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Saturday, 24 July 2010

Review- Alan Wake [Xbox 360]

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Released: 14th May 2010

“Stephen King once wrote “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there's little fun to be had in explanations; they're antithetical to the poetry of fear””- so begins Alan Wake, protagonist suspense writer Alan Wake's wearisome tones narrating over the sweeping vistas of the idyllic setting of Bright Falls. Inspired by the collected works of novelist Stephen King and the TV series Twin Peaks, Alan Wake by the Finnish studio Remedy Entertainment has been a while coming to fruition- revealed a whole 5 years ago at E3 2005 in fact.

The serial drama style seeps through every aspect of the title, which is split into six chapters of varying length, each with their own “Previously on Alan Wake” opening and dramatic cliff-hanger close to the 'episode'. As a matter of fact, Remedy handle the proportions of drama and tension extremely well, with each close to the episode delivering enough force for want to play through the following section of the game. The TV stylistic undertaking can be commended and praised in maintaining an engaging narrative that settles on the writer's-blocked suspense writer Alan Wake as he searches for his missing wife in small-town Bright Falls, infused with bleak psychological horror, paranoia, delusion and the psyche of a schizophrenic. Also no doubt a helping hand in the pacing department, Alan Wake is a prime example of how to approach said trait, with each episode both a contained narrative in of itself whilst also contributing to the on-going plot, perfectly proportioned to deliver enough set-piece and chilling moments in equal to the array of quieter scenes between the mis-matched cast of supporting characters. It's such a shame that Remedy seem almost to have forgotten about writing a decent set of characters to relay the narrative back to us, choosing one of the most depressing and damp squibs of a protagonist (with a tiresome voice actor to support) seems strange for a title so revolved around its dramatic ambition. Characters come and go in a flash, with only Wake's highly irritating manager, Barry, sticking round long enough to get a thorough glimpse towards a true personality (even if his failed purpose is to serve the script's comic relief- badly).

Playing a major element within the game, light is dealt with on a number of levels- a marker towards the darker thoughts in Wake's mind, the thematic link to the horror underbelly, and the lack thereof within enemies- 'The Taken'. Doing very little in terms of innovative game play mechanics, Alan Wake's combat tasks players to 'extract' the darkness from those that have been consumed by the dark (focusing the beam until a flash of light expels from them), allowing you to use conventional weapons. Of course, Wake's torch is often the tool of choice when approaching foes (topped up with product-placed Energizer batteries scattered around areas), although Remedy also allow the use of flash bang grenades, car headlights, spotlights, and flares- the ever reliable spark that forces enemies back for a brief respite from their close-quarter combat in allowing your health and batteries to re-generate and re-charge respectively. Using each item effectively and in the correct way will ensure you are to escape the darkness, although the emphasis on close-quarters combat is often frustrating due to the lack of a melee option for Wake, instead solely focused on guns. It's a huge oversight by Remedy, and can make the game demanding in tight spaces when enemies attack from all sides, with dodging doing little to escape their attacks. Also lacking in enemy type, the game instead focuses on three types; small (that dark can be extracted from whenever), large (the darkness meter will recharge if not drained for a while) and environmental objects (possessed by the darkness and thrown at you- where a well-timed dodge is your best option). Entirely devoid of any ideas, Alan Wake's action sequences are verbose and dull, rarely altered throughout the game. The control scheme is also twitchy and fiddly, with Wake's animations breaking up any fluidity that can be sought.

And while it's extremely hard to speculate on whether the planned open-world sandbox design that was planned to go ahead for the game would have worked, you can't help but feel that the game often suffers from large bouts of linearity and 'A to B' syndrome. Working well when the action takes place within Bright Falls -where the artistic design is minute yet necessary for the small-town feel- the game falters where vast stretches resort to running past tree after tree in any of Bright Falls' wooded areas, not helped along by the repetitive tasks, such as finding a generator to power the gate that halts progression. The team more concerned with trying to infuse these strenuous sections with collectibles (manuscript pages from Wake's as yet unwritten novel, or strangely, coffee Thermoses), although they are merely lazy and pointless additions that add little to the core game play, other than allowing Remedy to tick the box labelled 'Replayability'.

More than favourable in presentation stakes, Alan Wake's drama is lent a hand by the well composed cut scenes that intersperse the action, with well shot sequences and exceptional lighting and particle effects, only animation and lip-syncing of Wake et. al diffusing from the overall gorgeous graphics and presentational style.

Alan Wake is a compelling and engaging experience, in which the narrative is strong enough to remain involved within the game, although its control method and repetitive manner sometimes draw you out of what could have been an exceptional drama and game to boot. In the end, it's slightly above average but by no means great. 

1 comment:

  1. For me, the biggest complaint I had beyond the ones you levied was how short the game was. It seemed to be over very quickly, and I was amused by your comment about ticking off the replayability box, but even then? I had little interest in a 2nd go-round. Good review.