Title: Alan Wake (plus DLC The Signal & The Writer)
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: March 18th, 2010
Genre: 3rd Person Shooter
Platforms: Xbox 360

Available from Amazon.com

The Premise

Alan Wake is a suspense thriller writer. When he gets a bad case of writers block after completing his last book, he and his wife go on vacation to a small town in rural Oregon. After Alan’s wife is taken from him by some mysterious force, Alan must go up against the mysterious Dark Presence, which is able to turn anyone, or anything, against him. His only reliable weapon against it is light.

High Points

They did a really good job of making the town of Bright Falls look like Rural Oregon, even if there is no actual town quite like this and the geography in relation to the rest of Oregon doesn’t quite work (there’s a lighthouse, but it’s not on the coast, for example).

The game also does a very good job of providing a consistent tone in the game. I also like the idea that the Dark Presence is bound by narrative convention. It gives reasons not only for why the Dark Presence can’t do whatever it wants, but also why it seeks to control all these creative people in Bright Falls so it can create its own King In Yellow.

Related to this, there’s a great moment towards the end of the game, where you are returning to the lake, and the Dark Presence has started throwing various cars and even a de-railed train that have ended up in the lake at the player. After evading one barrage, I said to myself, “What are they going to throw next, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?” Then the boats started landing…

Alan’s book, Departure (which you find pages of throughout the game, and which expands on the plot), is pretty well written. By the end of the game, I found myself wishing there was an actual print copy of the book that I could sit down and read.

Finally, the combat in the game is pretty decent. Rather then gunning down everything that moves, there’s an aspect of the game related to managing light sources, and those enemies that can be killed with bullets must have the darkness “stripped” from them using a flashlight first. It really provides some useful variety in the gameplay.

Low Points

There is some difficulty with check-pointing and with the camera. I’d make it through a rather substantial set-piece fight, and miss a jump and have to start over. Also, in some of these fights, you can get encircled very quickly, and when that happens you’re toast. There are some crowd-control items you can use to get out of some of these situations (flares and flashbangs), but early on they’re handed out just sparingly enough that I often found myself backed into a corner. You do have a dodge move, but it only works on one attack at a time. It would be nice if there was a little move you could do to slip out when you’re encircled or something.

Content Notes

The game is rated T by the ESRB. There are some dark and suspenseful themes in the game, and some violence, but not much profanity.

Scores

Originality: The story isn’t totally original – I saw elements of Twin Peaks, and a lot of Stephen King’s work (especially Bag of Bones) in this game. 4 out of 6.

Story: I’ll say flat out, without getting into spoilers, this has the best written story of any video game I’d seen before. If I were to suggest 5 video games to Stephen King to try out (if he decides to add a section on Horror video games to the next edition of Danse Macabre), this would be on my list. 6 out of 6.

Graphics: The game’s graphics are excellent, especially the lighting effects. The animations for the characters are also fantastic, with everything flowing fairly smoothly. 5 out of 6.

Sound: Well done across the board. The incidental music does an excellent job of setting the mood, and the sounds for the Possessed are sufficiently creepy. I also need to give props to the Poets of the Fall, a band made up of members of the dev team for this game and the first two Max Payne games. They contributed several original songs to the game’s soundtrack (including a few under the name of the fictitious band Old Gods of Asgard), and they all sound absolutely fantastic. Roadrunner Records – sign them, please. My one gripe is that while the game transitions well between calm incidental music and dramatic incidental music when you enter action scenes, the music doesn’t transition back to calm very well. 5 out of 6.

Playability: When you’re not trying to manage people who are encircling you, the game plays excellently. Outside of that, once you have a guy in front of you, and a guy behind you, things get more difficult. 4 out of 6.

Immersion: Very light HUD, and the sound design helps to keep the player in the action and immersed in the game. 5 out of 6.

Overall: I’m putting this in list of favorite games of all time. 5 out of 6.

In Total, Alan Wake gets 34 out of 42.