Alan Wake has come a long way since it was announced as a Vista and DirectX 10 exclusive back at the 2005 E3 games show. Indeed ‘a long way’ may be understating things slightly as, five years on from the original unveiling, it's finally been released as an Xbox 360 exclusive.
Developer Remedy pitches the game as a ‘psychological action thriller’ in which the player assumes the role of Alan Wake - a bestselling writer suffering from writers block attempting to get away from it all by taking a short break in the countryside with his wife in the tiny town of Bright Falls. As Alan quickly discovers though, Bright Falls is home to an eccentric cast of inhabitants that range from mental, to scary, to scarily mental - it's not a great place for him to relax, in other words.
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The player is thrown straight into the mix with an introduction cum tutorial that does an admirable job of setting the tone for the rest of the game, dealing out equal measures of disorientation and panic. The introduction also sets the scene for the plot in an ask-more-questions-than-it-answers style that fans of TV shows such as Lost or The X-Files will be familiar with - which proves both fun and frustrating at the same time.
After some scene setting and faffing around the game starts in earnest when Alan wakes to find himself in the aftermath of a car crash - his wife and no claims discount are both long gone. What's more, our reluctant action hero finds out a week of his life is apparently missing from memory. At this point things take a distinct turn towards the paranormal as Alan finds out he is starring in a book, which he has no memory of writing, and which is apparently coming true. To make things stranger he begins to find pages of the manuscript littered across the countryside as he sets off to find his missing wife.
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The manuscript is a theme that runs through the game, and each page can be read by the player, fleshing out the story. On occasion Alan finds a page out of order and gets a glimpse of future events, forewarning him and the player of a coming skirmish or event. These pages help to add to the sense of tension that the spooky, misty woods and locations create, and we couldn’t help but get a little jumpy when we knew something big was just around the corner. The pages are a curse as well as a blessing though as we started to find it tedious having to stop and read a page of only occasionally useful text every few minutes. Eventually we skipped reading a few but then the act of reading three or four pages at a time started to feel like a chore.
Alan’s key weapon in his battle against the mysterious forces of darkness is his trusty flashlight, which weakens and stuns enemies, thus allowing them to be taken down with a few well placed shots from one of his more conventional sidearms. It’s a testament to the feel and polish of the game that when we were stripped of our flashlight we felt genuinely vulnerable when wandering through the forest at night.
Unfortunately, this is a feeling we became all too familiar with. Alan Wake is split into six episodes, with circumstances at the start of each one transpiring so that Alan is stripped of any weapons he had at the end of the last. The concept of episodic gaming is nothing new, but its implementation in Alan Wake is one of the best we’ve seen, with a dramatic cliff hanger at the end of each episode and even a ‘Previously on Alan Wake’ voiceover and recap at the start of each new episode.