X10 Impressions: Alan Wake

Sam Lake, the creative mind behind Alan Wake, was Max Payne. Alright, he didn’t have a former career as an angsty New York cop but he wrote the Max Payne games and he provided the face and acted the part for the first game. Sam is a Finnish writer with a piercing stare and an infectious cadence to his speech which is almost hypnotic. His passion and enthusiasm for the game he has spent years with is clear.

Long thought to be vapour-ware, Alan Wake is real and it’s not too far away now. The game has been basically complete and fully playable since May 2009 and has spent the time since then in post production having various tweaks made and extra layers of polish added.

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The story revolves around our eponymous protagonist, a best-selling novelist who is suffering from a two-year bout of writer’s block. On a holiday to the seemingly idyllic small-town of Bright Falls (which draws influence from Twin Peaks, among others) things start to get a little bit weird and, ultimately, his wife disappears. The ensuing action thriller is based around familiar themes of psychological suspense and tried-and-tested horror-movie techniques to draw in the player and build the tension.

Alan Wake Screen 1

The story is progressed via the discovery of a series of pages which are missing from a manuscript our protagonist can’t remember writing but now appears to be living. This appears to be an interesting method of exposition with certain pages necessary for storyline progression and others acting as superfluous collectibles which will build and flesh out the story but aren’t necessarily essential to it. There are a total of one hundred pages to find throughout the game so there seems like there may be a decent amount of replay ability for the completionists among us.

The concept is one of the most interesting of recent years (unless that’s the frustrated novelist in me speaking) and the game-play concepts keep up the trend. Light acts as a combat tool with the enemy not a physical thing but darkness itself. Sure, the darkness takes the form of people, birds, cable reels and other animate and inanimate objects but it isn’t an infection or a mind-altering hypnosis. It appears to be more like a demonic possession. Torchlight burns the darkness away and flare guns give you a wide area of safety or, fired into an enemy, an explosive and decisive weapon.

A degree of signposting is done using light too. Messages, left by a mysterious stranger, are painted in light-sensitive pain onto surfaces around the game. They appear and disappear under the scrutiny of your torch beam. This is a smart method of showing the player where to go next whilst also adding atmosphere. At times the messages, with their running paint, look a little bit spooky and their transient nature adds to the tension which hangs off every branch in the forest-based scenes.

Alan Wake Screen 2

This seems like a perfect opportunity to discuss the lighting effects in the game. They are exemplary, with shadows and light-beams falling naturally across beautiful textures. Particle effects too are something quite special. The darkness possessing enemies is agitative and fluid and the smoke from the flare gun catches in the light of your torch beam with a beautiful, glistening mystery. It all adds up to an extremely atmospheric feel which is rarely captured in video games and might allow Alan Wake to sit comfortably among the greats.

The presentation is extremely evocative of the traditional “noir” style. Alan Wake voices over certain points so you can, in a way, hear his thoughts. Couple this with the large supporting cast (including plucky female cops and some comic relief) and the “Previously On” cue (which has been seen in previous videos) and we end up with a game which has more in common with classic suspenseful TV serials than it does with any other video game. I saw influences from Twin Peaks, X-Files and Lost as well as all of their derivatives.

Alan Wake Screen 3

It wasn’t all positive though; there were one or two rough edges. The cut-scenes were not good. Facial animations were the worst I’ve seen for probably half a decade and the voicing was stilted and unconvincing. There were quite severe frame-rate problems in the cut-scenes too with one part – a car travelling over a bridge – that looked more like a brisk slideshow than a smooth animation. This is odd given that the animations and dialogue in the game-play sections is so good and will most likely be something they are touching up in these last couple of months before the game’s release.

Alan Wake is due for release in May 2010 and, if they can smooth out those cut-scene issues, will be well worth keeping an eye on. It will, if my impressions are correct, stand unique among Xbox 360 titles and possibly instigate a whole new franchise of suspenseful survival thrillers.

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