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ALAN WAKE’s  arrived on PC finally, amidst howls of outrage and fist-shaking at both Remedy and Microsoft. Originally a broken promise, since the game was meant to be on both Xbox 360 and PC, Remedy has made amends by sprinkling petals of beauty to their original gift. All the positives from the Xbox version remain, but there are added bonuses – least of which being the two free DLC episodes – that help solidify this dark journey into a wonderful tale, told by a struggling fool, signifying something.

A minor controller issue, however, turns a small problem into a major one, since it can result in you dying unnecessarily.

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Third-person horror titles are becoming as rare as point-and-click adventures, women who find me attractive and intelligent celebrities (one of these never existed). I attribute this decline to my adoration of the genre, since everything I adore usually dies or disappears. However, ALAN WAKE manages to loosen the grip banality and non-existence has had on the genre. It sits comfortably between the outright horrors of Silent Hill and Resident Evil, but leans like a slouching corpse toward the former in the creep-factor.

There are no real monsters with half demon faces or leaking skin. Instead, here we have big-budget creepiness: with woods being enveloped in screaming darkness, trees and lights shattering, hurricane winds swirling and tearing apart houses. The terror isn’t the things that go bump in the night (i.e. old people who can’t find their spectacles); what’s terrifying is the realisation that you’re dealing with forces “bigger” than yourself that hate you. So basically, the same relationship women and their bodies have with the Saudi Arabian mullahs.

How to Tell an American Horror Story

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ALAN WAKE is unashamed of its heritage. The game begins with Mr Wake quoting famous horror-writer Stephen King: “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear”. That quotation comes from King’s regular column at EW.com, which is itself an excellent read. Alan Wake, the game and titular character, is steeped in confusion: You stand on a shore of limited comprehension, all the while a sea of ignorance and, therefore, fear, rages around you.

We begin with Mr Wake arriving in the town of Bright Falls. A world-renowned writer of crime and horror, Mr Wake has been unable to write for nearly two years. He is thus seeking a vacation for his overworked mind. However, when he gets there, he discovers his wife’s ulterior motives involving a self-help quack (tautology?), a seminar, and Mr Wake’s typewriter. Mr Wake, who has a tendency to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, storms out the creepy vacation house they acquire. Of course, when he’s gone, some… thing grabs his wife and she disappears, screaming into the dark. Giving chase, he notices a female-form sinking in the nearby lake and dives in… and wakes up a week later, hanging over a cliff, in his car, with a serious head wound.

Wake must piece together what has happened in that week, find his wife and avoid the suspicion of the police. He is hounded by some massive dark presence, which is like the mother of the Smoke Monster from Lost: it roars, rips trees, summons creepy minions with sharp objects and Mike Patton-esque voices, and overall seems to not be very fond of writers (and after how Lost ended, can you blame her?).

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The dynamics of writing itself are brilliant for ALAN WAKE though, since the themes of creation and destruction are what guide this tale: Wake finds manuscript pages of a book he hasn’t written yet, detailing not only a story he had not outlined (yet), but events that will occur to him in a few minutes. This creates a powerful sense of dread, since when you read “Suddenly an axe murderer pounced on me”, it’s not exactly as pleasant as reading “Suddenly a Megan Fox pounced on me”. When you find yourself entering an abandoned garage, having read a few minutes ago of a vicious attack that will occur “in an abandoned garage”, I can guarantee you won’t be running headlong into it.

It’s a brilliantly told story. It’s also outlined like a TV miniseries with each part beginning with a “Previously on Alan Wake” voice-over and montage summary – which is just brilliant. But the game has to be well told to keep up with dynamics of writing, backstory and so on. You might find yourself unsatisfied toward the end, but the journey is as wonderful to experience as any good Stephen King or Clive Barker book.

Terrifying Dynamics and Terrible Controls

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If you’ve played Max Payne, Remedy’s best series, then you will know how to play ALAN WAKE. The camera is at a slight angle, ala RESIDENT EVIL 4 or 5, which can be a bit difficult for navigation but you’ll soon get used to it.

