djs224's Alan Wake (360)
| [April 24, 2013 11:49:02 PM]
| Alan Wake is a "psychological action thriller," according to the front of its box; more generally, it is a third-person shooter/horror game released in 2010 by developer Remedy Entertainment and publisher Microsoft Game Studios. The game features a plot inspired by horror stories and horror movie tropes, creating a strong, cinematic narrative around the titular character.
I played through the game entirely on Normal difficulty (three difficulties exist, Normal, Hard, and Nightmare; I believe the only difference is enemies are stronger, also certain collectables can only be obtained on Nightmare difficulty), omitting the DLC chapters from my playthrough.
Alan Wake is entirely single-player, and solely puts the player in the role of the title character. There isn't really much more to be said; after all, this is a story about Alan!
The game takes place in modern day, no specific time. Alan Wake is a thriller writer who has been having trouble writing for some time; he and his wife, Alice, decide to take a vacation to the quaint town of Bright Falls, Washington (inspired by the town of Twin Peaks from the TV series), where nothing could possibly go wrong! After getting the keys to a cabin on Cauldron Lake from a suspicious woman, the couple head there, only for Alice to fall into the lake while Alan is away. Though he dives in after her, Alan next finds himself waking up behind the wheel of a crashed car, missing a week's worth of time and his wife. It's up to Alan (and by extension, the player) to figure out what happened.
Alan Wake, as mentioned, is a third-person shooter. The game can most easily be separated into daytime and nighttime segments, which I will detail the differences between here.
Daytime segments are primarily story-related. Because the enemies in the game cannot survive in light, none appear during the daytime. Daytime segments break up the action in the game and allow the player to soak in the story without the pressure of combat bearing down on them. It also provides a breather after particularly intense night battles. During these segments, the camera hovers over Alan's shoulder like most third-person shooters; there is little gameplay beyond movement and single-button actions, and the segments basically play like somewhat interactive cutscenes.
Nighttime segments are primarily gameplay-related. In these sections, instead of the over-the-shoulder camera like the daytime segments, the camera hovers farther above and behind, letting the player see Alan's entire body. Players have access to a larger variety of controls, including sprinting, jumping, weapons, and light. Players will also be confronted by the minions of the Dark Presence, the game's shapeless antagonist.
The controls for the game are fairly simple, with most buttons only having one action associated with them for the entire game. Movement is handled via the thumbsticks; Alan's walking pace is fairly slow, but the left bumper can be held down to sprint. One of the flaws in the game is how short Alan's sprinting is, especially in regards to his body type. Sprinting only lasts for about eight seconds if held down throughout; afterwards, Alan will pant and gasp and slow down to his walking pace, and will only be able to sprint again after about ten seconds of walking. This creates a jarring movement system where the player alternates between running and walking, especially considering that Alan looks to be at least reasonably fit. I'm fairly skinny and not very athletic and I could still jog for a while, especially if monsters were chasing me! I believe a better system might have been to allow for longer periods of sprinting, but slow down the speed at which Alan runs while using it; this would make requiring breaks more believable, as well as prevent players from using it to just skip past most of the level.
Combat in the game operates off of a two-step system for the predominant enemies in the game, the Taken. These are people that have been killed by the Dark Presence, their forms filled with it, and then sent back out into the night to hunt down others. There are a few varieties of Taken: Taken in tracksuits are the weakest, Taken in construction or logging outfits are a bit tougher, and large Taken are the most resilient. There are also fast Taken on occasion; these are difficult to hit with light weapons because of how much they move around, but lose their speed when their shroud is removed. Taken have different weapons depending on the type, and can both throw weapons and attack with melee; the weaker will have hand scythes or axes, while the largest will have big axes or chainsaws. A player can press the left bumper and hold the left stick in a particular direction to dodge out of the way of a melee attack; doing so when the attack is playing will create a slow-motion effect.
To deal with these enemies, the player must "fight with light," as the game says. The Taken's darkness can be stripped away with any light source, which leaves them vulnerable to attack from more traditional sources, like guns. Light that is intense enough can destroy Taken outright, which proves invaluable in certain confrontations. Light can also be used to make a Taken stumble or slow down, giving the player more time to react.
Alan is (at least at most points in the game) armed with a flashlight he can use as a portable light source to handle Taken. There are four different flashlights available at different points in the game: a regular flashlight, a heavy-duty flashlight, a lantern flashlight (the ones that operate off of a big six-volt battery), and a heavy-duty lantern. Heavy-duty variants have a brighter beam and a longer battery meter. Shining a flashlight at a Taken will not do much to stop them, so the player will need to boost the light by holding down the left trigger; doing so will cause a glowing circle to appear around the Taken, which gets smaller as the Dark Presence gets stripped away. When the circle disappears, the Taken will be vulnerable. Boosting drains the battery meter; when the meter is empty, the flashlight will no longer boost. The meter refills on its own slowly over time, but the player can also insert a battery with the Y button to quickly refill the meter partway. Alan can hold up to 20 batteries at a time.
