Reviews

Lumbarjack – Alan Wake

We have covered the Alan Wake soundtrack before, but what about the game itself? Remedy Entertainment destroyed countless hours of my teenage life with Death Rally – can they instill the same enthusiasm in this old man with Alan Wake?

Alan Wake is a third-person psychological horror slash action game. That might sound like a mouthful, but each of those adjectives is necessary to paint a proper picture of the game.
The game Alan Wake stars the man Alan Wake, a successful author who has been suffering from writer’s block ever since the release of his last book. Hoping that a change of scenery will help, his wife arranges for them to travel to the small town of Bright Falls, and – as you may have guessed already – this is where things start to get strange.

Before you find all this out though, the game opens with a dream-sequence tutorial. There are things that go bump in the night, but these things can be defeated with the combination of light and lead. Shine a flashlight on a darkness-possessed enemy until they are weakened, then fill them full of holes, or use flares to take on groups of enemies.
It’s an interesting mechanic that Remedy have implemented well, and it does a good job of setting a slow and steady pace for the game. You might have a hunting rifle, but it’s useless unless you can survive long enough to shine a light on all three of the enemies that are rushing towards you with sharp, pointy objects.

The combat is interesting, the action is fairly tight, and the cinematic slow-downs somehow don’t detract, but it’s obvious here that – after Max Payne – Remedy are trying to do a lot more than make an action game… But that’s where it starts to fall apart.

Remedy were proud to say that Alan Wake was inspired by Twin Peaks, but – apart from it being about an outsider coming into a small town – that comparison just doesn’t hold up. Twin Peaks is weird and surreal, full of strange yet believable characters, and starring one of the best characters in TV’s history. Alan Wake, on the other hand, is too rigidly structured to be genuinely weird or surreal, they tried to make some strange characters but didn’t know how to make them interesting or compelling, and Alan Wake himself is a bit of a dick and extremely hard to sympathise with.

If it isn’t Lynch, who is it? The obvious and far more accurate comparison is Stephen King; after all, it’s a story about a novel writer that bad shit happens to, which is King’s hackneyed trademark.

The story is basically told in three different ways – there’s the actual story that unravels as you play the game, the purely-expositional voiceover, and the awfully overwrought prose featured on the collectible Manuscript pages. At first I was interested to see the Manuscript pages, thinking they would be telling us a second story that built on the one we were playing through – but no, it’s the same story, told in a different and terrible fashion. Not everyone is going to have issues with the story or the way it is told, but I’ve spent enough years studying, contemplating and writing fiction to simply want to strangle the writers at Remedy.

Let’s look at the bad writing bingo card, shall we?

It could have been a clean sweep if the final box was ‘Female Character is Scared and Useless Without Male Protagonist.’

Which brings me to another (entirely personal, and admittedly petty) issue – if he’s a novel writer, why isn’t the game presented in chapters? We get episodes instead, and a “Previously on Alan Wake” round-up, which does absolutely nothing to help the story or the game, and only serves to slow down and fracture the plot even more than the constant flash backs and flash forwards do.

It’s easy to rant about the things that annoy you, but despite it all, I do find the moment-to-moment gameplay interesting and compelling.
The game warned me that (despite my laptop being closer to the recommended specs than the minimum) my machine was underpowered, yet even with all the graphical doohickeys turned down Alan Wake looks fantastic. The animations are top-notch, the area design is good enough you don’t care that it’s basically linear, and the game does a fantastic job of building tension during and between combat sections.

Which leads me to another complaint… The collectibles. Just when the game has its hooks in you and you’re swinging your flashlight around to make sure nothing is creeping up on you, you’ll see a little rocky outcropping, or a small stand of bushes and something in your head will say “Hey, I bet there’s a coffee thermos back there.” They shot their own game in the foot for the sake of some shitty little trinket to artificially extend the life of their product.

I complain because there is a genuinely good game in here that I want to enjoy, but aspects of it are stopping me. With a lot of games it is apparent that the designers wished they were actually making a movie, and the game experience suffers for the sake of this cinematic experience – with Alan Wake it seems that Remedy wanted to make a King-style TV miniseries. They wrote a whole lot of words, and paid an actor a whole lot of money to read those words, but I think the game would have been a much more interesting and unsettling experience without any of the voiceover, manuscript pages, or even most of the cinematics. Don’t tell us the story using techniques borrowed from other media, let us explore your world and discover your story for ourselves.

Recommendations:

  • Gamepad – As with all ports, the gamepad works well.
  • Avoid the collectibles – Pretend they aren’t even in the game. If you can deny that stupid, pointless compulsion that is apparently in most gamers you’ll find yourself far more engaged.
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