Brought to you by the creators of the Max Payne series, Alan Wake is a loving homage to mystery and suspense thriller stories.
|Publisher||Microsoft Game Studios|
|Console||PC, Xbox 360|
|Genre||Action-adventure, third-person shooter, survival horror|
|Release Year||2010, 2012|
|Purchase (PC; base game + American Nightmare + extras)||Purchase from Humble Store.|
|Purchase (Xbox 360)||Purchase from Amazon.|
Alan Wake is one of those games that felt like it was ahead of its time when it first came out. It showcased pretty much everything that the Xbox 360 was capable of, turning a video game into a more cinematic experience. Many people who played it instantly fell in love with the narrative and visuals, though you might say it’s still an underrated title. But at the same time, it did fall short for a reason.
The World of Bright Falls
The game stars the titular Alan Wake, a successful psychological thriller novelist. He and his wife Alice decide to take a short vacation at the small mountain town of Bright Falls in Washington, in an attempt to gain inspiration to work on his next novel after undergoing a two-year writer’s block. After an argument with Alice, a mysterious dark force kidnaps her. So Alan, along with his best friend and literary agent Barry Wheeler, must learn to fight the impossible and rescue Alice from the clutches of a mysterious group of shadow figures known as the Taken.
All these events are paced well, very much like a novel. There is a good amount of buildup leading up to the inciting incident, making you wonder what will happen next.
The graphics still hold up pretty well. The mountain and forest landscapes of Washington are portrayed beautifully in this game. Running through the mountainous forests at night, then witnessing a large gust of wind bringing about a thick fog into the area. Then the shadowy figures appear, ready to strike the nearest living person. A whirlwind of light and shadow. This dark and surreal atmosphere is pure bliss.
The character models showed the appropriate facial expressions during action and dialogue. Overall, it’s a strongly visual game and showcases just what the Xbox 360 can render.
And Alan Wake’s soundtrack… is just fucking awesome.
“War” by Poets of the Fall is easily the best song in the game, period. However, this is not to say the rest of the soundtrack should be overlooked. No, quite the contrary. This game has some great ambient and thematic songs. I still remember the scene where you’re fighting on a stage while “Children of the Elder God” by the Old Gods of Asgard plays. Definitely one of the big highlights of the game.
If you read the lyrics of these songs, you will find that they are quite relevant to the story as well. It’s a very nice touch that demonstrates the aptitude of the development team.
The Troubles of Writer’s Block
But let’s discuss Alan Wake’s most polarizing element: the gameplay. It really is one of those love-it/hate-it things.
At its core, Alan Wake is an action-adventure game where you must travel to your next destination point, as indicated by your compass. Large spotlights function as checkpoints, healing areas and auto-save points. There are some survival horror elements—though the developer insisted not to think of the game as survival horror. As you explore Bright Falls and its surrounding landscape, you will find weapon ammo, Energizer batteries (nice product placement, guys), flares, flash grenades, etc. But inevitably, you have to fight against the Taken.
In short, the Taken are former humans who fell under the influence of the mysterious darkness that took away Alice Wake. They have turned into primitive creatures whose only instinct is to kill anything that moves, while regurgitating heavily distorted lines without any regard for their context. In a way, they’re like parrots when it comes to their dialogue.
The darkness surrounding the Taken acts as a shield, making them invincible to any damage you inflict. Generally, the Taken reside in the darkness and despise the light, which you can take advantage of. In this context, Alan Wake’s flashlight is a unique weapon on its own.
The idea is that you focus the flashlight on the Taken and burn away the darkness to make them vulnerable. Then you take out your handy pistol, fire a few shots and defeat them. Basically, it’s a tag-and-finish type of system.
Unfortunately, you will catch on pretty quick to what makes the game unbearable to some players. The combat system is very unforgiving. The first time I played Alan Wake, I was using a mouse and keyboard. But because of the frustrating combat, I ended up rage-quitting. And here I am, years later, playing through it again using a gamepad. It’s easier this time around, but it’s still a bitch.
In fact, I have a whole rant about this combat system. Click the spoiler tag for more info.
You often have to fight the Taken in large groups. However, this is easier said than done. The Taken move towards your position very quickly and pull a blitzkrieg on your ass. By holding down the run button and using the control stick, you can make a timely dodge just right before an attack connects.
But dodging constantly is not a very easy feat. The Taken will try to attack you as soon as they’re close to you, so it’s very possible that 2 – 4 enemies will attack you in succession. Some even have combo attacks that drain more than half of your health. You might dodge one attack, but then you will find yourself getting pummeled by the next few attacks. And then you die very quickly.
You have to destroy the darkness surrounding each and every one of the Taken in order to harm them. Yes, ONE AT A TIME. Because resources are limited, you have to rely on the flashlight most of the time. However, if you try to focus on one Taken at a time, four more gang-bang you out of nowhere.
