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Alan Wake (Xbox 360) artwork

Alan Wake (Xbox 360) review

"What is Alan Wake? It's not survival horror: you regenerate health and have ammo bleeding out of your arse. Itís not psychological horror in that copy-and-pasting invites tedium, not terror. I like to think of it as a foundation, and dare Remedy to do better next time."

Alan Wake is a tale of macabre horror, subtle product placement and trees.

Itís a tale that fittingly starts with a Stephen King quote about how horror -- true horror -- is unexplainable before then pulling out Kingís favourite self-projected protagonist: the horror author being turned slowly mad through his own creations. Mr. Wake is a celebrated writer fallen upon hard times, unable to put pen to paper, and taking it out on everyone around him. Things slowly start to descend into the surreal when he and Alice, his long-suffering wife, take a vacation to picturesque Bright Falls.

Even before they leave the ferry dropping them into town, Alan is besieged by weird nightmares he puts down to his vivid imagination having nowhere to escape to while heís unable to write. Fictional characters of his creation chase him through unfamiliar locations draped in the depth of night with only pockets of light serving as safe havens. These opening segments work because the game makes good on its threat of giving you no idea whatís going on or what to expect, so you creep onwards, feeling unsafe, and falling into a dead sprint should a light source become available. You learn to use a torch as your primary defensive mechanism, shining it in the face of the shadow-cloaked monsters that assault you, burning away their dark armour and leaving them open to your own attacks. Reach your destination -- the lighthouse -- and welcome yourself back to the real world. Here, all you have to deal with are pushy fans and really bad tunes playing on the dinerís jukebox.

Until night descends and Alice is driven through the wall of their rented cabin into the inky blackness of the lake that surrounds it. Panicked, Wake dives in after her, but then regains consciousness in a crashed car several miles away. Here starts his love affair with trees.

Of all the things Alan Wake does well, thereís always one thing that will reel you back in: you are never, in any part of the game, more than a few feet away from a tree. In this first introduction to the game proper, Wake is recovering from a crash he doesnít remember in a forest heís never seen. Nature trails wind through cliffs, granting elevated views of his surroundings. Thereís a petrol station in the far distance, but itís a long trek through the foggy woods where shadowy figures vanish from sight just as quickly as they appear. Alan, rightly scared, presses on, calling out for assistance and freaked out, not only by the resemblance the waking world now shares with his nightmares, but by discovering pages of a manuscript, written by him that he has no recollection of. Then he walks through some more tree-covered forest.

Itís fair to say that the vast majority of the game takes place in woodland and the few times this is mixed up, itís still very much tree inspired. The first sanctuary Wake finds after his crash is a log factory (felled trees everywhere). Here, he meets his first Taken. Much like in his dreams, itís a man covered in an almost sentient darkness. Whatís left of his humanity is expressed in garbled echoes of his previously life, yelled warnings of the health and safety aspect of the felling station, or sales pitches about real estate. Wakeís alone and defenceless as he runs through a maze of logs, his pursuer always uncomfortably close.

Itís terrifying at this early stage of the game. The earlier dreams were purposefully staged so that youíd have to work bloody hard to get a game over, but here youíre presented with a real sense of dread. And so you run. You see the Taken standing on a pile of wooden pallets watching you with a huge axe in hand and you run.

Then you pick up a torch that can destroy the shadow armour. And then you pick up a gun that can kill them once theyíre weakened. And then you pick your way through an endless world of trees, fighting off these threats so often that you soon become completely desensitised to the physiological terror the game boasts so early on.

Levels simply bleed into the others readily. Picking through the first few gives you new weapons to fight back with on a drip-feed: flare guns and flash grenades. Shotguns and hunting rifles -- your arsenal slowly swells, but the threats rarely alter. Sometimes, the Taken will wear different clothes, be they abducted woodsman or possessed police officers and, sometimes, theyíll be quicker or stronger variations on the model. Most throw axes and knives you can dodge; a select few swing revving chainsaws, but the formula never changes. Blind them with the torch, shoot them in the face. Some just take a few more bullets.

As such, itís hard to pigeon hole what Alan Wake really wants to be. Its biggest fear flop is that it excels in neither Resident Evil-like cheap jumps, nor monster-in-your-head psychological fears like the early Silent Hills, despite promising both in the opening stages. It tries to educate you, to tell you it knows how horror works by forwarding the theory that an unexplainable horror story is gruesome in its intangible nature, then goes to great lengths to explain itself. It runs out of ideas fast, so tries to make the few good ones it has stretch the entirety of the game, then adds in some stand out set pieces and draws in a few more trees for good measure.

Imagine if the entirety of the first Silent Hill took place in the school and think how much that would have dragged the game down. As it was, it managed to mix up the locations: you're on the street, in the school, in the hospital, at the amusement park. Wake only exhibits pockets of change. The train yard (still has trees), the mine (under some trees) and the log factory (cut up trees) and because all these stages meld into one, itís hard to differentiate one stretch of woodland from the next. When you invade the farm of an absent aging rock band and experience the gameís highlight in protecting a homemade stage from wave after wave of fallen, youíre back on a high. Then youíre trudging back though a line of trees again. Itís easy to praise the foreboding atmosphere, but it's not hard to establish a certain atmosphere when you beat the same foggy woods backdrop into the gamer's head over and over.

What makes this more of a shame is that the things it does right, it does better than anything else. Itís not been afraid to provide brilliant dialogue that break chapters drowning in heavy sombre aspects with light-hearted moments that reinvigorate interest in the well-rounded cast. Wake himself isnít your normal everyman protagonist, but is in fact a bit of a self-righteous jerk, and his flaws as well as his strengths are allowed to flourish as the tale drags on. Chapters of the game are presented in the same manner as multi-episodic television programs that include theme music, recaps on previous episodes and cliff-hanger endings. Itís not a bad game. But itís not a great one, either.

What Alan Wake becomes is a series of good ideas that die a lingering death at the hands of tedium and lack of variety in execution. Itís a tale of ambition and not quite discovering what it wants to be and, as such, never really discovering its own strengths. Itís a tale of promise and bewilderment and trees. Lots and lots of trees.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (April 26, 2011)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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Masters posted April 26, 2011:

Nice review, Gary. And right on the money. God knows that after beating this game, I had zero inclination to play it again. Because of all the bloody trees. A tedious game with so much promise.
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EmP posted April 26, 2011:

Thanks, Marc. If Remedy had more of an effort to mix things up, Wake really could have been a stand out game. I have high hopes for the next one.
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wolfqueen001 posted May 27, 2011:

Nice review. It's a shame the game was so disappointing. After reading Suskie's review, it sounded really cool, but this sort of knocks down the enthusiasm I had for it somewhat. Like, if I were to notice, as you have done, I'd get pretty bored of the same thing over and over as well. And the same enemies, too? Ehhh.... Well, I dunno. I may still check this game out in 50 years when I actually get a new console, but for now? Perhaps not. Good job with this.
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EmP posted May 30, 2011:

Bleh -- thanks for the catches. I was pretty sure I'd caught all of them this time!

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