Thursday, 20 February 2014

Alan Wake (PC)

Alan Wake logo
Alright, Alan Wake is the last game beginning with 'A' that I'll be playing this ENTIRE year. I had a few ideas of other games I wanted to check out, plus a couple of requests, but then a friend pointed out that I'd played Max Payne recently and that I should probably play the first game in Remedy's follow up franchise while the memory is still fresh. Better than leaving it sitting in my Steam library for another twelve months anyway.

I'll be playing it on Easy Mode by the way. I usually go with the default or medium difficulty for a game, but for the PC version Easy Mode is the same as the Xbox 360 version's Normal Mode, and I've heard that it's not a game that improves as it gets more challenging.

(Click the images to view them at a slightly less horrifying resolution.)

The game begins with Alan Wake narrating his own nightmare, in which he has accidentally sent a hitchhiker flying while racing down a coastal road to reach the safety of a lighthouse. Dream Alan's justifiably a bit concerned about this, thinking that he's going to end up in prison forever over it, but the man he killed soon disappears entirely leaving him alone next to his wounded car.

Well I guess we're just going to leave the car parked right in the middle of the road then and continue on foot from here on. I'll be fine... well, unless someone else comes down the road too fast and smashes into the rear end. Then the car will vanish too!

The game is one of those third person action type of games with nice comfortable modern controls and they've even thrown in an FOV slider for me. I'm still supposed to be heading for the lighthouse and fortunately it's very easy to see, shining out of the fog on the right. Despite all the darkness, mist, and the endless forests, it seems unlikely I'd ever manage to get lost (because odds are that it's going to be a linear narrow path all the way to the end).

'Checkpoint reached' already and I'd only taken a few steps down the path. I think this game and I are going to get along just fine.

Check out that image on the bottom left as well: the game's got picture-in-picture video commentary! I can't think of a single other game I've seen that does that, though I can't leave it on as they're going to start throwing out spoilers any second now.

There's also a QR code on a board down here, next to a missing poster of Alan himself. I scanned it in and... it's the address for the Alan Wake facebook page. Disappointing.

Oh, it turns out that the man Alan hit isn't actually all that dead after all! Well maybe he is, but he's come back with an axe to haunt me. And by 'haunt' I mean 'kill'. Also he's a character from one of Alan's novels... one that he hasn't written yet, come to get revenge for the suffering that Alan has inflicted on his creations.

After a few successful dodges the game is satisfied that I know what I'm doing and opens the gate to the next section of path. The only way to escape horror is through understanding you see, that's why Alan mentions in the intro that the best horror stories don't explain a damn thing.

A helpful stranger invited me into his house and tried to gun down my ghostly assailant with a revolver, but the bullets did nothing and the poor fellow got axe-murderered. Now it's only a matter of time before he gets me as well.

There's not much for me to do in here though but admire the lighting and wonder why the guy had four televisions in the same room and why they're all staring at me right now saying 'die'. It's not the kind of game where I can actually investigate anything myself it seems, though like Max Payne, Alan takes every chance he gets to tells me what he feels about the situation.

I suppose I should be looking for a way out so I can get back to running towards the light.

Oh, well I guess I've found the light then. Man, I'm sure this exact shot has shown up in every 90s alien abduction TV series, trees and all.

This particular light in the sky is apparently friendly though and has come into my dream to give me a heads up on the evil I will be facing, in the form of a tutorial.

People taken over by the Dark Presence (like my hitchhiker stalker) cannot be killed with mere guns, not until I've shone a flashlight at them for a while that is. When I've aimed my light at an enemy like this long enough for that halo to shrink to nothing, the unfortunate soul loses their shadowy shield and I'm free to blast away with a revolver. A few shots seem to put them down for good.

Don't ask how, but I'm also able to boost a torch's output to speed the process up (it's a nightmare so I just can). Weirdly using the torch normally doesn't waste the batteries, only boosting does and they automatically recharge after I release the button... with the light still shining.