Alan can also carry an assortment of weapons to handle the Taken; these can be swapped to by pressing the D-pad, aimed by lightly holding the left trigger (pulling it all the way will boost), and fired with the right trigger. Aiming is not entirely necessary, as the flashlight beam essentially acts as a reticule for the player. Weapons must be reloaded with the X button; repeatedly tapping the button will make Alan reload faster. The revolver is the first and most common weapon Alan obtains during nighttime segments, taking up the right slot on the D-pad. One to four shots to a vulnerable Taken will destroy it, and it can fire six shots before reloading. The top slot is for a more powerful gun. There are three different guns that can be equipped here. The shotgun is powerful enough to deal with most enemies in one shot (depending on distance) and can hit multiple enemies, able to fire twice before reloading is necessary. The pump-action shotgun deals the same damage as the shotgun, but can hold eight shells at a time; the drawback is that its firing speed is slower. Finally, the hunting rifle can deal with any Taken in the game in a single hit, and is very accurate. It can fire five times before reloading. Alan can carry a limited amount of ammo for each gun, including guns he doesn't currently have.
The other two slots on the D-pad are for light-based weaponry. The left slot is for the flare gun, the most powerful gun in the game. While ammo for it is scarce, one shot can obliterate multiple shrouded Taken; if shot directly at an enemy, the player is treated to a slow-motion shot of the flare flying at it and exploding! The bottom slot is not for equipable weapons, but for throwable weapons, which can be used with the right bumper. Pressing down will allow the player to switch between flares and flashbangs (assuming they have both). Flares are dropped at Alan's feet and create a strong light source that Taken will stumble away from; this will partially remove the shroud from any Taken that is close, but they will almost always move away before being completely cleared. Flares can be used to create some breathing room if surrounded by multiple Taken. Flashbangs are similar to the flare gun in that the light they create is enough to destroy Taken that are close to them, even if still shrouded.
Sometimes, Alan will find special light sources to help deal with Taken. Stationary construction lights can be turned on to provide a strong beam of light to remove the Dark Presence, while searchlights can be aimed at Taken and boosted to destroy them entirely.
In addition to Taken, the Dark Presence takes on a couple of other forms to fight Alan. Flocks of ravens can swarm at him, pecking him repeatedly as they fly past. The Dark Presence can also possess objects and turn them into poltergeists, which hover before launching themselves at Alan, doing damage if they touch him relative to how large they are. These can be destroyed through light alone, no shooting required; flare guns or flashbangs can destroy them outright, or a boosted light source can slowly wear down their health until they disappear. Globs of darkness can also sometimes be found on walls or the ground; the only danger they possess is if Alan walks into them, and they can be dealt with in the same way.
The player's health is regenerating, and regenerates slowly after being hit. The health is located in the top left of the screen, wrapping halfway around a simple compass which points to the location of the current objective, and next to the battery meter. Health regenerates faster when standing in the light of a Safe Haven, detailed below.
Lastly, there are a few driving sections in the game. Controls are fairly simple: left stick steers, right trigger accelerates, and left trigger brakes and reverses. The car's headlights can be boosted by pressing the A button, allowing the player to run over and destroy Taken. The controls are somewhat floaty and probably could have been improved; I had the occasional turn that ended up sending me spinning farther than I wanted to.
The game is divided into six chapters, called Episodes. Each Episode (save the first) starts with a short recap cutscene called "Previously on Alan Wake," styling the game's progress like episodes of a TV show. Each Episode ends with a cutaway to the animated Alan Wake logo from the start screen, then a fade to an "End of Episode [number]" card, along with a song for each Episode; the player can listen to the whole thing or skip to the next Episode. Items the player has collected are not saved between Episodes, usually due to something story-related; this makes each one self-contained. The game cannot be saved wherever the player wishes to; instead, the game uses a checkpoint system. The most visible checkpoints are known as Safe Havens; these are bright lights (typically streetlights) that create a checkpoint when Alan moves into them. Some Safe Havens require a generator to be turned on in order to use them. If the player quits, they can only resume from that checkpoint. For replay purposes, each Episode has a few starting points, allowing the player to jump into the story at one of a few different spots. While I don't necessarily see anything wrong with this system, it did mean I had to do a bit of extra preparation for my in-class demo by getting to the proper checkpoint to start from. It also would be nice to allow for multiple save files, rather than just one.
The game makes somewhat heavy use of quick-time events. Occasionally, Alan will run into generators that need to be turned on; this is done through a QTE where the player taps A when a rotating dot reaches a green segment on a circle, doing this repeatedly until the generator turns on. The player might also run into a bear trap in the woods, requiring rapid taps of the A button to escape. Reloading faster by tapping X can be seen as a pseudo-QTE.
A key element of the game is exploration. While I did not test this entirely, I believe it is possible to explore anywhere in the map of Bright Falls and its surrounding areas at any time during the night. At the very least, it is possible to go off the beaten path to find collectables or extra resources. The game offers a variety of collectables to hunt down, the most prominent of these being pages of a novel called Departure, written by Alan himself. These pages can be read using the Back button, and usually detail events in the game before they happen, or alternate storylines that are happening concurrently. While most can be found on any difficulty, a select few can only be found on Nightmare. In addition to these, coffee thermoses can be collected for an achievement, and pyramids of beer cans can be knocked down (for fun or an achievement).
