Review: Alan Wake

Let’s get the hard stuff out of the way first.

This is NOT the perfect game I had imagined it to be so many moons ago.  Perhaps it is the jaded fingers of this reviewer, or the wisdom of the many years (feels like it anyway) I’ve put in front of gaming, but I can confidently say that while this is a wonderful game, and deserving of your gaming time and dollar, it is not flawless.  I am here to discuss those flaws with you now.

Graphics: Many moons ago, Khidr and I put the better part of a month into Need for Speed: Underground (and we have the indelible remembrance of ‘Lil Jon’s anthem to prove it…brrrum bum bum…).  After much meditation and medication, we finally crowned NFS:U “The Best Street Car Sim Set Between 1AM-4AM On Recently Rained-Upon Streets”.  I am here to tell you that another similarly-fashioned crowning may now occur: Alan Wake is “The Best Third Person Action Game Set Between 1AM-4AM In Pacific Northwest Forests”.  Dense rolling fog swirls around thick foliage, angry wind tosses the trees about with breathtaking animation, and eerie moonlight drenches every scene with just the scariest possible amount of light.  And the lighting?  *single tear* Outside of Killzone 2 (their deferred lighting technique is still probably the high watermark for this generation), this is some of the most impressive lighting (and therefore shadowing) of a game I’ve seen in a very long time.  Admittedly, light and shadow play a central role in the story, so it’s probably best they got this part right, but it’s a grand slam, no questions asked.  Huge displays of light sources never seem to stress out the engine, with flares burning brightly and melting the darkness away while smoke billows from them.  Your nearly ever-present flashlight is also a sight to behold, rendering exactly the correct shadows against everything from people to ladders to bed frames.  There are also some awe-inspiring set pieces that happen throughout the game (which I won’t spoil here) that occur with nary a hiccup in the framerate or experience.  Puzzling, then, that, true-to-its-recent-crowning, simple things like interiors of buildings cause the engine to strain and the frames to tear.  It’s quite infrequent (this IS TBTPAGSB1AM4AMIPNF, after all), but it’s just rather odd that while most engines strain under the conditions of an outdoor environment, this engine has the precise opposite problem.  Also weak are the facial and body animations.  With such a protracted development cycle, this may be nothing more than leftover tech, but for a narrative-heavy game such as this, having to stare at the wrong side of Uncanny Valley for too long can take you out of the experience somewhat.  It is rumored that the upcoming DLC will…ahem…remedy…this, but that doesn’t do much for the reviewed title here.

Sound: Remedy has crafted a near perfect soundscape for the game to unfold upon.  The dynamic, unsettling scoring is matched with stellar sound design in the weapons, Taken (possessed demonic dudes tryin’ to off ya), and nature itself.  When combined with the simulation of the rural Pacific Northwest, a real sense of dread gripped me on a few occasions.  A hand-selected soundtrack also punctuates each of the “episodes” (more on this in a moment), and the selections are quite good and appropriate to the TV-like feel Remedy was shooting for.  The weakness in the sound department must be chalked up to the voice acting, however.  While some brilliant deliveries can be had (Barry Wheeler steals the show, and seems like the only one taking this gig seriously…strange for the comic relief character, no?), some of them were bad enough that it pulled me right out of the story.  This particular gem had me laughing for hours after the game was over (the delivery in the game is pr0n-bad):

“Well *redacted* might as well be Paul Bunyan or Bigfoot!”

“Yeah well “redacted” is real.”

Story: The story for Alan Wake has certainly been the cause for much debate, and far be it from this reviewer to delve into those details lest I ruin the reveals and twists for you.  I will comment on the pacing of the story, and that it is, in a word, odd.  I felt like the biggest of the twists was revealed a tad earlier than I had anticipated, and that the final moments, while very effective and chilling, didn’t leave me with the perfectly satisfied feeling a compelling story should.  Considering what short shrift most stories in games receive, this is a relative masterwork, and deserves recognition.  Perhaps the snafus in presentation I mention below soured me slightly to the whole ordeal, or perhaps it was truly the pace.  In any event, it was a story worth telling and a fun ride to get there.  It is one of the few stories that makes me excited for the pending DLC ( I shall be reviewing these as time allows).