SOON.


Finally I fought past the the last of the nightmare creatures and reached the lighthouse... just in time to wake up on a car ferry.

Alan's come to the town of Bright Falls with his wife Alice on vacation, to get away from all the stress of being constantly pestered to come up with another novel. Being a famous author is less fun when you've had writer's block for the last two years and no one lets you forget it. At first I assumed this must be set in Maine, (like Silent Hill and every Stephen King novel), but it turns out that Bright Falls is actually a fictional town in Washington... just like Twin Peaks.

This part of the game is purely to set up the characters, as I'm stuck on a boat and all I can do is pose for a photograph, answer the phone, and generally sit through a bunch of conversations. It's giving me flashbacks to Final Fantasy X to be honest.

Still, I completed all these tasks with the skill and efficiency of a veteran gamer, right up until the point that Alice asked me to get back into the car. I didn't realise that he had a different car in the real world! I was stuck for ages trying to find a way inside this beige car from his dream.

Straight after escaping the boat, I'm locked inside a diner instead. I'd wondered if they were going to let me wander around town freely in this and I guess the answer is a definite 'nope'.

I'm here on a quest to get the key to my cabin from a guy called Carl Stucky and it seems that all I have to do to get out of here is figure out which of these people is the guy I'm looking for. 

This... isn't the person I'm looking for, though she has some really interesting lip sync going on. All the characters do in fact, it's really jarring considering how great the visuals are. It's so bad that I have to wonder if it's some kind of graphics glitch.

Rose here turns out by pure coincidence to be Alan's greatest fan. No seriously, she even has a cardboard cut out of him by the doorway.

Alan's understandably a bit put off by this, seeing as he came here to get away from the pressures of fame. Now he's found out that everyone in town who visits the diner can likely recognise him on sight as they see his face every time they come in.

Well they've seen this guy's face anyway. I don't see a massive resemblance really.

Look at all that outdoors out there, cruelly out of my reach. The game was originally intended to have a sandbox town but the developers eventually decided to scrap it because it interfered with the storytelling. There can be NO ESCAPE from the storytelling.

The right hand side of the room's blocked by a trolley, so I had to trigger this cutscene on the way around to look for Stucky. In fact the game's a big fan of interrupting me with cutscenes wherever I go, not that I've found it all that annoying so far.

The guy wants me to put the jukebox on, so I guess I'm taking part in a jukebox activating QTE minigame now. Hit the A button to smack the machine back into life!

Well Stucky wasn't here, but a mysterious veiled woman in black has turned up in his place to hand me the key and a page of directions to the cabin, so my work in the diner is now complete!

That's some S-rank key finding right there; a tremendous demonstration of my skill.

Oh hang on, it turns out Stucky was there in the diner all along! He runs out as Alan and Alice are driving off, just a few seconds too late to catch their attention and give them the real key. Uh-oh.

After some classic helicopter shots of Alan's car driving through the mountainous forest roads, we've finally arrived at... another small place for me to run around in for a bit. I feel like I'm playing the role of the lead in a horror miniseries, following the stage directions without actually getting to play a game.

Actually that could be a interesting idea: a game where you play an actor filming a movie, adlibbing lines, choosing the correct interpretation of the dialogue, making sure to hit your marks, having to react to things that aren't there on a blue screen set etc. Movie Star Simulator 2014, someone needs to make this happen.

After performing the correct steps to trigger the next part of the plot, Alice reveals that... she secretly brought a typewriter. She was hoping that the change of scenery might inspire him, plus there's a local doctor who specializes in helping artists!

Alan doesn't exactly take it well, yelling at her and storming out into the spooky night.

Oh I see how it is, Alan walks off down the bridge during the cutscene just so I have to go and take him back to the cabin again afterwards!

Alice is apparently being threatened by someone inside the house, so I sprint back as fast I can, only to find an empty cabin and an open window. Alan leaps through it down into the lake and...

