By: George Weidman
It’s been almost a decade since we’ve been able to play a fresh new Remedy game on the PC, and if the official publisher word is to be trusted then couches are to blame.
Even the game itself thinks that’s a bullocks excuse. Two years later, Alan Wake feels right at home on the PC (with an abundance of pre-rendered cutscenes being the only thing that looks awkward on the small screen). Plus, its quick success on the platform couldn’t do more to contradict the embarrassing excuses made by its publisher.
Alan Wake has had a somewhat troubled development history, but Remedy and Nordic Games have ported the PC version of the game gracefully. Wake sports all the standard-issue graphical options you’d expect, it controls fine with a mouse and keyboard and its performance is buttery smooth. It even alt-tabs without throwing a fit!
Alan Wake’s small-screen homecoming also reveals that the game is drop-dead gorgeous. Wake’s colorful and realistic lighting palette looks great on top of its detailed outdoor vistas, and some of them are quite a sight to behold. Winding mountain highways and placid lakes surround a naturist Pacific Northwestern setting that can be downright breathtaking at times. Flick through the options and disable the HUD for an experience that is equally playable but doubly pretty.
Betraying the initial excitement of Alan Wake’s visual and technical competence is the unerring feeling that, underneath all its layers of dazzling potential, the game itself isn’t that great. Alan Wake’s derivative story pits the small town of Bright Falls against a haunting darkness that splits the story into daytime segments (where the story happens) and nighttime segments (where the combat, and therefore most of the gameplay, happens). In both segments the game portrays a good sense of atmosphere and place, but the night segments consistently turn into lengthy marathons of repetitive gameplay that aren’t exactly fun or interesting.
Chalk it up to an early tutorial level spoiling the fun. Starting with a bang, the game catapults us straight into a lighthouse island blanketed with “The Darkness,” the antagonistic blackness that spawns “The Taken” (which is simply embarrassing to say out loud). Within the introductory level, all the mechanics of their supernaturality and nearly all the available options for dispatching them are introduced within minutes—the game will be throwing few surprises at you from then on. The next two hours are especially weird, as the game gradually hints at and re-introduces these same elements again.
Also chalk it up to Wake’s extremely forgiving difficulty. There’s no gameplay consequence to lingering around in the darkness– at least to Wake there isn’t, as other characters get tossed about effortlessly by shadowy tentacles during cutscenes. Exploration is a docile process until a rippling screen and bass-heavy howl give the player an early warning that a manageable amount of angry farmer ghosts may soon spawn in. But they won’t until deliberately-placed invisible triggers are sprung.
In a design decision that is as equally bewildering as it is patronizing, nearly every enemy encounter is preceded with its own little cutscene. The AI has no element of surprise here—the game actually pauses in the middle of the action and zooms over to a slow-motion pan of the baddies sneaking up on Wake’s back before you can resume control. These dark forests and abandoned farms ooze atmosphere, but an excessive amount of hand-holdy design decisions such as these (along with Wake’s constant narration) kill the tension.
Alan Wake’s combat is a two-tiered process that is only superficially more complicated than a straight-up shooter, but much more mechanical and tedious. Shine the flashlight on top of an enemy with a right click for a few seconds before shooting three times with the starter revolver. End. That’s it. Every single enemy encounter in the game follows the same two step process. Some enemies may have more health or move faster than others, but these differences don’t make any drastic changes to a basic two-step formula that is repeated relentlessly. The only variation lies with the occasional bit of possessed scenery, in which the second step is omitted. That all enemies saunter at a slow plod and are melee-only means that trickier fights devolve into backpedaling and circle-strafing.
The nighttime levels that house this combat drag on and on for hours, reaching into a shallow bag of tricks over and over again until the eventual end. There are only two categories of guns, neither of which function very different from each other. Health and flashlight batteries regenerate automatically. Flares and flashbangs (which are abundant one-hit kill grenades that have no reason not be spammed in combat) are the two throwables, and occasionally we get to fire the flare gun (the improvisational rocket launcher) once or twice in a level. Puzzles are a nonissue, and running off the beaten path only rewards extra ammo and batteries, both of which are abundant without exploration.
Is it supposed to be a horror game? Remedy can’t seem to make up their mind. The environments are certainly atmospheric and creepy enough, but there’s no tension or danger found in any of them. Combat in a horror game isn’t supposed to be terribly complex, but it’s also supposed to be strategically avoidable in some tactical way. Alan’s health regenerates, his supplies are plentiful and combat is an effortless and predictable process, so there’s no long-term consequence for gunning through levels. So is it an action game? Alan Wake’s slow pace, tight camera angles, and limited movement don’t exactly encourage the thrill of combat, either.
The wicked grin that Remedy wore so proudly in the Max Payne games has turned into a wistful sigh. For this game, Sam Lake deliberately wrote a work of pastiche—a patchwork of homages, references, and inspired shout-outs to works of art that are undoubtedly more genius than the game itself. Lines of dialogue and set designs are ripped from Twin Peaks; Stephen King is name-checked like team is getting paid for it; the “angry farmer with an axe” enemy motif unavoidably conjures memories of Resident Evil 4; and plenty of musical cues and aesthetic themes are borrowed from Silent Hill (which was its own play on Twin Peaks and Stephen King).
There’s a wide margin between inspiration and imitation, and Alan Wake uneasily rests in the latter. Its writing and acting falls far below film’s high standards, but refuses the stylistic cheesiness that made Max Payne brilliant. It wants to be classier, quieter, more subtle and well-written than it is, but is unfortunately shoe-horned into a different kind of game. Deep down inside, Alan Wake wishes it wasn’t so much of a dumb shooter.
That wicked grin that is in there somewhere— in the disturbingly tounge-in-cheek meta-acting of the in-game TV show, in the ghastly manuscript pages that play with the in-game continuity, and even in the tasteful selections of the licensed soundtrack. The plot begins as a surreal conundrum of carefully-introduced mysteries, but somewhere around hour four it turns into a light-hearted, T-rated romp of gunplay and comic relief. This is also the point where repetition begins to set in. Chalk it up to bad pacing.
Remedy has created a compelling world here; one that depicts backwoods mundanity with artisan flair and technical brilliance. But as the game climaxed, I began regretting the fact that it never realized the greatness that its first few hours suggest. It’s easy to imagine Alan Wake being a different kind of game, one that is less linear and more inclined towards time management and survival. If spent just a few more hours exploring Bright Falls in the warm daylight where it looks and feels best, it would’ve undoubtedly been a more interesting and satisfying game.
Another regret: an eerie feeling that most of Alan Wake’s decade-long development time was spent re-inventing the game into something more palatable for its publisher, Microsoft Game Studios. Some invasive product placement further revealed how much corporate sponsorship went into these vistas, and the final product differs immensely from an original trailer that focused almost exclusively on environmental beauty and promised a sandbox experience. These motifs are still there— Bright Falls is just as beautiful today as it was in 2005, and there are even a handful of wide-open driving segments that span some huge maps. But the majority of the game is numb and unrewarding, and spends far too little time respecting the player.
Alan Wake Technical Summary:
- Time Played – 15 hours
- Widescreen Support – Yes (Detailed Report via WSGF)
- 5.1 Audio – Yes
- DRM – Steam
- Control Scheme – Mouse & Keyboard, Gamepads supported
- System Specs – Intel i7 860, 4GB RAM, Radeon 6800
- Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
- Availability – Steam, Amazon, Local Retail
- Demo – No
- Bugs – Fell through scenery once
Follow TruePCGaming on Twitter.