Alan Wake …to the end

I have acquired a hell of a lot of games over the past few years that I haven’t really given much atten­tion to. Before buy­ing any­thing else, it’s time to play them …to the end.

The fol­low­ing is a ram­bling log of thoughts, expe­ri­ences and opin­ions that might, if you squint a bit, loosely be termed a review.

As an aside, I wrote the bulk of this some time ago and promptly for­got about it. My memory’s not so good these days. As a con­se­quence this tidied up ver­sion may be a lit­tle light on details, but I think it gets the spirit of the game across quite well.

It wasn’t long after the com­ple­tion of Max Payne 2 that rumours sur­faced of a new game from Rem­edy, and if noth­ing else Alan Wake cut a mean trailer, back when you could call the Xbox 360 and PS3 ‘next-generation’ machines with a straight face. After it’s lengthy ges­ta­tion period it was unleashed upon a world that seemed largely to have for­got­ten about it. Now an Xbox 360 exclu­sive, it received almost uni­ver­sal acclaim in the press, although these days sadly this is more an indi­ca­tion of the quan­tity of adver­tis­ing placed with the press than of qual­ity of the game.

Regard­less, it’s the only game that will­ingly describes itself as, at least in part, a sur­vival hor­ror that I had the slight­est inter­est in play­ing over the last decade, so let’s plunge into the world of thriller writer Alan Wake as he inves­ti­gates the dis­ap­pear­ance of his wife dur­ing their hol­i­day in the remote town of Bright Falls.

Day One

So, a few hours in and I’ve com­pleted the first, half tuto­r­ial episode and most of Episode Two before my inter­est waned. My ini­tial thoughts are that someone’s been spend­ing a hell of a lot longer on the con­cept of the game rather than the mechanics.

While the con­cept of night­mares within night­mares seems inter­est­ing enough, the sec­tions of trudg­ing through for­est occa­sion­ally stop­ping to shine a light on some lum­ber­jacks before shoot­ing them isn’t exactly set­ting my world on fire.

Given the way the narrative’s going, I sup­pose there’s no point pick­ing up on any of the plot holes that occur fairly fre­quently, given that the “J.R. step­ping out of the shower” scene towards the end is pretty clearly signposted.

What sticks out like a sore thumb is the char­ac­ter mod­els, specif­i­cally the granite-like fiz­zogs on dis­play when char­ac­ters try des­per­ately to emote. For a game that’s been in devel­op­ment since, I believe, the begin­ning of recorded time, you’d think they’d have come up with some­thing bet­ter look­ing than a launch title. The ‘actors’ seem to be walk­ing around with a stick up their col­lec­tive ass, but on closer inspec­tion they’ve really got more in com­mon with the sticks.

Why am I try­ing to col­lect a hun­dred cof­fee pots, by the way?

Day Two

I find myself con­clud­ing Episode 2, and trudg­ing my way through Episode 3. So far, still an awful lot of traips­ing through woods, shin­ing flash­lights at lum­ber­jacks. For a game that took five years to cre­ate, I had fig­ured that there would be a touch more vari­ety shown in the mechan­ics. I sup­pose there’s not a vehi­cle to drive between the loca­tions for the bouts of flash­light wield­ing, and some pol­ter­geist thrown objects to shine a torch on, but this is hardly redefin­ing the bound­aries of video gaming.

I sup­pose I shall play on for the sake of con­tin­u­ing the story, but so far it’s doign very lit­tle to draw me in to the nar­ra­tive. I think I’m being put off by the con­tin­ued ref­er­ences and namecheck­ing of Steven King, a writer up with which I shall not put.

While we’re at it, if this game is sup­posed to be nar­ra­tive based, would it not have been a ster­ling idea to get a few decent writ­ers in? The dis­mal writ­ing is show­cased not only in some dread­ful, grat­ing voiceovers, but also in the ham­fisted, clunky man­u­script pages I have no inter­est in read­ing, let alone scour­ing the lev­els try­ing to find. I’m afraid the Cheevo points alone are not that strong of a draw for me to engage in arbi­trary game­play extension.

Day Three

A rad­i­cal depar­ture for the game in Episode 4, as we find our­selves traips­ing through a gar­den and a farm­yard, shin­ing flash­lights on lumberjacks.

I sure hope this game has some­thing unex­pected and spe­cial for its end­ing, as if it goes the way it’s been threat­en­ing to go for the first half of the game then the sto­ry­line as devel­oped in this chap­ter would com­pletely under­cut any build­ing of tension.

That said, I still strug­gle to work up any inter­est at all in the plot and find most of these day­light cutscenes to be an excel­lent oppor­tu­nity to play Slingo on my iPhone. I’m multi-tasking.

I’m grow­ing more than a lit­tle bored by the recur­ring con­trivance of strip­ping your weapons and flash­light at every avail­able oppor­tu­nity. Once might have been fun, but this grows tire­some quickly

I had won­dered why I was find­ing your occa­sional in-game com­pan­ion Barry so irri­tat­ing, given that his char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion is far less annoy­ing and pre­ten­tious than our nom­i­nal hero. Even­tu­ally I placed it as resid­ual hatred for Max Payne 2’s Vin­nie Gog­nitti, shar­ing as they do the same voice actor. You will remem­ber Vin­nie, of course, as the ‘star’ of the stu­pen­dously annoy­ing Cap­tain Base­ball Bat­boy suit sec­tion that was so obnox­ious I’m half-convinced it was a par­ody of all com­puter game escort missions.