Light is your friend in the game. It heals, but more importantly it fights the dark presence. When you are confronted by evil axe murders with swirling dark clouds, you must first rid them of the dark since it proves impervious to bullets. Aiming your flashlight, turning on generators or tossing flares helps lower this dark armour so you can use normal firearms. Usually when Wake has killed one successfully, there’s a sexy slo-mo death scene. Remedy knows how to leave its mark. The dynamic of first weakening before attacking makes for unique combat, but can become quite stale.

Wake is mostly easy enough to manoeuvre. However, the major failing is his dodging ability. To dodge, the game demands you hold down the sprint key – while stationery – then move in a direction. If you do it moments before an attack, Mr Wake will avoid the attack completely, in another Remedy slo-mo move. But it fails miserably: I’ve tried different combinations on my keyboard and gaming mouse to dodge effectively, but it never quite works. When enemies confront you, you are probably already sprinting away from them. Then to dodge, you have make Wake stop completely which is ridiculous. Furthermore, the game is sometimes unresponsive to the move. I’ve died so many times unnecessarily because Wake didn’t dodge but either sprinted or stood like an idiot, taking an axe in the head. I’m not sure why there wasn’t one key for dodging and an option for, say, automatic direction (for wussy gamers like me). So, you could press one button to dodge and one to sprint, in order for you to dodge while sprinting. Furthermore, when you have enemies throwing axes, you can’t see them do so given how dark everything is – hence you need to keep moving. This is a horribly implemented dynamic and has several times made me “rage quit” amidst screams and hair-pulling (not my own).

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Other than that, the physics work wonderfully. The environment looks gorgeous, with lush visual and sound textures. It’s a game demanding to be played with low-lighting and headphones. Remedy must be congratulated for this visual and auditory feast. The sound effects and soundtrack are perfect, but some visual elements – like lip-syncing and some female characters all looking like they’re based on the same character-model – leave something to be desired. Also, I am unimpressed with the voice actor of Alan Wake who makes it quite obvious he’s an actor reading a script. He’s no James McCaffrey (who makes a cameo as a nihilistic, self-destructive detective in one of Wake’s books).

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Conclusion

It’s not a very long game. Plus the PC version comes with two great DLCs. I’d rather Remedy gave us American Nightmare for our trouble, but alas. The visuals look amazing and obviously with a monster machine will beat its previous incarnation on the 360.

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It’s a great horror game, beautifully told with fantastic elements. The controls are sometimes game-quittingly horrible, but it can be overcome eventually. Perhaps play it with a controller. The person’s house I invaded to play this game didn’t have one, so I can’t be certain if it will improve. Anyone who does, please let us know.

I love a good story and ALAN WAKE knows how to not only have one, but tell it. It’s encouraging to note that some companies still care about story-telling and implementing it elegantly into their games. As a card-carrying pessimist, this brings back memories of what smiling is like.

Scoring:

 

Gameplay: 7.5/10.

Easy enough to pick-up and play. No real puzzle solving. Brilliant story. Horrible, horrible controls sometimes. Camera can be a bit tricky, but not too much. Sometimes you can’t see what’s happening due to both camera and lighting. This might’ve been fixed if the camera was directly behind Alan’s back.

Design and Presentation: 9/10.

Aside from bad lip-syncing and all middle-aged females being sisters, the game is visually stunning. Lush beautifully textures, soundscapes that perfectly indicate small towns and dark forests and terrifying creatures, and a fantastic soundtrack. Some voice acting – like our hero – feels hollow, though.

Value: 8.5/10.

Indispensable for horror fans. It’s very short, but comes with DLC. It’s a great experience while it lasts, and it’s not trying to be epic. What you get is a few hours of brilliance. If, like me, you find that more valuable than hollow 600 hours of nothing, then this is worth obtaining.

Overall: 8.5/10.

 

Story-telling matters to Remedy. Sexy dynamics and shadows and lighting, soundscapes and visual feasts, combine to give a great, terrifying story. You can’t do better for contemporary horror adventure games than Alan Wake – and you will be well rewarded.

Last Updated: February 27, 2012

Alan Wake (PC)
Summary
8.5

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