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Alan Wake (Xbox 360) artwork

Alan Wake (Xbox 360) review

"I really wish I liked this game more."

I tried, I really did, but I just couldn't get myself to enjoy Alan Wake. The entire time I played this game I felt like the developers were doing all they could to shake me off.

Now, don't misunderstand me. It wasn't that I was too scared. Far from it, in fact. Call me crazy, but when shadow people are running at me with axes and clubs, I find it substantially less scary when all I have to do is point a flashlight at them and then shoot them in the head. In real life, sure, I'd probably be dead in a matter of seconds. In a video game, though, it made me question when the actual threats were going to turn up.

The attempts at a creepy atmosphere hinge mostly on the player being afraid of the dark. For any veteran of the horror genre, however, the dark usually means you can't see anything. In Alan Wake, it seems more like a dark blue wash over some wooded areas and cabins. The level design feels elementary at best, with enemies rushing out from behind large obstructions that stick out like a sore thumb in the otherwise linear and sparsely decorated pathways. Think about the first scene in the movie Scream - it's tense because there are all these open areas behind Drew Barrymore from which a killer COULD leap, but doesn't. The director knew what you knew - this is a scary movie with a psychotic killer. They don't try to surprise you by having one door at the end of a hallway that you know is the only entrance, they put multiple doors and windows in your field of vision so that tension mounts from trying to guess where the killer will come from. Alan Wake, meanwhile, seems to always be facing the right direction, and even tense moments in a lumber yard only pit you against one other enemy that jabbers so consistently he would lose any Marco Polo game against an 8-year-old.

So, it's not scary. That's a big minus, but it's just one problem with the game. What about the voice acting? The story? The atmosphere? The game play? Don't worry, all of those are equally worth missing.

The story is full of eye-rolling moments that are as cliche as they come. Alan loves his wife, but all we ever see is the two of them fighting before she is consumed by some sort of darkness. Also, she has a phobia of the darkness that is supposed to make her more sympathetic, but it just comes off as weird and infantile. To add to this, Alan, her husband, mind you, has to go into dark rooms first to turn the lights on, and, while never explicitly stated, will most likely have to tuck her into bed afterwards as well. Before that can happen, though, he scolds her for a very offhand remark and storms out. It feels like Alan is more like an emotionally abusive father than a husband, which makes their relationship much creepier than anything else in the game.

So, she gets kidnapped, which, at first, seems like it might be the best thing for Alan. I mean, she's no longer a distraction, he can get back to his writing, and he can find a fresh new woman with a childlike phobia to torment. Instead, against all reason, he decides he has to save her from the dark monsters that he is absolutely certain really do exist.

Now, cliche as it is, this is still a story. And stories shouldn't be spoiled, right? Good, glad we agreed on that. So, imagine my surprise when I kept finding pages of Alan's manuscript that described upcoming scenes before they happened. Now, I don't like the story or anything, but I'd at least like to see how it played out rather than hear about it ahead of time. It's one thing to tell the player what is happening as opposed to showing the events themselves, but to tell us and then make us sit through the event anyway is just insulting. It's as if they didn't trust me to understand what I was watching. "Do you see this man who's dying? He's the same jerk you talked to five minutes ago. Remember? Remember that?"

I really wish I liked this game more. It had all these great things going for it: I love horror, I love third person shooters, and I love it when "regular" people are put into harrowing situations. From the beginning, though, I knew I was in for trouble. The game starts with what is obviously a nightmare but also doubles for a tutorial. Okay, fine. Then the sky opens and a ray of light falls on Alan Wake and a godly voice that sounds suspiciously like Alan Wake's tells Alan not to be afraid and to use the light.

Now, it's probably unfair to compare this to the first scene from Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but the comparisons are just too obvious. Both Alan and Daniel wake up in a creepy location, no idea what is going on, and are quickly given a brief explanation of what they need to do by a disembodied version of themselves. In Daniel's case, however, he is given one mission that drives the entire plot: descend into the castle's depths and kill Alexander. Perfect! A clear objective without too much exposition, and enough intrigue to keep me going despite the terror. The fact that this is written in a note from Daniel's past self makes the situation all the more disturbing.

For Alan Wake, the opposite occurs. The explanation is tedious, long-winded, and doesn't really tell you anything about the plot. In addition, the over-the-top effect of having Alan as God telling you all this while dispelling the darkness around you doesn't exactly add to the tension or fear you feel while playing. Instead, it creates feelings of relief before there was enough tension to warrant it.

In short, the creators didn't earn any of the feelings they wanted me to feel. I didn't feel scared, but now I'm supposed to be relieved? I didn't have a chance to fight enemies, but now I know I can beat them? It reeks of insecurity, as if the game creators didn't want you to get too scared or frustrated and walk away from the game too quickly. They're so afraid that you won't like the game that they make the enemies easy, they hold your hand through every section, and they even warn you about the scary moments by giving you brief descriptions of them before you see them.

If I start a game, I'm going to finish it, no matter how bad it is. I didnít finish Alan wake because I felt like it was over the moment he woke up from the nightmare and finished the tutorial. I could already tell that this game wasn't going to take the time to earn my respect, it would just beg for my approval, and I was never going to give it either.


Clayton's avatar
Community review by Clayton (October 25, 2013)

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EmP posted October 26, 2013:

Iíll get this bit out of the way early: I found a small typo at the end of your review:

I didnít finish Alan wake because I felt like...

Capital W needed.

So, yeah, Iíve been giving the whole Wake Ďfranchiseí (if you can call 1Ĺ games a franchise, I guess) a bit of though recently thanks to a couple of reviews penned here, and I find myself a little surprised. I though the games were pretty average but okay on the whole and, as such, counted myself in within the seriesí detractors. Iíve recently learnt thereís a pretty strong undercurrent of dislike for the games and, while I donít wholeheartedly agree with your opinion, Iím unable to disagree with anything youíve said. Thatís some strong writing.

What we can agree on is the abject lack of horror. When I think back now on my playthrough, only a handful of things stand out as points I enjoy. The battle on the rotting heavy metal stage on the farm was pure action. Wakeís manager getting wrecked and wandering around in a darkened woods full of deranged killers while refusing to let go of his clientís life-size cardboard cut-out still makes me smile. Downloading Ďput the lime in the coconutí as a ringtone after it got stuck in my head from the accursed jukebox was probably the closest this game got to horror.

Itís ironic in a way, because the gameís opening monologue nails what good horror is. It quotes Stephen King by saying that the strongest horror is unexplainable, and is more fearsome when unexplained. The game then does its abject best to ignore its own advice, and explain everything to the gamer in crayon. That, I always felt, was the gameís biggest pitfall.

Closely followed by the fact that the entire game is set in the woods. Trees everywhere and nothing to distinguish one area from another. Argh.
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Linkamoto posted October 28, 2013:

Yeah, the woods setting was a downer for me, but I did enjoy the story, in particular the various writings, as well as the radio bits. The enemies and combat were rather dull, but I didn't find the game to be anything less than average. It had a good ambiance at times, and the ending was awesome.

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