While you can try to run away and get to the next big light source, the Taken all run faster than you. Some of them can also throw their weapons, with very precise accuracy. Furthermore, Alan can’t run for too long or else he peters out.
It really doesn’t help that ammo is strictly limited in certain places, particularly the first couple of episodes in the game. Even worse, Alan does NOT have any melee attacks.
…Seriously? You can’t even let him throw a punch?
So once you run out of ammo, all you can do is try to reach the next big light source. And that is some wishful thinking, friend. The game doesn’t just give you the ammo whenever you really need it.
So what are the battles going to be like? A lot of dodging, light-shining and shooting. And possibly a lot of falling, because it’s so damn difficult to pay attention to your surroundings while there are five crazed, fast-moving shadow people trying to cut you up with an axe!
Even dodging is an issue. It only works sometimes. But other times, your enemies hit you anyway. Oh, and they throw lots of shit at you. Knives, axes, whatever. It just really defeats the purpose of dodging.
So considering the fact that Alan is a lot slower than the Taken and that his pansy ass is easy to kill, the battles can get really unfair. There’s challenge, and then there’s making the game more tedious than it needs to be.
In general, this is by far the worst aspect of Alan Wake. If you want to fight against enemies in a different fashion, that’s one thing. But to make your character horribly outmatched against the challenges ahead, the game just stops being fun. You can’t just make a game hard just for the sake of being hard, even if it means handicapping your character. It doesn’t present a good challenge, therefore it hurts the whole experience.
In other words, STOP SENDING OUT SO MANY OF THESE FUCKERS AFTER YOU!
And I’m dead serious. This game has a weird fetish for sending out mobs after you every few minutes. Not only does it get old fast, but it discourages you from playing further into the game… because this is pretty much what happens for most of the game. If the combat mechanics were more nuanced and better prepared you for the challenges ahead, it would be a real masterpiece of the Xbox 360.
This is what really hurts Alan Wake’s potential. It’s almost hilarious how unfair the difficulty spikes can be. The thing about this kind of difficulty is that it isn’t fair.
And despite my negative feelings to the combat, I will say that I do at least appreciate its uniqueness. Its intensity helps build up suspense and thrills, then has you dreading what else lies ahead.
Eventually, the gameplay does get a bit better when you get your hands on shotguns, hunting rifles, and stronger flashlights. They help make combat more of a breeze, so you will get past that crappy phase where you have to shoot each Taken 3 – 4 times with the pistol (5 – 6 for the larger ones).
Later on, you will also fight large flocks of crows also taken by the darkness of Cauldron Lake. Each individual bird can easily die from the flashlight, but this is a literal case of strength in numbers. The best way to fight them is to use the flare gun as they get closer, killing whole groups at once. It’s very satisfying to nuke all those little fuckers with a single shot.
Unfortunately, the combat doesn’t get too much deeper what I explained that so it tends to get repetitive even after the fact.
Brilliant Premise and Brilliant Execution
Alan Wake, in its pacing and story structure, plays out very much like a suspense thriller TV series. It’s pretty much a love letter to Stephen King novels, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, The Twilight Zone, and Alfred Hitchcock films. It is divided up into six episodes, with two special episodes that later came as DLC.
Scattered throughout each episode, there are many manuscript pages that you can collect to learn small bits of backstory about character histories and the town of Bright Falls.
As an aspiring writer myself, I do sympathize with Alan’s plight. A writer’s block can turn even a successful novelist’s life upside down. The stifled creativity puts you into a corner; can you meet consumer demand and bring out a good story fast enough to keep your career alive? Or will all that pressure ultimately get the better of you? It drove him to waste his life away by drinking and partying, much to the chagrin of his wife.
In Alan Wake’s case, this seems to be happening literally. The arrival of the Taken and the mysterious old lady known as Barbara Jagger seem to be products of a horror story spiraling out of control. And only he can end the story and save the woman he loved dearly by being the protagonist.
As the story continues, Alan finds that he made more enemies than he realized. Bright Falls seems like any other ordinary town, with earnest people leading average lives. But there are also residents and visitors that have other plans.
It’s a pretty long but complex storyline. Not only is the plot fascinating, but the characters are quite relatable too. Alan Wake is a cynical man unprepared for his success, which ultimately strained his relationships to the people closest to him and made him anti-social towards even his own fans. Quoting from the Alan Wake wikia…
Remedy Games has called Alan “kind of a dick”. They note that, as before stated, he hates most people, and has many problems with his marriage. But they say that this is good because it separates him from most golden-hearted characters and “space marine” G.I. Joes. This adds a layer of realism and depth to him, making him a more relatable character with moral failings of his own as opposed to a larger-than-life hero with high moral standards.