... now we're here. Alan's a little dazed after crashing his car and can't remember how he got here, though he does remember that Alice is in danger. So either he's slipped dimensions over to the evil version of Silent Hill... uh, Bright Springs, he's knocked himself out and ended up in his nightmares again, or there's been a time jump. Either way, I need to get him to a phone so he can call for help.

Like in the nightmare earlier, finding my way through the woods isn't all that hard as I'm always heading for the lights in the distance and I've also got a yellow circle in the top left of the screen pointing me in the right direction. Plus I'm basically just following a winding path.

Oh hey, it's Carl Stucky again, and this time Alan has a chance to actually meet the guy. Though it doesn't seem that they'll be discussing the cabin mix-up, considering that Stucky has been overcome by evil and has become a deranged axe-wielding psychopath.

I'm unarmed though so all I can do is make a run for it and try to dodge if I see any airborne axes arcing my way.

That's the second Stephen King mention the game's dropped so far, like it's trying to explain away all the clich├ęs as being clever references. Alan is a genre-savvy protagonist for sure, in the same way that Max Payne is, though that hasn't helped him any so far. He's still gotten himself trapped inside a small room while Stucky does his own bizarre long-winded version of "Here's Johnny".

Oh but hang on, there's a revolver and an Energizer flashlight here! With the power of Energizer batteries I can finally fight back against evil! No wonder the things magically recharge when not in use, seeing as they're blessed with such a prestigious and clearly visible brand name!

But yeah, Stucky's gonna get his ass kicked now.

Oh, it seems that while I was rummaging around in the dark for batteries, Stucky went and traded his axe for a bulldozer and now he's pushing this office off a cliff. How bothersome.


LATER.


Agh, identical twin trees!

Alright, Stucky's been dealt with (I'm sure that fall off the cliff totally killed him for real) and now I need to get up this broken staircase. I can tell that's the right way to go because following the light is always a good plan, and not just because they heal me and provide a safe haven from enemies. I do have slowly regenerating health, but standing under a light speeds the process up considerably.

That red box over on the left contains essential supplies like bullets and batteries, which is handy because enemies don't seem to drop any. They don't even drop axes for me to take.

The game likes to throw a couple of these infected axe-maniacs at me at once, which is more than my poor torch can comfortably handle. So I often end up having to decide if I want to run off and let my flashlight recharge, or maybe slam a new battery into the tube and keep on shining.

The revolver on the other hand doesn't regenerate (obviously). It seems like I can only carry four guns at once by the way, though I'm a long way from being able to test that theory.

Ah, here's the generator I was looking for, just a few meters away from the switch it powers up. Now I have to play the generator game; hitting 'A' when the dot spins around into the green area of the circle. Somehow I get the feeling this minigame and I are going to be well acquainted by the end of this.

With the power back on I can move the log lift down to make a bridge and finally bypass the broken staircase! Soon that gas station phone shall be in my grasp and I can call for help.

These enemies are attacking in groups now, so I figured I'd lure them over to my last safe haven (the light on the left) and watch them burst into flame. For some reason they don't want to follow me in and burn though! They just disappear off into the forest again.

In fact whenever I come back out it seems like I'm attacked by the same number of enemies, no matter how many of them I killed last time. Maybe I'm whittling down a larger army, maybe they keep respawning, or maybe I'm just resetting them. I guess I'll just keep heading onwards to the next checkpoint and only fight them when I have to. I don't have infinite ammo here.

Okay this is weird; I just stumbled across a piece of paper on the floor that is apparently part of the manuscript for the novel that Alan has been planning to write... and the font size is huge! I mean seriously, he's averaging around four words a line there. Also it's apparently telling real life events before they've happened: a premonition of narration to come.

I've also been collecting Thermos flasks of coffee along the way, which is slightly less weird. Hang on though, isn't Thermos another brand name?

The TVs from Max Payne return, only this time they're full video instead of a slide show! It's basically a three minute long Twilight Zone episode pastiche.

