Alan Wake is a Mystery/Horror game developed by Remedy Entertainment and published by Microsoft Game Studios.

The Prequel Story

In the build up to release the developer created a six part Live-Action prequel story that is free to view on their home site. (Requires MS Silverlight to view. Bleh! It’s also available on Youtube if you have a Linux box like myself but the uploader added his own comments to the video so if you can watch on the official site I would recommend it.) I like this trend as this tends to force the developers to work on the storyline of their games. The prequel story starts a few days before the start of the game. It follows a reporter who has come to Bright Falls to interview the founder of the local “Artists Retreat” (i.e. Loony Bin for the artistically gifted). The video sets the tone for the game and introduces a few of the main NPC’s. The video as well as the game are best viewed in a dark room.

The Non-Spoiler Plot
(I had thought about writing a hidden spoiler section like we do on every other review but do to this being partially about solving a mystery I feel it’s better to stick with a spoiler free review.)

Suspense-thriller writer Alan Wake has had writers block and recurring nightmares for the last 2 years. His wife suggests going on vacation to the town of Bright Falls; so, the Wakes rent a cabin on Cauldron Lake. On the first night there, Alan hears his wife scream and sees her sinking to the bottom of the lake. After Alan jumps in to save her, he wakes up in his car which has crashed in to a ditch. His wife is no where to be found and he quickly realizes that a week of time has passed, and he has no memory of this lost week. During the search for his wife he discovers several pages of a manuscript for a new novel he wrote during the missing week. Alan realizes that the events written in the manuscript are coming true. Wake must find the rest of the manuscript to unravel the mystery of his wife’s disappearance.

Gameplay

The story plays out in an episodic format, with a television show-style presentation modeled after shows like the X-Files and Lost.  Each episode begins with a recap of some of the cut scenes form the previous episode.  The voice of Alan Wake is even heard saying “previously on Alan Wake.”  Each episode ends with a musical interlude from the game soundtrack, and each song was written to set the mood of the story as well as to give some hints for the game.  One song in particular plays a vital role in the story line.  The game takes place over 5 episodes that last about 3-4 hours each.   So, it acts more like a mini series rather than a regular TV show.  The writers did a great job of linking the entire story together and capturing the TV show feel to it all, and playing an interactive TV show was quite a unique experience. The music, the dialogue, and the dramatic camera angles  draw the player into the world of Bright Falls.  If my dog didn’t howl at inappropriate times I would stay completely engrossed in the game until the end of episode music appeared.

Alan Wake features a day/night time cycle. During the day, you’re safe. This is your chance to stock up on supplies and to interact with the NPC’s, but the game doesn’t have stores for purchasing supplies. One particular resident that knows of the danger that lurks in the night and has left stashes of supplies hidden throughout the town and surrounding countryside. The stashes are not “necessary” to complete the game as you will find items along the non-hidden path, but they sure do help. You also get an achievement if you can find them all.

I'm Attacking the Darkness!

The nighttime cycle is where the majority of the action takes place, and light plays a significant role in the game play and strategy. The enemies, called the “Taken,” are sensitive to light as they are townsfolk that have succumbed to the darkness. They will look normal except for the shroud of darkness that envelops them, and they are completely invincible while the darkness protects them. Here’s where light takes its role. The primary weapon at Alan’s disposal is an ordinary flashlight. By using the flash light you can “burn” away the darkness. Once the Taken are vulnerable you can finish them off with several weapons.

Secondarily, one can use guns for distance attacks and stand under street lights for cover. The flashlight beam also acts as your targeting cursor for aiming your gun. Flash-bang grenades are also a nice touch as they incinerate most enemies, at the cost of temporarily blinding yourself. Movement and combat is done from a third person view for the entire game.  Don’t think this will make it any easier to notice the “Taken” sneaking up on you. There are also a few places where driving is an option. You can burn the Taken with your head lights then run them over for an instant kill.

Combat happens in real time, though when you dodge there is a chance of a dramatic slowdown occurring. This isn’t “bullet time” per se; it’s just for dramatic effect. There are also some areas where never ending “Taken” coming out of the darkness. The only recourse is to run and dodge, but don’t run too far, Alan actually gets tired and will only be able to stagger forward.

