STAFF REVIEW of Alan Wake (Xbox 360)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010.
by Ken Laffrenier

Alan Wake Box art I am a reader...let me rephrase that....I am a voracious reader. There are few things I enjoy more than an engaging story that has me awake at 2am frantically taking in each new revelation as though it were visual oxygen. My preferences are vast but my distastes are as equally varied. I enjoy sci-fi, non-fiction and a hodgepodge of magazine genres; but by far my guilty pleasure (at least where reading is concerned) has always been psychological horror fiction. The likes of Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Douglas Clegg and (of course) Stephen King litter the treatise of my personal escape.

There has always been a sense of escapism to the literature I choose. The same can also be said of the games I play. As much as I seek to be entertained I am also looking to displace my day to day moments with the whim and disposition of some other individual. This can be said of most gamers; I believe we are all seeking to throw ourselves into moments or situations that are removed from our comfort a sense we are seeking the experience that lay just outside our own moral imperative.

With this, I introduce Alan Wake. To many this is a familiar title whereas to some this seems to have come out of virtually nowhere. For the uninitiated Alan Wake was first announced at E3 way back in 2005; expectations for the title have run the gambit between disillusionment and frustration. Early teasers had gamers eager for the release which, according to developers, was never far off (hah). Well here we are 5 years later and Remedy has finally given a firm release date and as expected, gamers have ramped up pre-order numbers to epic py Entertainment is a game developer based in Finland that has seen outstanding success with its Max Payne series (before the sale of the title to Take-Two Interactive). The two Max Payne titles from Remedy introduced (cohesively) the bullet time game play style and intense story driven action. The story was so instrumental to the game that the movie adaptation quickly followed featuring big name stars but, unfortunately, much of the atmosphere was lost to fancy cgi effects.

Alan Wake, at first glance, seems to be the pinnacle of the Max Payne gameplay but in reality, it is more the culmination of years of development teamed with a truly dedicated gaming studio. It is clear that Remedy is approaching the title with the kind of confidence that only 5 years of development can deliver.....but is it truly worth it for today's gamer?

Alan Wake (the character) is a novelist at the top of his game but, as happens to many a writer (hmmm?), he has been struck by the dreaded writers block....2 years of writers block! In order to get the juices of creativity working his adoring wife, Alice, thinks a trip to out of the way and historic Bright Falls is in order. Unfortunately for Alan, his wife is quickly abducted and his life seems to spin into a deep dark spiral of despair and sorting out who or what is twisting his life beyond recognition becomes his only ambition. The game opens with the sweeping vistas and wide shots that are on par with any production featured on the tube today. You are introduced to our hero and get a sense of why he and his wife are here during a brief ferry ride to the town of Bright Falls. During these initial moments it is almost impossible to 'play the game' as you will want to really soak in your surroundings (something you'll want to do time and again throughout your visit to Bright Falls).

I want to be very careful throughout this review to ensure that I don't give away any of the surprises; therefor the review may seem short (and perhaps I'll add to it after a time) but I believe I will address many of your concerns.

By far the first thing that strikes you as you begin your journey in this game is the absolute epic scale of the production value. The story is presented as episodes in a series, you get a true sense that you are involved in the development of a big budget television series. At the end of the first episode and moving into the second I literally stood, mouth agape and replayed the sequence over and over at least 5 times. I was that struck by the framing of the episodes. You are inundated with information throughout your game time; and it is this information that will hold the key to everything. I've often heard about the light vs. darkness aspect of the game (truth be told I thought it might end up being a Star Wars title) and it is this aspect that is the core gameplay. In light you are safe but in darkness you're faced with some of the most creative atmospheres I've ever encountered in a game. More than once I was startled beyond what any 'horror' movie has ever done (this is done without gore or even a drop of blood); there was even a moment that I had paused the game and my oldest daughter noticed what was on screen and her simply stated 'wow Dad... that's creepy' speaks volumes to what gamers can expect.

The controls are at first vaguely familiar but within moments I couldn't believe how fluidly the character reacted to my directions. I was put off at first when I heard that this will not be an sandbox world environment; however I quickly changed my mind when I realized how vast Bright Falls is even without the open world roaming. When looking around you are not faced with the usual jolting of a video game character instead you are treated to the gentle swaying that we experience in real life which just further draws you into the depth of the game. Many of the game elements allow you to focus in on specific events and having this tied to a click of the left thumb controller really adds to the feeling that you are directing the involvement. All of the controls and movement come really naturally and having the ability to switch from left to right of the 3rd person action is a big plus.

The sound is very understated in this title. I don't mean that it is low or that it doesn't work I mean that it doesn't try to take center stage; instead it becomes an instrument to further compel the story itself. Yes there are intense moments and there is spectacular voice acting but the sound itself becomes a character in the story rather than just some background noise. This title also carries a stellar list of songs from numerous artists (titles unlock as the game progresses) that are sure to find their way into all of our collective conscience as the game takes off.

Although I had touched briefly on visuals, I'd like to get into some of the detail regarding the different characters and some of the encounters you'll experience; however this would give away a significant amount of the game design, and that can take away from your individual experience. So let me say will not want this game to end, you will not want to take the straight path, you will want to seek out every corner of the game. You will be amazed at the scenery, the scope of the visuals and the details featured throughout (keeping true to the television formula, you will even get a kick out of some of the more clever product placements...a

Now, you can chalk it up to the absolute rush of endorphins I've had simply by having this title in hand after a 5 year wait, but I found it very difficult to find fault in this title. That being said there are a few issues. Some of the character models (during cut-scenes and, sporadically, throughout the game) have some series lip syncing issues....I would have liked to have seen more time fine tuning this aspect of the game because it does tend to (briefly) pull you out of the moment. Re-playability and the decided lack of any sort of multiplayer is a concern in today's gamer market; however I can easily see myself returning to many of the earlier stages to identify some of the minor clues I had missed (and to round out achievement points. Multiplayer would be very difficult for this type of game and Remedy has vaguely hinted at addressing this issue by stating that additional episodes will be available and that 'Alan Wake' is simply the initial groundwork for an ongoing series (syndication anyone? Lol).

There are so many things I want to go over in this review....the lake.....the sheriff.....the doctor.....the ending.....and Alice, poor sweet Alice.....but I don't want to ruin it for anyone out there. My advice is to get this game, invest in the minimum 11 hours of game-play (on normal....go for nightmare to really extend your time) and be a part of the next generation in story based game-play. I can now add Sam Lake (the games lead writer) as one of my top fiction writers.

You have to imagine, Finnish actor Ilkka Villi portrayed, and became the model of, Alan Wake....but he finished working on the project in 2007. So what could have possibly been the delay in bringing this game to the masses? It is my belief that we as gamers and the industry in general simply have not been ready until now; Alan Wake is the foundation from which we will expect all character driven stories to follow from now on.

Now why would the developer allow reviewers to post their comments almost 2 weeks before the North American release.....because the developers know they have a hit and they want to reassure anyone that might be fence sitting.

Its a good time to be a gamer!

Overall: 9.3 / 10
Gameplay: 9.5 / 10
Visuals: 9.2 / 10
Sound: 9.3 / 10


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