A new peak for episodic gameplay?
One of early 2010's most-anticipated Xbox 360 exclusives arrives in stores on Tuesday, May 18, and the reviews are already pouring in. In development since 2005, Microsoft's Alan Wake 84 is a psychological action thriller with supernatural elements, set in the Pacific Northwest and influenced by Twin Peaks and Stephen King stories.
This story-driven game from the developer of the Max Payne series (Remedy Entertainment) centers on a famous writer whose wife mysteriously vanishes while on vacation in Bright Falls, Washington, leading him into a nightmarish journey that pits him against dark forces. Alan Wake was conceived as the first part in an ongoing saga, with additional episodes likely to arrive in the future as DLC.
What exactly are game critics saying about this intriguing new game, and has it been worth the five-year wait? We'll get to their comments in a moment; first, let's see how Alan Wake compares to previous 360 releases.
|1||Mass Effect 2||Action-RPG||Electronic Arts||96||9.0|
|2||Super Street Fighter IV||Fighting||Capcom||91||8.1|
|4||BioShock 2||Shooter||2K Games||88||8.4|
|5||Battlefield: Bad Company 2||Shooter||Electronic Arts||88||8.8|
|6||Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction||Action-Adv.||Ubisoft||86||7.6|
|8||2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa||Sports||Electronic Arts||83||8.3|
|10||The Misadventures of P. B. Winterbottom||Puzzle||2K Play||83||7.4|
|1||Gears of War||Microsoft||2006||94||8.5|
|3||Left 4 Dead||Valve||2008||89||7.8|
Below, let's take a closer look at what game reviewers are saying about Alan Wake. In general, critics like the atmosphere, sense of tension, combat mechanics, and environment design -- in addition to the game's ongoing mystery -- while also finding the action sequences far too repetitive.
Overall concept and story
Much of the game finds the titular hero battling an army of zombie-like, possessed killers called the Taken. It's hard to explain the plot in detail without spoiling the action, so note that while the game involves plenty of action and combat, there certainly is a mystery threaded through the entire game, and it's one that "will make you think," according to Games Radar. Many critics also note the dreamlike and surreal aspects of Alan Wake's story, which doesn't always evolve in a linear fashion.
That story is divided into six episodes, each ending with a cliffhanger and beginning with a "previously on ..." montage similar to your favorite serialized television shows, which helps eliminate some of the confusion that would otherwise be present in such a mysterious game. Whether or not it works as a whole depends on the particular reviewer.
The game's story really is the star of the show. ... Alan Wake's story has level of depth and richness few other games are able to match. --Cheat Code Central
There are a number of interesting plot twists that work, and the mystery surrounding the sleepy town of Bright Falls is actually worth seeing through to the end. Sadly, some of the characters fall into typical horror movie tropes and exhibit inconsistent behavior, but the overall story is still beautifully told, imparting a genuine sense of suspense. --GamePro
Pacing is everything in a horror story, and Alan Wake knows exactly when to draw its story to a close without overstaying its welcome. --Game Revolution
The writing of the game is coming under unusually heavy scrutiny from critics, not only because Alan Wake is himself a writer (and narrates much of the game), but because there are pages of a manuscript scattered throughout the game.
Alan Wake’s narrative is designed like a dream. Just when you think you’ve understood its message, it transforms without clarification, leaving you, and protagonist Alan Wake, in the dark. Applying logic to the plot points only creates further confusion. This is what makes Alan Wake so frustrating, and yet, at the same time, a work of art. If you can detach yourself from reality and let this tale pull you into its dark dreamscape, you’ll be treated to a brilliantly penned and disturbingly imaginative journey. --GameInformer
I'm the kind of person who doesn't think Alan Wake suffers from bad writing; I believe the mediocre writing is a purposeful meta-joke from Remedy. --1Up
The latter publication also faults the resolution, noting that "there is some flat-out baffling stuff that doesn't get explained." The game's final moments are also the cause of concern for Game Revolution, which argues that they "veer into grandiose self-indulgence." GameCritics.com also dislikes the ending, complains about the "poor development of supporting characters and sketchy plotting," and concludes that:
The story is quite peripheral to the gameplay and poorly-told in general.... I had significant difficulty becoming invested in the events and found it very hard to care about anything that happened from start to finish.
Other critics feel that the game borrows a little too heavily from its influences, and thus isn't as original as it thinks it is.
This isn't the first videogame to take inspiration from movies. But there's a difference between paying homage and making subtle references versus the wholesale lifting of well-established clichés.--Eurogamer
That publication also takes issue with the lead character, finding Alan too humorless and even a bit of a wimp. Other critics, however, find Alan a refreshing change from the typical action hero:
He's not another soldier. He's not another superhero. Most importantly, he's not another bland, generic videogame protagonist designed to look cool on the cover or serve as an empty vessel for the player. --Games Radar
One nice additional touch that many critics are appreciating is the show-within-a-show (an intentional Twilight Zone knockoff called "Night Springs") that players can catch glimpses of throughout the game.
The third-person action that constitutes much of Alan Wake (in between are periods of heavy dialogue and the occasional puzzle) blends typical weapons-based combat with a unique emphasis on light and dark (the evil Taken use darkness as a shroud, and Alan must constantly find sources of light -- from flashlights to flares -- to defeat them). This light/dark structure is being widely praised by critics, who find that it adds a welcome strategic challenge.
