Review / Alan Wake (Xbox 360)

It’s good to know that nearly twenty years later, somebody is keeping the spirit of Twin Peaks alive, as after five years of delays and development hell, Remedy and Microsoft Game Studios have finally released Alan Wake. The last time the Finnish developer actually shipped a game was the blissfully awesome Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne way back in 2003, so expectations for their “Psychological Action Thriller” have been extremely high.

Remedy’s main goal with Alan Wake is to deliver its narrative to the player, and thankfully the story it tells grabs you from start to finish. The game is split up into six episodes, and the story flows like any good serialized TV show would with abrupt cliffhangers that will make you immediately want to start the next chapter. The pacific northwest is a highly underutilized setting throughout the many realms of media, and the creepy yet oddly familiar locale of Bright Falls makes for a distinct environment to traverse through as you unravel the mystery of your missing wife.

The sleepy, somewhat disconnected vibe of Bright Falls will have Twin Peaks fans giddy with this beautifully rendered homage to the TV show, but Alan Wake owes much of its narrative style to Stephen King. From the game’s reliance on evil inanimate objects to its occasionally pitch black humor and bizarrely written characters & dialogue, fans of his work will be equally enticed by the world of Alan Wake. Also, Max Payne fans will be able to spot plenty of clever little inside jokes.

The storytelling in Alan Wake really is in the upper echelon of narrative sophistication in the videogame realm, but unfortunately the actual game part isn’t quite all there. Alan Wake is actually a fairly standard 3rd person shooter that plays like a slightly clunkier Resident Evil 4, but the core gimmick is its reliance on light. Basically, you have to shine a flashlight on the bad guys for a few seconds until you can unload on them with your gun. Light is also used to destroy objects shrouded in darkness and remove barriers.

It works well, but there isn’t much variety. You see a guy, point the flashlight at him for four or five seconds, then shoot him twice. Once in a while, you’ll fight a stronger guy that needs ten seconds of flashlight followed by four shots. There’s only a few weapons at your disposal, and while I like the setting, 85% of playing the game involves shooting the same five guys in samey looking dark northwest forests. You can take footage from the first level and compare it with the last level, and you couldn’t tell the difference.

Also, losing all of your weapons and ammo every time you enter a new area started to become laughable near the end of the game. Hey Alan, those flares are pretty useful! Maybe you might wanna hold on to those?

And then there’s the product placement. You see, as Alan Wake gets into his Microsoft Sync enabled Lincoln MKX and drove past the giant and horribly misplaced Verizon billboard, he got a phone call on his Verizon phone from his friend Barry. When things go sour and the monsters show up, Alan grabs his Energizer branded flashlight (Wait, I thought they made batteries?).

It was already bad, but when I noticed that the batteries you picked up as ammo for your flashlight actually were branded Energizer batteries perfectly packaged in their Energizer branded cases, that’s when they crossed the line. Also, near the end of the game, in the middle of complete carnage that I’m not going to spoil here, there is a mint condition Ford Flex, which also serves as a checkpoint. So if you die, when you continue the game, you’ll be staring right in front of a pristine Ford Flex. Very subtle. I get that six years of development probably wasn’t cheap, but if I notice it to this degree, then there’s a major problem.

With that said, the story alone made the nine hour journey well worth the occasional gripe. I’m only being overtly critical of certain aspects because of how great of a production the game is. If the combat got fleshed out and the product placement wasn’t so in-your-face and borderline offensive, we could be looking at a absolute classic in Alan Wake. However, if you love Twin Peaks and you love the great state of Oregon (who doesn’t?), then definitely give Alan Wake a look.

+It’s a real page turner
+The Northwest town of Bright falls is as immersive and alluring as it is creepy
+Very well produced, with fantastic graphics and sound design

-You’ve seen most of what the combat has to offer before the first chapter is finished
-You’re going to spending a lot of time running through the same forest
-In protest, I will never buy a Lincon or a Ford, and I’m changing my cell phone provider