Presentation: This is a rather important category for Alan Wake.  Remedy has been talking about how very much like a TV serial this game is supposed to be, and that means that the experience one has when playing (and not playing) this game should be reminiscent of your favorite TV programming.  There are some great steps taken here, but the whole is simply not realized, and it’s a bloody shame.  In the handful of surprisingly lengthy chapters that make up the game’s narrative, there is an intro (for all but the first chapter, the chapters start with a Previously on Alan Wake), and an outro (of appropriately variable length).  Each chapter tries to end on a dramatic moment, panning out to the Alan Wake logo, and then a full-screen End of Chapter X fills the screen, with that chapter being wrapped with the aforementioned hand-picked song.  At this point, a few things should be happening that are not: Where are the credits?  TV shows have credits.  I realize that we wouldn’t have the time for a game’s full end credits at this point, but what about some faux credits?  Or, some shifting imagery?  Or a mini-game?  Or the ability to check my bank statement?  Nothing.  You will sit here starting at End of Chapter Whatever until the song is over, or hit the B button and miss the song entirely.  If you wait to listen to the whole song, the game will move you directly into the next section of the game.  At this point, a few things are happening that should not: you get your achievement for clearing the last stage.  Turned your game off before skipping or completing the song?  Tough shit, asshole, do it right next time.  You also get that Previously on Alan Wake I talked about.  Great idea…except…isn’t this probably the ONLY time I’m not going to need this?  I just played the last level!!!  And since I’m forced to at least begin the next one if I want my progress saved (oh yeah, you don’t checkpoint again until after the achievement, Previously on, and intro movie), won’t this pretty much never be necessary in this context?  Never fear, perhaps they’ll show me this when I load up my save from a few days ago since I’ve been sick with a 103 fever for most of my vacation.  Wait, what?  You’re not gonna play it for me?  I have to go into the Extras>>Cinematics>>blah>>blah section and choose the right one for myself?  And then find the corresponding intro movie of the next chapter that would have gotten played right afterwards had I just sat through all 12 hours of the game in rapid succession? Isn’t this something that far less narrative games have done for me in the distant and recent past, and therefore not innovative in the slightest?  Ug, guys.  Just.  Ug.

(I’d also like to take a side note to mention Remedy’s family business atmosphere.  Folks who have experienced either of the Max Payne video games are going to feel quite at home here.  Poets of the Fall songs (three of ‘em!)?  Check.  Nods to bullet time with rippling bullets?  Check.  Max Payne himself voicing one of the characters briefly?  An icy, relentless check streaking down the sky to mock my pain.)

Other elements of the presentation like cinematic production values, flashbacks, and the alternate “game modes” like driving and some mild rail-shooting elements are all handled quite well, and on balance the presentation isn’t really suffering in any notable way, just as a proper triple-A shouldn’t.  I know that looking at the body of text I’ve written regarding the generally broken episodic feel of the game makes it seem like the whole category is a failure, but I do want to be clear; there is a ton to like here.  However, I would be remiss not to mention my strong disappointment in the fairly headlining presentation feature; namely, the TV show vibe they shot for, and missed just enough to be infuriating.  The organizational changes I mentioned above wouldn’t have cost but a few hours of someone’s time to implement, and the overall rhythm they were shooting for would have been achieved.  This sort of housekeeping would have been nitpicking and absurd 10+ years ago, but it is a testament to both Alan Wake and the state of the gaming art that it is this sort of “little stuff” that can be the difference between a good title and an amazing one.

I heartily recommend Alan Wake to anyone who would like a fun narrative-rich story with some great gameplay mechanics and some generally stellar graphical stylings.  Just keep those jaded fingers handy for the comments.

[easyreview title="Final Scoring" cat1title="Graphics" cat1detail="Some occasional screen tearing and a trip to Uncanny Valley can't take away from breathtaking lighting and stunning outdoor environments" cat1rating="4.5" cat2title="Sound" cat2detail="Wondrous sound design around effects and scoring, but less-than-exciting voice work" cat2rating="4" cat3title="Story" cat3detail="While the pacing is not ideal, the story has some great beats to it." cat3rating="4" cat4title="Presentation" cat4detail="Everything is near perfect. Except for the recap system. Which is broken." cat4rating="4" summary="A fine step in the evolution of filmic gaming."]

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