Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Game Review: Alan Wake-Xbox 360

Alan Wake has had a bumpy ride during the course of its development, one that began way back around the release of the Xbox 360 and one time there was even talk of it ever surfacing at all. It’s also seen developers, Remedy, (of Max Payne fame), come under a lot of pressure from the gaming community and critics alike as all waited patiently for the game to be released. So here we are, some five years later, and finally Alan Wake has reached retailers' shelves albeit as a leaner, more familiar survival horror as supposed to the pseudo-free roaming adventure originally planned. It would be easy to decry Alan Wake for its step back into the tried and tested waters of earlier game mechanics given its length of time under development, but to do so would be an unfair critique of a video game that delivers on many levels whilst surprising on others.

Alan Wake tells the tale of a bestselling crime novelist who is currently experiencing a rather unfortunate case of writers block and so decides to take a much needed vacation with his Wife to the picturesque setting of ‘Bright Falls’: Home of the mountain hick and annual Deer Fest. Pretty much on arrival, however, things start to go awry and soon our reluctant hero finds himself in a nightmare seemingly of his own creation as pages from a manuscript he has no memory of writing are suddenly becoming very real. If you’ve ever been privy to John Carpenter’s horror movie In the Mouth of Madness, then a plot where a novelist’s creations come to life to commit acts of lunacy and violence will undoubtedly sound familiar. It’s no secret that Remedy have been rather open about their influences for Alan Wake during the course of the games development and as such have chosen to serve them up with unashamed relish throughout. From its idyllic, mountain setting, (Steven King), its jaunts into the unnerving and unreal, (The Twilight Zone), and it’s dark humour and collection of quirky, colourful characters, (Twin Peaks), its clear that Remedy's trek into the world of survival horror draws upon the strength of these influences resulting in a gripping and compelling video game that rarely ceases to entertain.

Much like a TV series the game is broken up into episodes and on completion of each the player is rewarded with an enjoyable closing piece of music with the following episode beginning with a TV style re-cap of previous events. Adding to this sense of acting out a TV serial is Alan’s ever present narration as the tale unfolds. Hints as to what may lie around the next corner or within the dark confines of an abandoned farmhouse are never too far away. While it’s often considered more appropriate in a horror-cum-thriller to conceal your viewers from what’s coming next, hearing the words “It was then I heard the Chainsaw” just as you stumble blindly into that afore mentioned farmhouse, is surprisingly unnerving. It’s an interesting approach toward a genre that invariably relies on the player being completely unaware of what lies in wait within their immediate environment; using the unknown to trigger the biggest scares and induce moments of panic. Alan Wake, however, tells you what’s coming next and as a result is genuinely more frightening than many other titles in the genre and for that it should be applauded. What’s particularly clever is how Remedy has managed to remind the player that they are just part of an interactive story whilst simultaneously never really detaching them from the experience. When Alan is terrified, amused or even exasperated by the events unfolding before him you share that journey, experiencing your own set of mixed emotions as the darkness-as it becomes known-threatens to consume you at every turn.

At its core Alan Wake’s gameplay follows a linear path of encounters and the occasional puzzle solving much in the vein of Konami’s Silent Hill, in that it gives the illusion of being able to wonder off from the beaten path while always maintaining a pre-determined route that guides the player through the story. In a time where the free-roaming adventure is king it’s nice to be able to just sit back and let events pull you along without having to overly worry about having missed valuable information integral to the plot. Throughout, pages from Alan’s manuscript can be found tucked away in darkened corners of disused buildings and the gloomy depths of Bright Fall Forest, and while they do give a far deeper insight to the proceedings, (should you choose to brave the dark and unearth each and every one), they’re not wholly important in understanding the play being laid out in front of you. Having said that, these scattered pages from an as yet unfinished horror story can give you the edge in more difficult situations and does add an extra sense of depth to the overall experience.

Combat should also be familiar territory to those with a flavour for survival horror with the added twist that without a valuable source of light the weapons scattered in and around each area are next to useless against the darkness and those tainted by it. Light plays a huge part in Alan Wake because, naturally, light is the opposing force of darkness and more often than not you’ll heave a sigh of relief at finding a handful of lithium batteries in an abandoned truck on the road side as supposed to pistol ammo. Here the signal flare and torch are your best friends, not the hunting rifle. By the final third of the game the combat-even with well implemented dodge system-does become a little repetitive, but it’s an interesting concept nonetheless and one that ties in with the game perfectly for simply no other reason than it works.

It’s has been a long time coming but Alan Wake has certainly been worth the wait. Atmosphere, beautiful visuals and a compelling story rarely come together in a video game quite as well as seen here. Once you begin Alan’s nightmarish journey it’s hard to let go; just remember when you go to bed at night to leave the landing light on as you never know what may lurk in the darkness.


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