Alan Wake comes to us from Sam Lake, the grimacing face behind the original Max Payne, and his development team Remedy. Like Lake's breakout game, Alan Wake has us on linear corridors doing an awful lot of shooting at fearless, bullet-sponge enemies. Unlike Max Payne, we're in the world of mediocre Stephen King horror novels instead of mediocre noir potboilers.
Alan Wake is a writer who appears to suck at everything, including writing. He apparently made some good money shitting out crappy horror novels, judging by his rather swanky NYC apartment, but he hasn't been able to write a word in two years. Alan goes on vacation with his wife to a remote part of Oregon, where they'll rent an isolated cabin near a small town and see if Alan can get his mojo back. Of course, this plan goes awry when wifey disappears and Alan starts getting attacked by shadowy lumberjacks left and right.
Reportedly, the original intention was to have the game be a sort of L.A. Noire-esque detective procedural by day, then turn into the shooty-shooty-jump-scares at night. Somehow the five-plus-year development cycle wasn't enough to work out the detective bit, however, so the shooty corridor scenes in the forest are linked together by the occasional brief daytime scene that's basically a glorified cutscene that you get to walk around in.
So the game keeps contriving to force Alan to walk moderate distances through the forest at night, where he's ripe for attack by a variety of Small, Medium and occasional Large lumberjacks who are possessed by The Debbil. They're kinda like the Ganados of Resi Evil 4, just possessed by demons instead of some virus. The one thing Alan doesn't entirely suck at is stress shooting, surprisingly, as he has fairly steady nerves and seems instantly familiar with the operation of revolvers and shotguns. Don't ask him to run, though, as he has the constitution of a 75-year-old man and can't sprint for more than about 5 seconds before collapsing in a wheezing mess. Alan's only sanctuary is the occasional spot of light, where he can recharge his health and which will cause any shadow monsters in the vicinity to retreat back to their original spawn points. The Munsters are protected by shadowy shields, however, and before he can blow them away he must keep his flashlight focused on them for a few seconds.
The game doesn't even try to cover up its boner for Stephen King, opening with a quote of his and sneaking a couple more in later. Rural Oregon is really pretty much King's rural New England, just with more rain, less snow and no one talks like Pepperidge Farm Guy . But Twin Peaks is also a source of inspiration, what with the surrealist stylings and the "on the last episode" recap at the beginning of each new chapter. Unfortunately, neither of these sources are the most stellar examples of horror and neither is this game. The horror aspect is actually in a strange place between the heavily-armed jump scares of a Resident Evil or Dead Space and the defenseless run/hide-first approach of a Clock Tower or Amnesia. The game is laid out so that you can't avoid the combat sequences, and the right choice is usually to fight. But Alan isn't the greatest at this and resource management of limited ammo and flashlight batteries is important. And on certain occasions, like when you're surrounded by five dudes, running actually IS the right approach, though you usually only figure this out by getting killed two or three times first. Anyway, it doesn't work on a jump-scare level because the game telegraphs lumberjack appearances with swirling wind, musical cues and then freezes and pulls the camera out to show you where they're coming from. But there's also no psychological aspect of hiding or really ever feeling powerless. Maybe a little at the beginning when you're confused about the combat and ammo is scarce, but you're a fully loaded battle station by the end of the game.
That is selling the game just a bit short, though, as the one major triumph is atmosphere. The game locations are well-constructed and the forest areas are highly detailed with often excellent use of ambient sound. The facial animation in cutscenes really needed some work, though. It's bad to the point of taking you out of the game, and it's definitely hard to take Alan's predicaments seriously when his jaw always appears to be flapping open looking like Christian Bale after major oral surgery. Honestly the game's mouth animations are probably the most frightening thing about it.
So the game ends up essentially centering on combat, for better or worse. It works OK when you're in a relatively small environment facing no more than two guys. In the more open forest areas where four or five guys can pop in at once, it becomes a real pain. While you've got the flashlight focused on one guy, the others flank you (or just kind of appear out of nowhere) and you're fucked once multiple guys get close to you. Fortunately these open-forest gangbangs are kept to a minimum, but when one pops up it's often not clear what to do. If you can't funnel the group to a chokepoint like a bridge or narrow path, you usually just have to try to run away, or hope you have a flare and can cluster them together. There were a couple of segments where I had to try to kill one guy in a group quickly then make a run back for a safe haven, and just pick away like that hoping that they didn't just keep respawning.
I could at least cope with the combat, and on occasion even found it enjoyable. Where the game ultimately lost me were the jonky "escort missions", however. It's hard enough to keep yourself alive in the midst of a pack of axe-tossing assholes, let alone protect some braindead AI simultaneously. And the very first one makes you do it without a gun, to boot. Hell with that.
A shame as I was at least kinda curious to see where the game was going and how it all wrapped up, despite my distaste for Stephen King and my complete indifference to Twin Peaks. The main character isn't really helping the case at all, though. He acts like a total asshole to everyone, the crappy facial animations make it hard to empathize with his predicaments, and I have no idea why someone with that much money can't get on a damn elliptical once in a while. I'm afraid I just don't want to protect him, Remedy. One less hack writer in the world who gets rich by aiming for the lowest common denominator of the reading public? Yeah, what a tragedy that would be.
So Alan Wake ends up being this odd "tweener" of a horror game where it's focused on combat, but your protag is constantly overwhelmed and kind of sucks at it. I'm left feeling like the game should have just gone balls-out and over-the-top with the action like Resident Evil 4 instead. There's no point in having a gimpy protag when you can rarely run and can never hide, and there's no real puzzles or anything else to do but shoot stuff.
I'm an undead lumberjack and I'm OK
* Gameplay Video