His evolution from a cynical, struggling artist to a brave hero willing to sacrifice himself to free his wife and save the townspeople of Bright Falls is what makes him a good three-dimensional character.
Barry Wheeler, the deuteragonist, is the high-strung New Yorker friend and literary agent of Alan. At first, he did seem like the cowardly dumbass sidekick who will get annoying really fast. He makes quite a few smart-alecky remarks and seems to obsess over his own financial success.
But as the story progresses, he has some of the best character dialogue and even helps Alan fight the Taken—in his own silly way, of course.
…Heh. Fucking Christmas lights, man.
But when you really consider it, Barry is a hard worker who did his best to land Alan and himself a successful career. And though he’s not exactly the strong or brave type, he still stands at Alan’s side despite the odds. On the surface, Barry seemed selfish. But his childhood friendship with Alan is a very genuine one. I’m honestly surprised that I ended up liking his character by the end. This is a sign that the writing staff really knows what they’re doing. They have a true understanding of how to build an interesting plot and interesting characters to boot.
I should note that the chief writer of Alan Wake is Sami Järvi, best known as Sam Lake. Before this game, he is best known for writing the first and second Max Payne games. He also ends up writing for a later Remedy Entertainment game, the spiritual successor to Alan Wake known as Quantum Break. Just based on those tidbits of info alone, I genuinely want to play Quantum Break just to find more video game storytelling gold.
It’s Not a Lake. It’s an Ocean.
In addition to Alan Wake’s original six episodes, there are two special DLC episodes: The Signal and The Writer. Both of the episode takes place after the original six, detailing Alan’s continuous battle with the darkness of Cauldron Lake.
These episodes are pretty damn trippy too, which is why they’re worth getting in my opinion. The writing is still pretty good, but it’s definitely filler at this point. Still, it’s not a bad thing if you can get some enjoyment out of it.
Also, shining your flashlight on floating text to summon items and terrain features is a pretty cool deal. It’s some A-class dream logic.
Alan Wake’s American Nightmare
Lastly, I will talk about American Nightmare. This is a rather strange entry to the original Alan Wake game that came out in 2012. It’s not really DLC or a sequel, but more like a standalone alternative universe spinoff. I guess you could call this game an expansion… but you don’t even need to have the original game to play American Nightmare. It’s just so fucking weird.
So oddly enough, American Nightmare continues the story of the original game. Alan somehow finds himself in a remote location in Arizona, very far away from the original Washington setting. This time, a new villain is controlling the darkness of Cauldron Lake: Alan’s doppelgänger known as Mr. Scratch.
Or as this game likes to say, Mr. SCHRK!
I will definitely say that this game did a good job in making Mr. Scratch into an egotistical, smug son of a bitch. It gives you more of a precedent to put a stop to his plans.
The graphics of this expansion are noticeably better than the original game’s. The environments are more detailed and the FMV sequences run smoothly and surprisingly fit really well into this surreal setting.
Unfortunately, American Nightmare’s story is not quite interesting like the original game’s. Why, you ask? Because it plays out more like a non-canon Twilight Zone episode. Or in this universe’s case, an episode of Night Springs.
But I will at least say this: the combat is better.
For some reason, Alan’s ability to dodge in the original game is very… shaky at best. But in this game, it seems much more responsive. Alan can also equip new weapons such as a nail gun or a submachine gun, giving him more choices to work with.
There are also new enemy varieties, such a chainsaw-wielding giant, a ghoul that can turn into a flock of crows, and a man who can divide into multiple smaller men. Generally speaking, the gameplay here is a little more fresh and less frustrating.
In the end though, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is only a few hours long compared to the 15+ hours of the original game. It’s a nice addition, though it is disappointing that it doesn’t move the story forward in any way.
All in all, Alan Wake is a great game for the Xbox 360 and PC. For those thinking about quitting this game due to the brutal gameplay, my advice to you is to suck it up because otherwise you will be missing out on a great story. It may be frustrating, but it’s not as bad as you think. The payoff is well worth the frustration.
Alan WakePrice Varies
- A well paced plot, developing characters, and well placed symbolism.
- Despite the flaws of the gameplay, it's a nice change of pace from the usual action-adventure games with unique combat mechanics and exploring the beautiful landscapes of Washington.
- The graphics are highly detailed and have some really nice effects.
- The soundtrack consists of nice ambient tracks by Petri Alanko and movie quality songs from multiple artists such as Poets of the Fall, the Old Gods of Asgard and even the late David Bowie.
- In American Nightmare's case, the combat mechanics have improved. New guns and enemy varieties are available.
- The combat can be really frustrating and repetitive, since the Taken can easily overwhelm you with numbers and hard to dodge attacks.
- In American Nightmare's case, it's short and ultimately doesn't add much to the main story.