Another type of collectable is the broadcasts of the local media, both radio and TV. Finding radios lets the player listen in on commentary about the occurrences in the game by the radio host, and finding TVs lets the player view episodes of a Twilight Zone-esque show called Night Springs. Some TVs also portray an image of Alan as he writes Departure, letting the player hear the mad thoughts swirling through his head.
Finally, there are some resource caches that have been hidden away by an unknown person. These can be tracked down by following painted clues that can only be discovered by shining light on them. Usually, an arrow will point in the direction the player should go, and further arrows will lead them on until they find a big circular symbol with a torch in it, marking the location of the cache. These caches prove useful, rewarding a more exploring player with extra supplies to deal with the Taken.
One final note: after a couple of Episodes, it became clear to me that losing all my items was going to happen at the end of every Episode. Because of this, when I felt that I was getting close to the end, I was a lot less stingy on using ammo and batteries. I feel this somewhat works against the game. The player has to start from scratch with each Episode, which means each one starts off somewhat tense due to a lack of resources. By the end of the level, though, the player will have enough ammo to deal with everything, and can even be wasteful; while cathartic, this doesn't really keep the tension going throughout the entire Episode, dissipating it about two-thirds of the way through when the daytime sections are supposed to handle that. Having a maintained inventory through the game would require resource management throughout, but I suppose it would work against the game's day/night system of telling the plot.
As I mentioned, I played through the entire game for this game analysis. The total time it took on Normal was somewhere around ten to twelve hours, putting each Episode at roughly two hours long.
I won't really go into the plot here, because the story is the main reason I would see someone playing this game. I will say that I found pretty much all the characters enjoyable, many of them playing off of horror or thriller tropes. Of particular enjoyment to me was Barry, whose fast-talking antics kept me entertained whenever he was around.
The daytime segments were sometimes unintentionally funny. The player has control of Alan to do simple things like walking, and in rare cases jumping. This let me do some things that probably wouldn't have made sense in context, like run around in circles or jump onto cars or railings when other characters were talking to me. Usually if I delayed too long, the characters would say something else, generally urging me to move forward. I'm not sure how many responses they had programmed in; should test that sometime.
I found the nighttime segments to be the most fun, naturally because there was more gameplay involved. The "fight with light" mechanic could best be described as a two-weapon system where you have to first remove one kind of health with one weapon, and then remove the other with the other, thus destroying the enemy. In practice, this produced a solid combat system with multiple approaches I could take to handle enemies. Boosting a flashlight would cause Taken to stop or stumble, and keeping it boosted after removing the Dark Presence would keep them stunned until I shot them to death. Flares allowed breathing room when I needed it, and flare guns and flashbangs provided satisfying instant kills. When it came to the shotguns and rifle, I found myself preferring the rifle; the shotguns' ability to hit multiple Taken proved about as effective as shooting each one point-blank, meaning I'd use the same amount of shells for the same effect. They were also less effective at range, while the rifle could instant-kill at any range. The revolver was trusty and made handling the weaker Taken a breeze.
As I said earlier, I both liked and disliked the episodic format. It did provide a unique method of level design that I haven't seen elsewhere, the entire game alluding to being set up like a thriller TV series. The fact there was a Twilight Zone-style TV series that you could watch in-game was icing on the cake. On the other hand, it did make it predictable that I would lose all my supplies at the end of every episode; this was partly the design of the game, since carrying around pistols and shotguns during the day in town would be weird. Plus, there would be no guarantee that the player would have a particular inventory at the start of another level, so requiring them to start from scratch allowed them to design a more consistent experience. I guess in the end it was a good format, and it meant that every episode was entirely self-contained.
I enjoyed the horror/thriller allusions quite a bit. They add a lot of charm to the game, especially when you can pick up on a reference. The ravens reminded me of Hitchcock's The Birds, and there's a particular Steven King movie reference early on that's easy to catch. And of course, there's the aforementioned Twilight Zone reference in Night Springs.
I do have a note on the presence of in-game advertising. Alan Wake came out right after Ford released its first vehicles with Microsoft's Sync in-vehicle system, and thus the game features a short interior shot of a Lincoln car with the Sync logo right in view. The game also advertises Energizer batteries (the only brand of batteries in Bright Springs, apparently) and Verizon Wireless, particularly a giant billboard towards the end that you literally cannot miss. I'm not necessarily against in-game advertising, but it really breaks immersion in a fictional story for me.
I have previously played the first DLC episode, The Signal, as the game came with a token to download it when it was released. I have not purchased or played the second episode, but intend to at a later date.
Alan Wake could be argued to be more of a cinematic experience than a straightforward game, both through its heavy use of cutscenes and its interactive cutscene daytime segments. However, the gameplay is simple yet solid, and it does an excellent job of getting the player engrossed in the game, while also not making it feel like a walk in the park. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who wants a unique take on the horror genre, or someone who is a fan of more psychological thrillers.
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djs224's Alan Wake (360)
Current Status: Playing
GameLog started on: Wednesday 24 April, 2013