Day Four

The fifth chap­ter of the games sees a rad­i­cal depar­ture from the pre­vi­ous for­mula, con­sist­ing of a few arbi­trary equip­ment strip­pings fol­lowed by run­ning through woods shin­ing flash­lights on lum­ber­jacks. Oh, hang on, that’s not actu­ally a rad­i­cal depar­ture at all.

Per­haps I’m not being fair to Alan Wake. After all, there’s is a short sec­tion set in town where we have to take a need­lessly cir­cuitous route through build­ings because the quick way is ‘blocked’ by a three foot fence that has become unscal­able, some­how. That’s not at all annoy­ing, nor is Barry’s acces­soris­ing of his puffy jacket with Christ­mas lights.

I have to give this game some credit. For being com­posed entirely of lazy writ­ing, filler action sec­tions, point­less plat­form­ing puz­zles, unlik­able char­ac­ters and sub-standard act­ing I’m really only find­ing it a tri­fle dull rather than teeth-grindingly dreadful.

One odd­ity that occurs to me, see­ing as it shows up in this chap­ter more, per­haps, than any other. There’s what amounts to this games’ equiv­a­lent of land­mines scat­tered through­out, that are dealt with by — what else — shin­ing a torch on them. As I’ve yet to encounter them at the same time as being attacked by the Taken, they’ve reduced to the role of another very minor road­blocks on the nar­ra­tive path.

The most ques­tion­able aspect of their inclu­sion is really there visual design, as they look for all the world like piles of haunted horse manure. Ter­ror incar­nate, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Day Five

I take it all back. The thrilling final chap­ter rad­i­cally ups the ante of game mechan­ics with a exhil­a­rat­ing ‘push a cart out of the way by tap­ping the “A” but­ton’ seg­ment that really ties the game together. It’s repeated a few times, but that’s okay. It remains just as brain-meltingly non-awesome as it does on the first time.

Actu­ally I have been doing a grand dis-service to the vari­ety on dis­play in Alan Wake. There’s also the fre­quent stops to start up diesel pow­ered gen­er­a­tors by tap­ping the “A” but­ton a few times. Finally, video games have deliv­ered on the promise of the old ‘inter­ac­tive movies’ of the 1st gen CD-ROM games. It’s just like being in a movie!

Other than these, the bulk of the level con­sists of dodg­ing poltergeist-inhabited oil drums and run­ning through woods shin­ing flash­lights on lum­ber­jacks. The final boss, such as it is, at least pre­sented an inter­est­ing visu­ally break from the norm, but mechan­i­cally isn’t much more than another object dodg­ing session.

I sup­pose I was a lit­tle dis­ap­pointed, if not overly sur­prised, to see that the game did not end with a sat­is­fy­ing, neat con­clu­sion. I sup­pose at best I can credit it for not overtly flash­ing up a bill­board telling me that “THE NOT-AT-ALL DREARY TALE OF ALAN WAKE WILL CONTINUE THROUGH AN INTERMINABLE SERIES OF DLC FLEECINGS”. Hey, at least the first one’s free, right kids? Well, free to folks that bought the game, but see­ing as I’ve only bor­rowed Alan Wake from my good friend Baron Sir Lord Craig of East­man I’d bet­ter not redeem that token, so it’s really all over bar the fin­ger pointing.

Fin­ger Pointing

I think by this point I’ve made myself clear that I didn’t enjoy this game. It’s very far from being the worst thing I’ve played on the Xbox, and if I’m being fair there’s not really any one aspect of the game that falls below competent.

How­ever, basic com­pe­tency is the bare min­i­mum that we’re demand­ing of a game, and Alan Wake doesn’t go a hell of a lot past this. The game­play mechan­ics, and for the most part the entire game­play engine might well have been lifted whole­sale from Max Payne 2. Or per­haps Max Payne 1. Amongst its peers it feels clunky and stodgy, and I’m not buy­ing the excuse that you wouldn’t expect a writer to dive around like an action hero either.

Per­haps I would, had this been more immer­sive. It’s try­ing to be, I’ll grant it, but if your lead char­ac­ter (and by exten­sion, you) are rep­re­sented by a whiny, spoiled brat of a char­ac­ter suf­fer­ing inor­di­nately from first world dilem­mas then it’s not going to be remotely effective.

If you don’t care about the char­ac­ter, you’re unlike to get into the nar­ra­tive, so its short­com­ings become all the more obvi­ous. I sup­pose spoil­ers are less of a con­cern this far from the game’s release, but nonethe­less I’ll leave it at say­ing the story, like all of the Steven King works it charm­lessly apes, is as stu­pid, annoy­ing and obnox­ious as the game’s lead character.

The best I can say about this game is that I played it all the way to com­ple­tion, and it didn’t feel too much like I was only doing it for the sake of this arti­cle. With­out the dan­gling car­rot of another few thou­sand eas­ily ignored words of con­tent for my cor­ner of the inter­net, I’d still have fin­ished this game hav­ing started it — which is rare for some­one with lim­ited time for gaming.

That’s hardly the best rec­om­men­da­tion for the game, and it does rather make me won­der if I’ve played a dif­fer­ent ver­sion to the game so glow­ing reviewed in the glossy mag­a­zines and major web­sites. It was hailed as a leap for­ward in sto­ry­telling for games, and for it’s pac­ing. This is straight-up men­tal. It’s a games that screeches to a halt and throws cut scenes at you, with the barest of attempts at link­ing or enhanc­ing any nar­ra­tive rev­e­la­tions in the game­play sections.

There’s very lit­tle atmos­phere built, and the attempts at scares fall very flat. Had this game appeared a year or two after Max Payne 2, it would have been a rev­e­la­tion. As it stands, it’s a very real dis­ap­point­ment and barely worth play­ing, and cer­tainly not some­thing I’m going to recommend.