Just like all games today you will go through a tutorial level to learn all of this. Balance wise, the game (on normal difficulty) has a smooth learning curve so even without the tutorial you would be up and running (lots of running) in no time. The only things the tutorial doesn’t let you in on are the collectibles and there are no invisible walls so watch out for cliff edges.

The Hilarious and the Annoying

Random Dialogue
As a way to make the world feel alive they added general chatter to the townsfolk as well as a radio show you can listen to whenever you find a radio laying about. The general chatter was interesting enough that I ignored the next objective until the dialogue was finished (Especially at the “Artists Retreat”). And the Radio show gave you hints about what was happening at other parts of the town as well as playing some nice music from the soundtrack. The little details like this draw you in and make the world seem real.

“Omega-3 Fatty Acids Are good for your heart!”
The “Taken” are residents of the town who are taken by the darkness. They remember what they did before they become monsters. During an attack, you can hear some of them yelling in scary voices. So depending on who’s attacking you, you will here different things. The lumberjacks talk about falling trees, the cops talk about you resisting arrest, and the local health food store owner says “Omega-3 Fatty Acids are good for your heart!” My wife and I fell out of our seats when we heard that.

In-game advertising at its worst.
In the game there are TV’s you can watch. They show you either an episode of “Night Springs” which is a Twilight Zone style show, or you see what looks like surveillance camera footage of Alan in the cabin during the missing week. So to understand the mystery you want to watch all the TV’s. Well at one particular TV, the worst, fantasy breaking, in-game advertising I have ever seen comes on.

That was truly blatant. At least Energizer only paid for a single high quality shot of a package of energizer batteries being picked up by Alan at the beginning of the game. The typical product placement you will see in any movie or TV show. I know it’s product placement but it didn’t break the fantasy. Verizon crossed the line.

Pointless collecting
Every game developer wants you to keep your copy as long as possible before trading it in at Gamestop. So they have developed various methods to entice you to keep playing. The most common tactic is the “Collection Achievement”. This is where you have to collect a certain type of item that will be hidden throughout the game. So Alan Wakes hidden collectible is, ………Wait for It…………….

The Coffee Thermos. Yup. They want me to break the immersion to search for coffee thermoses. Unless you insist on getting every achievement, it’s not worth worrying about.

The Limited Edition

The Limited Collector's Edition Package

I splurged and got the Limited Edition package. They did a great job incorporating the game story into the packaging. The box looks like a hard cover book when closed. It even gives the impression of paper pages around the edge. Opened to the front page and it’s even “signed” by Alan Wake himself.
With the Limited Edition you receive:

  • The Game (Obviously)
  • The Fake Book Box for Storage
  • A “Behind The Scenes” DVD
  • Soundtrack CD
  • Story Book “The Alan Wake Files” by Clay Steward (Real Hard Cover Book with Dust Jacket!)

The Alan Wake Files is a bridge to the next DLC as well as a tool to help unravel the mystery of the game.  Clay Steward is a reporter who shows up a few days after the end of the game.  The book contains police notes, interviews, and other info that he was able to dig up.  I would suggest not reading it until you finish the game as it will spoil some of the interactions with the NPC’s, but it makes a great addition.

DLC
2 sets of DLC are currently planned for the game.

  1. “The Signal” will be available July 27th at a cost of 800 MS points (free if you got the Limited Edition)
  2. “The Writer,”  Due out in the fall

Other Stuff
Those who just can’t get enough of the game can get plenty of Alan Wake branded gear at the Alan Wake Store.

The Verdict
Alan Wake is a refreshing change from the staleness that has come out of the game industry lately. They have a trifecta of awesome. Skilled Writers, Voices Actors, and Programmers. The game is worth every penny. Definite Keep.

Graphics: ★★★★★★★★★☆
Story: ★★★★★★★★★★
Gameplay: ★★★★★★★★★☆
Balance: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Intangibles: ★★★★★★★★★★
Overall: ★★★★★★★★★☆

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