More noise than signal

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.