When I got to play Alan Wake for the first time in 2010 I remember being blown away by the production value of the game. The graphics were great, it had an innovative combat mechanism, gripping voice acting and a physics engine that, for the time, simply blew my mind. It was even one of those games I’d use to showcase what the Xbox 360 was capable of when friends came over. I’m curious if the game still manages to keep me as impressed, 7 years later.
The story of the game seems to start simple enough: you’re playing as the namesake of the game, Alan Wake, a famous author who is currently suffering from writer’s block. His wife Alice decides to take him on a trip to Bright Falls (might as well have been called Twin Peaks) where she hopes he will find inspiration to start writing again. Things soon take a turn for the worse however as strange events start to happen in the small mountain town. His wife gets kidnapped and for some reason Alan is constantly being attacked by the townsfolk, who are under the control of a Dark Presence. What’s even stranger is that scattered across the town, are pages of his manuscript and he doesn’t recall writing it. I really liked this aspect of the game though; before most encounters you can find a page describing what’s about to happen next. You are left wondering if he was able to foretell the future or if whatever he wrote came to pass by the power of some dark force.
The theme of dark vs light is really important for this game. Even the combat revolves around it: enemies are enveloped in a dark shadow and are invulnerable to bullets in this state. To be able to hurt them you have to first find some way to shed light on them. The most common method being your flashlight which you can either point in their general direction to little effect or you can focus on them, doubling as your aim and getting rid of their shadow at a faster rate but at the same time draining the battery quite fast (in my opinion not the best kind of product placement for Energizer)
The most effective methods of fighting the dark ones however are flares: the more common version can be dropped on the floor to make the enemies back off. The flare gun on the other end acts like a weapon of mass destruction, killing any who come close. Later on you’ll also get the flashbang grenades. Personal tip: don’t be too stingy with these powerful weapons. Use them while you can as the game has an annoying habit of constantly finding a reason to strip your character of all weapons. Most of the enemies aren’t that hard to deal with, even in hard mode, so feel free to let loose. One of my only gripes with the combat is how quickly it becomes repetitive as you’ll be facing the same types of enemies over and over again. You have your default human-type enemies who are sometime harder to kill depending on their size, some birds and a few animated objects that get Poltergeisted at you. I feel it could have used a bit more variety.
Another way to use your light is to help “write” certain objects or events into being by focussing your light on them. I can’t tell you exactly how this works without giving away too much of the plot. Just believe me when I say it’s brilliant and used to great effect, both narratively and gameplay-wise. Check it out:
The game also uses light as a method to guide you to the next waypoint. Most of the time you’ll only see one source of light in your range of vision and you’ll be automatically drawn to it. These also act as your checkpoints, safe havens and places to restore health. All in all I found this an efficient method of putting some linear story telling in what often feels like an open world. The only downside to this however is that most of the game takes place at night and is generally really dark. Bringing with it the practical issue that it’s almost impossible to play during daytime when it’s bright out. Play this one at night or with the shades down.
Another method of guiding the player is Alan’s narration; he always seems to be talking to himself (or you as the audience) about what the next course of action should be. It’s not that this is such an inelegant way to go about it, but Alan often feels like the polar opposite of the Silent Protagonist. HE.WILL.JUST.NOT.SHUT.UP … Luckily, the voice acting is pretty on point as Alan himself seems to convey emotions naturally. The faces and lip syncing however often dip into the uncanny valley, especially after having seen what Remedy Entertainment is capable of with Quantum Break.
Other than the faces I found the graphics to hold up pretty well over the years. The environments are detailed and polished, the practical effects are sometimes awe-inspiring and the lighting engine was kind of impressive to me (but in hindsight it really had to be for a game with such a focus on light). Near the end of the main game you’ll even have an awesome set-piece where you get to fight the dark ones with rock-concert fireworks.
What really stuck with me however was the physics engine. I know we’ve seen some games by now that do this way better, but at the time I was really awestruck by the very beginning where you are in a cabin that was being pushed down a cliff. And don’t get me started on “The Writer” DLC, where you’ll find yourself in a giant rotating maze at some point. To this day this is one of the gaming memories that has stuck with me the most!
At the time of release, I can recall there being some negative lashback about the DLC being the true ending to the game, hidden behind an additional payment. But seeing as it had left me with such an awesome experience I found it hard to hold it against the developers. And you’ll be glad to know that they’ve made both DLC episodes free in the meanwhile.
Speaking of episodes I also quite liked how the game felt like playing an interactive tv-show at times. It even had the “Previously on Alan Wake” type recaps that Telltale Games has come to rely on so much for their games. Alan Wake didn’t only take inspiration from television, but also from movies and books and I appreciated that they weren’t afraid to namecall whatever they were referencing. (Hitchcock’s The Birds, Kubrick’s The Shining, Deliverance and many others)
Overall I can’t say I’ve regretted having to visit the game again for this article, it’s still very much an enjoyable experience and one I will treasure forever. You owe it to yourself to check this out at least once.
*Alan Wake has been removed from the digital storefront, but you can still get Alan Wake: American Nightmare