What a strange long road its been for Remedy Games and their long time coming opus: Alan Wake. Believe it or not, the game has actually gone gold after five long years of development. We were privileged to get a personal hands-on tour of Alan Wake's fractured existence in the latest build of the game, being pressed onto those shiny little discs as I write this. While we were shown the game high up in the Ottawa skyline with the Parliament Buildings looming from the huge windows, we were instantly transported to the Pacific Northwest setting of Alan Wake.
The first thing that is apparent about Alan Wake is that this isn't a typical video game, which is unsurprising coming from the slightly twisted minds behind Max Payne. As our demo began, we were on a ferry with Wake's wife, about to arrive at a desolate small town getaway. It's clear something is off right away, but it's hard to place your finger on it. Weird visions come to life, the townspeople seem really odd, and the entire environment gives a sense of foreboding.
Alan Wake is a writer who has been suffering from writer's block for two years. As he arrives at his secluded lakeside getaway with his wife, Alice, things start going wrong right away. Alice goes missing, and creatures that are adverse to light start emerging from the woodwork. To mess with minds, Wake starts finding pages of a manuscript that describes things as they are happening or about to happen. What is going on? It's the central question that drives the narrative and the scares.
"Horror is about what does happen, terror is about what might happen or doesn't happen," said Jeff Rivait, Product Manager of Games and Accessories for Xbox Canada. "Alan Wake is all about psychological terror."
Unlike most horror games, Alan Wake is much more focused on psychological terror and atmosphere, than blood and gore. In fact, the game is rated T for Teen, likely shooting it to the top of the scariest teen rated games of all time. TV's turn on and off on their own, light is sparse and your only refuge from an terrifying and unknown entity that is controlling people and machines in the town. Adding to the fear is that these are normal, well constructed characters, increased the fear you feel for characters you care about. The whole thing feels like Stephen King meshed with David Lynch and a pinch of X-files.
Your only way to fight back is with light. Enemies must be weakened with a flashlight or other light source before they can be taken out with whatever standard weapon you are wielding. Darkness is your enemy, and what may or may not be lurking in the darkness of the forest will be your biggest fear playing this game.
While the focus is clearly on strong storytelling, believable characters, and scaring the wits out of the player in subtle ways, the action played well as well. This isn't a sequel to Max Payne, which was one of the most fluid shooters of all time. Wake is a normal guy, so no fast reflex bullet time or crazy weapons to be found here. There's a slow motion dive that activates on particularly close calls, but for the most part, the action sequences are purely based on your own skill and reflexes as a player. When playing, the left trigger controls the flashlight, and the right hand controls whatever weapon you currently have equipped.
The levels are somewhere in between a huge sandbox and linear level design. The game itself is definitely linear, but with plenty of room to explore and go off the beaten path. Rivait assured us that Alan Wake is a game that would reward exploration with deeper storytelling. "You are guided down a path, this isn't a closed off hallway," is how Rivait phrased the linearity.
"The length depends on how deep you want the story to go," said Rivait when prodded for an number of hours to complete the game. Even though we only played the first episode of the game, there was already lots of cool twists and turns that has us eager for the final version to see where the bizarre storyline will lead.
GamingExcellence was also able to confirm that there will be DLC available soon after launch, in an "episodic TV format." The limited edition of the game will include a 150 page novel by the game's protagonist, and a soundtrack.
Alan Wake hits its strongest notes through the graphics and sound design. This is as immersive as modern video games get. The graphics are strong and polished, especially in regards to the lighting and the animation on Wake himself. The surreal sound effects come through clearly and add to the mood effectively. Voice acting was also excellent.
Alan Wake has the potential to be Microsoft's answer to a title like Heavy Rain, a title that emphasizes story telling and pushes the boundary of the video game medium to manipulate emotions and reactions in players. We'll know for sure when the game hits store shelves on May 18th.