After five years of suspense, the first look at Alan Wake says much, but leaves many questions too.
A week after showing up to a Splinter Cell press conference with Michael Ironside dressed as a giant Thundercat - in my defence, it was at a comic book convention - I received an invite to see a preview of Alan Wake. My first thought was surprise that I'd been invited to anything after asking oh-so-serious questions of the voice of Sam Fisher while in full-blown cosplay.
My second thought was "Holy crap, Alan Wake is real! Finally!"
Yes, after five years of development, and after scrapping the stupid sandbox free-roam concept that Remedy Entertainment now admits was just jumping on a trend, the finished product is a thoughtful, single-player psychological action thriller that draws on familiar territory to give gamers something a little bit new.
The preview took place in the library of Hart House on the University of Toronto campus, and I entered the old-fashioned British mystery style room to discover that yes, Alan Wake is truly a reality. All in attendance had to sign waivers promising not to reveal spoilers, so… it's going to be a bit tricky to explain things, because the title is pretty high concept. Fortunately, it was a good long demo, allowing attendees to get a good taste of the game.
It's a plot and character heavy game, coated with a liberal dose of survival horror coating - influences: Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Levels are structured as episodes of a TV show, complete with the "previously on Alan Wake" openers, and the total package is considered "season one" - influences: Twin Peaks and Lost.
The titular character is an author - influence: Stephen King. - who has come with his wife to a small town in the Pacific Northwest - influence: The X-Files -- in the hopes of regaining his inspiration. Instead, his wife goes missing - duh duh duhhhhhhh - and Alan is trapped in a nightmare based on a book he doesn't remember writing -- influence: Stephen King's past cocaine habit. (Kidding!)
Added to this pile of reference materials are nods to other Thriller-genre tropes so chockablock that Left 4 Dead seems lacking by comparison. In fact, the game relies on the player being "genre literate" as my friend Ty Templeton puts it. If you don't giggle at the phrase "cabin in the woods", and The Dark Half sounds like a piece of an Oreo cookie, a lot of what makes Alan Wake cool will be lost on you. Even the soundtrack contains homages to movies and TV shows.
But if you're a thriller buff as I am, you'll be hooked from the first David Lynch-esque jump cut. There is a huge, unabashed cheezoid quotient to the early levels that 14 year-olds and frat boy dumbasses will just think is stupid instead of being intentionally tongue-in-cheek. Much of the content is terribly silly, but it's not full-blown "PEELZ HERE!" silly. I'll call it "silly level: orange".
There's no way a modern gamer can avoid finding the stereotypes of the thriller genre utterly ridiculous. Calling out for help in a forest with an axe-wielding nutcase on the loose is dumb, but it's hilarious when it's self-aware. In fact, the game uses the player's movie knowledge to build up the suspenseful moments, and helps direct you to objectives without too much breaking of the TV show veneer. I found myself generally being able to predict where and when things were going to hit the fan. This, of course, made me feel smart, and I like feeling smart.
What I can't say I entirely liked were the controls. The twin-trigger shooting is something I got unwillingly used to with Resident Evil, but B being the primary action button felt strange. The entire control scheme felt spread to the sides of the 360 controller, and with my tiny hands, I was afraid I was going to drop the ungainly thing while attempting the awkward LB + left stick evade manoeuvres. Alan has no melee attack, and the game is an ammo hoarder, so all you have left when you run out of bullets is that stupid evade move. I didn't run out of bullets, but I got close. Other people did run out of bullets, and were grossly annoyed. A dynamic difficulty is apparently built into the game because, as Remedy's head of franchise development, Oskari Hakkinen, put it: "it's not fun to die". That dynamic difficulty, however, didn't seem to stop people from running out of ammo. Later levels will determine whether the variety of weapons overcomes this. It's too hard to say what the frustration factor will be based on the preview content.
A friendly debate broke out at the event as to whether there should have been a melee attack available. I maintained that a noodle-armed author would be highly ineffective trying to punch enemies that are made of darkness - "Kingdom Hearts on crack" was what I called them at the time. I couldn't argue, however, that Alan could at least bash them with his flashlight and its gratuitous Energizer product placements. Hilariously, the batteries in the flashlight don't last very long. Oops!
Granted, if Alan turns out to actually be a cokehead, then he would be able to punch enemies made of darkness. But I digress.
The game does get nicely moody and legitimately suspenseful at times, despite its highly predictable nature. I think that a Twin Peaks structure works better for a video game than a TV show, because there's stuff to kill while you're horridly lost, trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Of course, the psychological thriller aspect of the title means that the overall enjoyment of the play experience will hinge on a satisfying, plausible ending, and I can't vouch for that here.
Furthermore, characters' faces are slack and zombie-like, and the graphics don't come close to those of Heavy Rain. Unlike Heavy Rain, however, Alan Wake is definitely a game as opposed to an interactive story, despite the heavy use of first-person narration and manuscript pages to help tell the story. And maybe the zombie people are SUPPOSED to be zombie-like? … duh duh DUUUUUUUUH! … damned if I know.
I think, essentially, that if Alan Wake tells a great story, players will be able to overlook its flaws. And since it's a story about a TV show about a story, that's very possible. Even if the ending sucks, getting there will likely be a good, if clunky, ride.
… provided I don't drop the $#@^%@# controller!
Alan Wake is available in North America on May 18th.