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Alan Wake (Xbox 360) artwork

Alan Wake (Xbox 360) review


"As befits a horror story, especially one about a bestselling author, Alan Wake begins with a Stephen King quote: “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” The game then promptly drops us into a dream sequence in which the title character is alone in the woods, being stalked by a crazed hitchhiker. The man warps in and out of existence as if moving by medium of shadow, seemingly propelled by some myste..."



As befits a horror story, especially one about a bestselling author, Alan Wake begins with a Stephen King quote: “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” The game then promptly drops us into a dream sequence in which the title character is alone in the woods, being stalked by a crazed hitchhiker. The man warps in and out of existence as if moving by medium of shadow, seemingly propelled by some mysterious and ethereal force. The events that occur in this nightmare have no valid explanation, but we accept that, because it’s not real.

Alan then wakes up, and we return to the real world. He’s on vacation with his wife, Alice, and is being ferried into the cute town of Bright Falls, located somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The scenery is beautiful, and the locals are polite and excited to have a famous writer in their midst. The couple rent a cabin situated on a small island in the middle of a lake. Things are normal, until they’re not.

One night, Alan storms out of the cabin in a huff after he gets into a fight with Alice over his recent case of writer’s block. He hears her screaming, and runs to her aid only to find that she’s been violently forced through the wall of the cabin and into the lake below. He dives in after her. When he comes to, he’s in a crashed car in the middle of a dark forest. A week has passed, a local sheriff claims that the island he’s staying on doesn’t exist, and Alan finds himself inexplicably stalked by shadowy figures not unlike the one in his dream. He describes the experience as like waking up from one nightmare and emerging in another. Having seen his nightmares first-hand, it’s easy to sympathize.

In presenting this setup and establishing an environment that can most accurately be described as “dreamlike,” Remedy have sent gamers a clear message: Alan Wake does not follow the rules. Its events do not make sense, and nothing can be anticipated. The quote at the beginning of the game even warns us that most questions will likely go unanswered. Enemies materialize out of thin air, utter complete nonsense and attack Alan for no reason, yet this is merely the jumping-off point. As the mystery unfolds, barrels and cars are lifted from the ground by an invisible menace and flung at Alan. Bulldozers, forklifts and other pieces of construction equipment spring to life and try to run him over. By the time the game reaches its absolutely insane climax, objects are literally falling out of the sky.

I once chuckled at a pre-release video of the game in which Alan was forced to battle with a combine harvester that had taken on a mind of its own; out of context, the idea is absurd. Yet Alan Wake, as a full-blown experience, works. It begins with only the mildly ludicrous – and initially calming players by telling them that it’s just a bad dream – but it ramps up so steadily that when we’ve made it to the finale, which could practically fall under the category of fantasy, we accept what’s happening. That feeling of uncertainty, the inability to predict what the designers are going to throw at you next, is precisely what makes Alan Wake one of the most effective horror titles in years. It messes with your mind more fully and astutely than any game since Eternal Darkness.

Admirably, it does all of this without ever spilling a drop of blood. Alan Wake remains a Teen-rated affair throughout, as it’s less about grisly images and more about grisly ideas. This is not to imply that you won’t, say, be attacked by a chainsaw-wielding maniac in the middle of a dark forest. Remedy simply knows, however, that we’re not scared of seeing Alan’s head being brutally sliced off. But seeing the silhouette against the night sky of a man swinging a chainsaw through the air, its roaring motor growing louder and louder as he charges forward? Now that’s freaky.

The unseen monstrosity that’s hunting Alan is given no more clarity than simply being called “the darkness,” but the vital clue is that it’s weak against light, and Alan has a flashlight with him at nearly all times. Combat is usually a matter of weakening enemies with a beam of light and finishing the job with a bullet or two, which is simple in concept and satisfying in execution thanks to the fantastic sound effects and frequent (but not excessive) use of cinematic slow-motion. What’s commendable is that we’re never in anything less than full control of Alan, yet the combat feels consistently claustrophobic anyway. Enemies move at alarming speeds, surround Alan, and beat him with sharp melee weapons. Alan can cast flares, but they do little damage to his foes and are usually a way to simply buy a moment of breathing room before the light goes out and it’s back to combat.

What’s impressive about Alan Wake’s pacing, however, is that it narrowly avoids being labeled as a straightforward shooter, despite almost controlling too fluidly to fall into the genre of survival horror. Remedy proudly resisted the urge to make Alan Wake an action-oriented game, instead interspersing its many battles among periods of cold, haunting silence. They knew that a tense gunfight is just as vital to unnerving players as, say, the echoing dial tone of a payphone hanging from its receiver. Instead of falling into a rut of predictability, Alan Wake is a quiet game that could erupt at any moment.

In numerous places, I’ve heard that Alan Wake raises the standards for storytelling in video games. On some levels, this is true. Atmospherically, the game is unmatched, and its twisty plot unfolds like a TV show: Each “episode” ends with a title sequence and song, and begins with a “previously on Alan Wake” recap. There’s no reason to tell the story in this manner other than that it’s cool, and Remedy certainly took pride in their game’s presentation. You have to wonder, then, why the voice acting and script are so uneven, why the lip-synching is unconvincing, why obnoxious product placements litter the landscape and pull you out of an otherwise immersive experience. Alan Wake’s production values are still far better than most, but for a supposed game-changer on the interactive storytelling front, it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

Then again, Alan Wake draws you into its spell so effectively that any misstep, no matter how small, would seem like a blight against the otherwise flawless web that Remedy have spun for us. The spooky, bizarre landscape of a very bad dream makes for a damn thrilling adventure, and the story’s intentionally ambiguous conclusion means that Alan Wake will live on long after the credits roll. This is one of the few nightmares you won’t want to wake up from.

Rating: 9/10

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (May 31, 2010)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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zippdementia posted June 02, 2010:

This is a damn fine review, Suskie. I think probably it's your best work of the last month and a fine way to end May. Every once in a while a game comes along that raises my interest in picking up an Xbox 360. It is reviews like these that turn that interest into a nagging itch and, if I had the money, the desk space, and wasn't notoriously OCD about system crashes (regardless of the validity of such complaints, I would still fret over my xbox's condition) this review might be the one that would get me to buy a 360.
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honestgamer posted June 02, 2010:

Yeah, it's powerful stuff. I think Suskie in general is the writer on this site who has most frequently pushed me over the edge and made me want a game that only slightly interested me before reading his review. That tendency of his has already cost me money, and it may do so yet again in the case of Alan Wake, despite my aversion to games with horror as a primary reason to play.
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Suskie posted June 02, 2010:

Wow, thanks a lot, guys. Didn't expect to receive this kind of praise for this review.

If it helps, Jason, I rented Alan Wake and had no trouble beating in within that time frame. It's roughly a ten-hour game and it's probably not something you'll be dying to replay, so if there's a Blockbuster in your area I'd hit that up first. There, now you're only down $9 :)
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CoarseDragon posted July 20, 2010:

Because it looks like you are entering this in the TT I will only note one thing here that I thought was weird and you don't really need to change it.

"cute town of Bright Falls"

I never actually pictured a town as being cute - quaint, yes. Cute, not so much.

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