Release: Out now
Good versus evil. It’s hardly an original starting point for an action game, but in Alan Wake the eternal tussle is literal. For starters, our hero uses a common flashlight to fight darkness made flesh. It’s a crude metaphor, sure, but one that dovetails neatly with its writer protagonist and his pacey, no-nonsense pulp prose.
The resulting experience is in many ways as generic as the fiction from which it takes its cues. Five years in development, it’s an action-focused spin on survival horror that fails to advance the formula beyond the five-year-old benchmark set by Resident Evil 4. At times it’s hard not to notice the incremental changes effected during the game’s protracted development period like the rings on a felled tree trunk. Sprawling forest environments and incongruous, empty driving sequences hint at the original open-world concept, and the frantic gathering and even more frantic replacement of batteries during the more intense encounters recalls the contrived tension of early survival horror games.
Wake may not quite be Stephen King, but it’s his role as a storyteller that exerts the most control over the player, such is the cleverness of Alan Wake’s narrative structure. A thriller read in snatches that leap back and forth in time and hop from one narrator to the next, it’s a structural sleight of hand that goes some way to distract the player from the A-to-B nature of its gameplay. It’s a neat, non-linear way of telling a story in an essentially linear game.
The drip feed of information, managed through the collection of scattered manuscript pages, fleshes out the tale effectively. More interestingly, it frequently drops hints of things to come. At its cleverest it plays with your expectations, and even embroiders them by confirming your worst fears of what’s to come. Whether this is an astute psychological mind game or a cheeky nod to genre clichés is immaterial; it’s one of the cleverest scare tactics in recent horror game history.
The trouble is, videogame storytelling has moved on significantly since Remedy began work on Alan Wake. In games such as BioShock and Dead Space information is relayed in voice recordings and videos within the context of the action, but to fully appreciate the narrative at work here demands regular dips into the menu to consume the story. Weirdly, each is read aloud by Wake. Quite why they don’t play over the action automatically is a mystery worthy of anything the titular writer and his contemporaries could muster.
The entertaining, pyrotechnic combat plays second fiddle to the tension-and-release pattern of the narrative, contenting itself to reproduce a similar effect in microcosm. And it does so to great effect. Destroying enemies requires an initial dousing with a flashlight beam or other light-emitting devices such as flares and floodlights. More intense battles expose Wake’s limited abilities with firearms as well as a lack of melee attack and manoeuvrability, but in turn make for the most thrillingly demanding encounters. Carefully pushing back advancing hordes with the torch and setting up temporary safe zones with cunningly placed flares before selecting your next target proves meatily enjoyable. The shock and awe that results from the unlikely combo of a shotgun and a flashlight is equally exciting.
For the most part it works wonders. A tense ambush in a large tool shed forces you to use every trick in the book to keep the enemy at bay, never mind see them off. An unusual open-air stage sees rock concert pyrotechnics employed as weaponry to the strains of some suitably overblown heavy metal. A military-grade floodlight is employed as a gun turret to startling effect.
But while the plot moves with all the pace of a pulp paperback, the gameplay fails to keep pace. The solid combat struggles to develop beyond throwing more enemies at Wake, puzzles are rarely more than perfunctory, and the set-pieces only really set the pulse racing in the game’s final hours. Later in the adventure, for instance, the darkness diversifies by possessing inanimate objects. Combine harvesters, monster trucks and, heck, even demonic parade floats are fine, but car tyres and oil drums? Even the use of light begins to run out of juice once all of the light-emitting weapons have been introduced, which happens early on.
Ultimately, Alan Wake is every bit as compulsive and satisfying as the fiction on which it riffs, but it also runs the risk of being equally forgettable. It’s a game that delivers the requisite number of twists, turns and thrills, but the only real revelations take place on those scattered manuscript pages. As a franchise, Alan Wake’s future is assured – Remedy is already working on downloadable content and has plans for a sequel – but next time around the action will need to keep pace with the deft plotting.