Alan Wake (PC) review
"Excellent atmosphere, clunky controls"
Alan Wake is a linear third-person shooter whose atmosphere and story attempt to redeem the frankly clunky combat. The game proceeds in six episodes (with two additional DLC episodes).
Alan's wife, Alice, gets “taken” by a mysterious “dark presence.” The entire game is spent trying to release her from its power. Alan is frequently lost, operating on whim, and not really sure of how to proceed. A writer himself, he begins researching old legends of Cauldron Lake and the power that words written there seem to possess. This is really the best part of the game, as the labyrinth of creation and created and how to balance what is desired with what is needed leads Alan down an increasingly dark path (pun intended). As he discovers, he is not alone in his knowledge of the lake's mysterious power, nor the first to suffer from it. The supporting cast are varied and colorful characters, several of whom have their own history with Cauldron Lake.
The atmosphere is suitably dark and fog-swept at times. Most of the game happens at night, so turn down your room lights and crank the audio to catch the ambiance (the sound design is superb). The setting is a unique one: the woods and small town atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest. The ambiance is captured nicely, and the woods have thick foliage and dark shadows. Old logging and mining gear abounds, providing just the right touch of historical nostalgia and rusty menace. The buildings and architecture are a mix of rustic, country-style structures (built sturdy to withstand the harsh winters) other more attractive, modern structures designed to impress tourists (Cauldron Lake Lodge). The superb music score is the icing on the atmospheric cake: moody but melodic, it catches the feeling of solitude at night-time haunted by the supernatural.
A supernatural that is made perhaps more terrifying by the clunky combat. Shine a light at enemies to burn away the darkness, then shoot them with whatever weapon you have to hand. It works well enough, but feels loose and sloppy. The weapons are few, but do feel different: revolver, shotgun (regular and pump-action), flare gun, hunting rifle, flares, and flash-bangs. That's it. They're not all available at the same time, and at the beginning of each episode, Alan only has a flashlight and a revolver. So, no matter how good you were with saving up your gear, thinking there might be a big battle coming up, once the episode ends, you'll lose it all anyway. The enemies offer little variety. You've got the standard hatchet-throwing “taken”, the big “taken”, the fast “taken”, and random flocks of crows that fly out of the sky and attack Alan. Sometimes random objects (like cars, tires, dumpsters) will become possessed and attack Alan. With so many creatures that dwell in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, I expected there might be a boss fight with a bear or a pack of coyotes, but no.
None of these drawbacks would matter if the total experience offered by Alan Wake were more than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, it isn't. I enjoy it because when I first played it years ago I had no idea that video games could handle narrative in this fashion. I'll always have a nostalgic appreciation for it and it just kills me to provide a mixed recommendation. But if you want more than story and atmosphere, look elsewhere, because you'll be sorely disappointed by everything else. If story and atmosphere suffice, though, get Alan Wake right away.
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