Closer look: Alan Wake

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The Independent Tech

Format: Xbox 360

Publisher: Microsoft

Price: £49.99

Release: 14/05





A kidnapped wife, a seven-day fugue, the focus of a malevolent ‘dark presence’ and the worst case of writer’s block he’s ever experienced. Welcome to an episode in the life of best-selling author, Alan Wake.



Having failed to put pen to paper for two years Wake relents to his wife, Alice and agent, Barry’s advice to take a break in a bid to reawaken his creativity. Taking the seemingly inconsequential decision to visit Bright Falls, an old mining town set within an idyllic wooded environment, the Wakes embark on a collision course with fate.



Billed as a ‘psychological action thriller’ Alan Wake is presented in a similar vein to a TV series; episodic chunks allowing developer’s Remedy to weave a tale replete with flashbacks, sub-plots and cliffhangers, each episode even beginning with a ‘last time on Alan Wake’ plot summary.



As a storytelling device it suits the game perfectly, enhancing both the game’s atmosphere and player’s sense of immersion. The pursuit of each episode’s climax fuelling the need for progression – action and narrative combining to create a compulsive experience. It’s full vindication of Microsoft’s decision to allow Remedy to work on the game until they felt it was ready.



Important plot developments are told via cut scenes but huge swathes of the story are up to the player to discover. For example, the discovery of strangely prescient pages from a manuscript that Wake can’t remember writing flesh out the plot, eerie episodes of the Twilight Zone-like Night Springs play out on televisions and radios which allow Wake to listen into the town’s late-night show are dotted about the environment.



Characters have a sense of identity and depth too, again much along the lines of a TV series. The town drunk sees monsters in the shadows, the waitress at the town’s diner is non-other than Wake’s biggest fan and the Light Lady, Cynthia Weaver – who fans of Twin Peaks’ Log Lady will appreciate – is inexplicably obsessed with keeping the lights on,



In fact fans of the sci-fi and horror genres will find references to a host of classic books, films and TV shows. While the town of Bright Falls draws obvious parallels to Twin Peaks, a number of set pieces are straight from the pages of Stephen King novels, particularly The Shining. The ‘dark presence’, a supernatural force with designs on Wake’s very sanity, resembles the ‘monster’ from TV’s Lost while Lovecraft and Hitchcock fans go sated too.



As for the action, well, in a town called Bright Falls, with an evil ‘dark presence’ manifesting itself, it won’t come as a surprise that light and dark play a prominent part. While sections of the game do play out during daylight hours, Wake has a habit of finding himself drugged, knocked out or otherwise encumbered until dusk and it’s at night where the danger lurks.



The ‘Taken’, those who have succumbed to the whim of the ‘dark presence’, are invulnerable in the dark, it’s only by exposing them to light – be that torchlight, flare or headlamp – that they become susceptible to gunfire. It’s a mechanism which makes for some truly tense battles, particularly when Wake runs low on flares and finds himself surrounded.



Luckily Wake can dodge incoming attacks and sprint for short distances, meaning that tactical withdrawal to the nearest electric light is sometimes the wisest option – these lit ‘safe havens’ providing much-needed respite. The game’s dynamic difficulty system further enhances the spectacle by monitoring the player’s successes and adjusting the amount of ammo and flares available to suit.



Overall, there’s very little to criticise; the graphics are as good as anything on the Xbox 360 while the voice acting and sound effects both excel. Perhaps one small niggle is, that while tense and atmospheric, the game never truly terrifies. However, with further Alan Wake stories a seeming certainty perhaps that is one area which could yet be redressed.



Alan Wake is a must for any 360 owner looking for a game which offers everything that this current generation of games consoles were created to deliver: an involving plot, fantastic story-telling and spectacular effects. Well worth the seven-year wait then, let’s just hope we don’t have to wait quite as long for the next instalment.

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