Alan Wake is a psychological horror third person shooter, originally released in 2010 by the Finnish software developer Remedy. Every time I play I want to rent a cabin in the Pacific Northwest for a month, hiking and exploring the forest during the day with a rifle slung over my back, writing a novel on an old Remington typewriter by the light of the hearth at night. So will you . . .
Calling Alan Wake a “shooter” or “horror game” doesn’t do it justice. Sure, the main character gets some serious trigger time with revolvers, shotguns, rifles and semi-automatic pistols. And there are moments when playing will make you jump (particularly if you’re playing it at night and in the dark, as God and Sam Lake intended). But the sting is in the tale.
Alan Wake’s narrative is deeply engaging, a videogame rebuke to the ham-fisted storylines of Tom Clancy’s latest offering, or the “choose your own flavor of the same exact ending” of Mass Effect, Deus Ex and everything Telltale Games has ever offered.
The titular Alan Wake is a New York City-based writer of crime and horror novels, with all of the pretensions and arrogance that comes with his station in life. He gets into fisticuffs with paparazzi, looks down his snoot at the hicks in “flyover country” (even if they’re his fans) and occasionally ditches his wife to go on book tour/drinking benders with his best pal, a smarmy publicist named Barry.
After killing off his most beloved character in his last novel, he’s suffering from a bit of writer’s block. His wife, Alice, rents a cabin on a lake in the Pacific Northwest for a little R&R. Unfortunately, they get into a heated argument, the power goes out and things start spinning out of control. Wake sees his wife fall into the water. He dives in to save her . . . then wakes up a week later, in a wrecked car with no idea what happened.
Wandering disoriented through the woods, Wake is soon attacked by strange, shadowy men. They taunt him and seem to magically appear out of the darkness. They can only be fought off by a combination of light sources and hot lead. It’s a unique game mechanic that sets up some interesting tactical problems.
Wake tries to find help, eventually getting in touch with the local Sheriff. But how do you gain the trust of the rural constabulary when you have to tell them, “I’m some guy from New York City. My wife, who I was really angry with, has gone missing. I can’t remember anything that happened since I last saw her. Oh, and I just dropped a dozen or so men in the woods with a .357.”
The story gets even more intriguing when Wake starts to find pages of a horror novel written by him scattered throughout the forest. He has no recollection of writing them, but the protagonist appears to be him, and the story starts coming true.
The night had been one desperate situation after another. I was exhausted and my body felt as though it had been chewed up and spat out.
The flashlight was heavy in my hand, and each pull of the trigger sent a painful shock up my arm. But I was finally out of the woods and things were looking up.
That’s when I heard the chainsaw.
As the story goes on, we realize that Wake is actually growing as a person. Revisiting some past memories and feeling a little bit of regret. It’s an aspect that is sorely lacking in typical RPGs that try to provide the illusion of choice by making the player character an empty vessel with no real history at all. (Cough…Bioware…) Wake definitely is his own man. Even though you’re controlling his combat actions, he’s the one making the decisions. And it works.
Despite an occasional glitch here and there, Alan Wake’s voice-acting is first-rate. The graphics hold up well for a seven-year-old game, particularly in comparison with much more recent failures. The atmospherics and soundtrack combine to make you feel as though you really are taking a hike in rural Washington. It’s also refreshing to play a game that isn’t infected with post-GamerGate politically-correct storylines more concerned with virtue signaling than compelling game play.
There are one or two places where I wish the writers and actors had been a little more subtle. A few of the treks through the forest are a little repetitive — especially when you’re jonesin’ to find out what happens next. There’s also one particularly annoying scene involving a bridge near the climax of the story that seems to be needlessly cruel.
I understand that Alan Wake’s developer is negotiating the re-licensing of the soundtrack. I hope they can come to an agreement; the game’s music is phenomenal, especially the offerings from Dead Combo and Poets of the Fall. The game would be incomplete without the music — like the time Tour of Duty was released on DVD without its theme song Paint it Black.
Due to the expiring licensing agreement, Alan Wake will no longer be available for download via Steam or Microsoft as of high noon Eastern time today. As a result, it’s now being offered on sale for the insanely low price of $2.99 via Steam. (Physical copies might still be on offer at your favorite used game/music store, of course.) Grab Alan Wake while you can.
Ratings (out of five stars):
Storyline: * * * * *
You don’t need a great story to make a good horror game, but they did it anyway. There’s an in-story reason why guns, ammo and other supplies seem to be strategically located throughout the countryside that makes sense.
Playability: * * * *
Controls are simple and intuitive. You look over Wake’s right or left shoulder, but you get used to it. A few of the forest-crawls seem to drag. There’s plenty of replayability; harder levels make husbanding ammunition and other supplies tougher.
Balance: * * * * 1/2
Combat is generally well-balanced. While you can avoid spending ammunition on some fights, there are one or two scenes that are a bit unforgiving.
Graphics: * * * *
The game was released in 2010, but it was really good for 2010.
Weapons: * * * * *
The six-shooter tends to be the default firearm; at various times, you also can acquire shotguns and rifles. The most important equipment are the ones that provide light: flashlights, very pistols, flares, and flashbang grenades. You need to use light to burn away the enemies’ ‘protective shield of darkness’ before they can be taken down by firearms. You’re not an operative here who can RTB for more stuff, so you take what you can find.
Customize This: * Naah. Everything’s bone-stock. What, you expect a writer from New York City to hang a reflex scope on his revolver? Dude doesn’t even know he needs a holster!
Platform: PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One.
Overall: * * * * *
Buy it today, before it’s gone.