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Alan Wake: A Year Later

Posted by on May 23, 2011 at 8:00 am

The Collector’s Edition. The game. The soundtrack. The bonus disc with extra themes. The universe-building book told from an unseen in-universe character. The Collector’s Edition of the strategy guide. The strategy guide itself. The hardcover book that covered the game’s five-plus years of development, revealing juicy details about so many elements that didn’t make the game. For nearly $100, I bought into the Alan Wake launch to the largest extent I possibly could. Unfortunately, there just weren’t enough of us to bend the world in the way that Remedy needed us to. What happened?

Alan Wake had a long, tortured development cycle. I remember seeing a demo running at E3 2005. From developer Remedy, maker of the Max Payne games, emerged a story about a haunted novelist who had to dispatch spectral abominations with the aid of his flashlight and firearm. We saw some cool tech demos of a landscape realistically transitioning from night to day and back again. in another we saw tornadoes shred buildings apart sheet by sheet. And then Remedy was silent for a while. Microsoft picked up the game as an Xbox 360 exclusive (something that Remedy has said was largely a business reason, or they’d never finish it) and it resurfaced in the form of a new trailer tied to 2008’s Max Payne movie adaptation starring Mark Wahlberg. The game finally dropped a year and a half later.

Why was I hot for Alan Wake? Because I loved the Max Payne games. (Well, more the first than the second, but that’s another article.) I loved their fast action and the memorable and unique storytelling. I came back over and over again to cap dudes using shootdodging, the game’s equivalent of Matrix-style bullet time. Originally announced as an open world game set in the Pacific northwest, Remedy decided that to best tell their story, it’d be easier if they narrowed the scope down to limited, linear missions, much like the Max Payne games. The result can be seen in the elaborate to-scale world built for the game that makes your adventures feel like they’re part of something greater, really making you feel tied into the world.

The best part of Alan Wake is the story by Sam Lake. The game is told in episodes (ideal for subsequent downloadable content) with a faux outro and recap as you go into the next piece of the story. Novelist Alan (thought to be a contemporary to Stephen King) has severe writer’s block, so he and his wife are on vacation, settling into a lodge on a lake. When he discovers that her ulterior motive is to get him to write again, he storms out. Suddenly, she screams. Rushing back, he finds that she has vanished into the lake. And so the adventure begins, reeling in a variety of eclectic characters and drawing inspiration from Twin Peaks and The X-Files, sans the aliens.

Max Payne‘s simple shootdodging gunplay was replaced with a flashlight and gun combination. You highlighted your shadowy enemies, removing their ‘shield’, and finished them off with good ol’ conventional ammunition. This lead to slower-paced, more strategic gameplay, which, combined with the far more finite supply of ammunition, made group confrontations difficult on harder difficulty levels. Flares act as grenades, dispatching groups of baddies, but those are still few in quantity. An overlooked element I found in other reviews when it released was the brilliant AI, which wasn’t afraid to flank you by any means necessary when you concentrated your flashlight on a particular target. To facilitate the game’s shadowy villains, most of the game takes place at night, meaning that much of the game’s beautiful world is hidden away. Sure the lighting’s gorgeous (especially in combination with your flashlight effect) but spending the majority of your twelve-hour game time running past abandoned, dilapidated wood cabins placed against shimmering pines gets repetitive. A few vehicle sections remind us of what could’ve been.

Alan Wake a great story hindered by a not-great game. I often dreaded having to fight through yet another stretch of forest or mining camp to get to the next story point (read: actually playing the game). This begs the question though: what if Remedy had sacrificed the tightness of the storyline to retain its open world roots? Hard to say. Two downloadable episodes eventually arrived, but I just couldn’t wade through them because of their emphasis on combat. It’s a shame that after such a long wait, we wound up with a beautifully crafted, yet fatally flawed creation. I suppose that’s what six years of development can do to a game.

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