[The] "light versus dark" mechanic ... can make combat an extremely tense experience: Alan Wake features several heart-sinking moments where hordes of possessed townsfolk lunge toward you in the hopes of cutting your adventure short. --GamePro
This mechanic is not only original, but also leads to thrilling situations. --GameSpot
The combat mechanics are also a source of praise.
Alan Wake offers up powerful combat sequences and remarkably solid controls. --GameInformer
You can tell that Remedy has spent a lot of time honing and tuning the "feel" of the combat, and for the most part, it's nearly perfect. --1Up
The game has that unusual combination of loose, free character movement and fast but precise aiming control that to me defines the best third-person shooters. --Giant Bomb
However, not all is perfect with Alan Wake's gameplay. (And we're not talking about the dull driving sequences, which few critics liked.) One of the least positive reviews published so far comes from GameCritics.com, which feels that too much of the game is spent running around the woods shooting people, which becomes repetitive over time. In fact, the repetitive nature of the gameplay is the chief complaint among critics.
Once you've faced a dozen or so [enemies] in the first level, however, you know what to expect and fear quickly changes to bored frustration. ... Don't expect much escalation or variation. --Games Radar
I wouldn't be surprised if purely action-oriented gamers with little patience found the combat portions of the game to be dull after awhile. -- Cheat Code Central
Sadly, the majority of the gameplay is hinged on combat, and while this can be exciting, it would have been nice to have a bit more variety. --GamePro
Not only is the gameplay repetitive, but it also fails to allow for much exploration. This, too, is a slight failing in the minds of some critics.
The game is also relentlessly linear, though, a price I feel like you have to pay for that kind of tightly packed design. You can rarely stray far from the critical path, and there isn't much to do on either side other than find a huge host of collectibles. --Giant Bomb
Unfortunately, the path you march down rarely offers any surprises, which makes your actions take on a by-rote feeling after a while. But the combat is so satisfying that it's largely able to overshadow this misstep. --GameSpot
And Eurogamer, while praising the general combat system, is taken out of the mood by the too-plentiful stashes of equipment scattered throughout the game:
Of course, this isn't the first videogame to feature implausibly abandoned equipment supplies, silly collectibles and a main character with pockets more capacious than Mary Poppins' handbag. The problem is Alan Wake spends so much of its time pretending not to be a videogame that such niggles grate more than they otherwise might.
Eurogamer also doesn't care for the need to pause gameplay repeatedly to literally read pages of exposition to catch up on story developments. In fact, the text often spoils events that are about to happen, which "ruins the dramatic tension," according to that publication. Similarly, GameInformer's reviewer is taken out of the game by the inclusion of too-conventional game staples like fights against inanimate objects, and mini-tasks like needing to collect 100 coffee thermoses.
All told, by the way, the game takes up to 14 hours to play through (experienced players can probably get through it in 10), though many reviewers recommend playing only one or two of the "episodes" at once, rather than playing the game all the way through. And, though the game has several difficulty levels, Alan Wake seems to have little replay value.
Graphics and visual design
The beautifully-rendered, fog-shrouded visuals are one of the unequivocal highlights of Alan Wake, adding depth to the game's creepiness and air of mystery.
Alan Wake is a disturbingly great-looking game from top to bottom. --Giant Bomb
Remedy's skill with crafting spaces that feel lived in is readily apparent. Locations are packed with detail and feel rusted and worn. --IGN
The environments are astoundingly detailed and lushly rendered, the use of lighting effects is second to none --Cheat Code Central
At its best -- meaning at night -- Alan Wake looks, sounds, and downright feels nightmarish. --1Up
1Up adds that the daylight visuals don't quite measure up to their nighttime counterparts. And sometimes, even the best scenery is too much of a good thing; more than one critic complained of some repetition in the design.
Alan Wake's greatest flaw, though, is the exhausting sameness of its level environments. --Games Radar
And some of the non-environment design choices leave something to be desired:
The heads-up display is cumbersome, displaying every objective in plain white text, and really cuts into the beauty of the surrounding environment. --GamePro
GamePro, among other critics, also complains about the character design (aside from Alan himself) and animations:
The title character looks detailed and refined, but the rest of the cast look positively dated in comparison. They exhibit awkward animations, which is made even stranger when you take into account the town's picturesque environments.
Sound and voice acting
While some critics were not fond of the voice acting (especially for the main character, who comes off as too monotonous), the sound design and music are generally receiving praise.
The subtle score that underlines your quest for survival keeps your nerves on edge and your neck hair raised. --GameSpot
The game's licensed soundtrack, which is one of the best I've encountered in a recent videogame, also shines, with songs like David Bowie's "Space Oddity" fitting in nicely with the game's haunting story. --GamePro
The sound design is on par with the brilliant sound work in Dead Space, and the score is masterfully moody. Amazingly, the selection of licensed music seems to have been done with the game’s story in mind rather than at the behest of corporate licensing deals. --Game Revolution
The music adds to the atmosphere, and some of the effects (particularly the Taken's garbled voices) are on the money, but the character voices remind us of a B-grade horror movie. --GameDaily
Had Alan Wake been released three years ago, it would have been easy to recommend the game as a solid, polished action-adventure. --Eurogamer
If Max Payne was Remedy taking The Punisher and turning that concept into a videogame, then Alan Wake is what happens when Remedy takes Stephen King's The Dark Half and tries to make a game out of that. --1Up
While half of Alan Wake is an original, compelling and brightly intelligent mystery story, the other half – which you'll sink unwillingly into over and over – is a murky, mundane slog through repetitive settings and recycled enemies.--Games Radar
It's not the revolutionary product some may have hoped for, but it's still great entertainment. --IGN