You know, now that I think about it Alan Wake kind of feels like it belongs on a TV in one of the Max Payne games. Alan's issues with reality remind me so much of the game's fictional Address Unknown series that I keep expecting him to meet a backwards talking flamingo convinced that mirrors are more fun than television.

Well it's nice to know that Stucky's still around and he's continuing with his monologue where he left off. There's nothing creepier than man absolutely determined to finish his speech about proper car maintenance even after his audience has long since ran away.

Achievement Unlocked!

Well that's the end of Stucky. I was expecting a little more of a fight from the guy, but he was basically just a super-charged version of a regular axe-maniac. Okay, I should be right next to the gas station now surely.

One phone call later and the sheriff shows up to meet Alan at the gas station. Hey that narration's very familiar, are those the same lines I read in that manuscript earlier? I guess not, though that doesn't mean that the scene can't happen later.

Anyway, after three hours of gameplay that's the end of episode one (of eight), which makes it an excellent place to turn the game off.


CONCLUSION

Alan Wake seems pretty decent to me. I generally prefer a bit more game in my video game and a bit less interactive storytelling, but I've been liking it well enough so far. The combat hasn't been anywhere near as enjoyable as Max Payne's slow motion shootdodging, but it did give me something to do during those long walks through the forest, as I headed for the next bright light in the distance.

Also the game has skippable cutscenes, directors commentary, a cinematic replay feature, a radio replay feature, a music replay feature, plus an level select screen that lets you choose individual stages within an chapter. It's even got a 'previously on...' at the start of each episode so that you can take a break and jump right back in a week later.

I don't know what to think about the story right now, as I'm not sure it's even supposed to make much sense at this point. It's a mystery story and I don't even know whether I'm in a parallel universe, or dreaming, or trapped in a world of pure imagination, but the Stephen King quote at the start about how there's little fun in explanations makes me wonder if I'll ever get a straight answer.

But I still found it interesting enough. I definitely plan to play it some more at least, so that's earned it a shiny star.

That's all the 'A' games done with then. Tune in next time for a game beginning with B! Also, feel free to leave a comment if you're so inclined, I'm always interested to read your opinions and criticism.

7 comments:

  1. it turns out that Bright Falls is actually a fictional town in Washington... just like Twin Peaks.

    What? There's a Twin Peaks similarity? I didn't pick up on that; if only the creators had bludgeoned me with constant reminders that they really, really liked Twin Peaks through almost every step of the game and its promotion.

    Oh, wait.

    I think I would have enjoyed the game more if they weren't so obvious about their inspirations. That line about the axeman and The Shining is so embarrassing to read, like a teenager wrote it.

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    1. I think I'm lucky in that I've never seen Twin Peaks, so I can only pick up on the very very obvious similarities. It's kinda hard to miss the Stephen King thing though when he's practically narrating how it's ripping the author off as it happens, but I'm kind of hoping that's leading somewhere. Like it's his subconscious influences as a writer coming to life perhaps.

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    2. They did a series of Youtube videos to promote the game and while they were quite atmospheric they also screamed THIS IS LIKE TWIN PEAKS DO YOU SEE every thirty seconds. I don't mind references and homages but their decision to highlight them in the game comes across as clumsy; let us work them out for ourselves!

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  2. I loved this game. The story was absolutely fantastic and I couldn't stop playing once I'd gotten a little ways into it. That said, the actual gameplay was pretty tame.

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  3. The annoying thing about this is you can in several points see it was originally supposed to be an open world game with huge areas where you can drive around the mountains with various cars and enter several of the buildings in the town... And then they blocked off the areas with boxes and stuff and downgraded it into a corridor shooter because of memory limitations. That's why there are tons of different cars which you can use to drive 20 meters and then get out...

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    1. You can drive cars in this? Seriously? I'm going to have to remember to playing this later.

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    2. Yes you can, but like I said, it's pretty useless, since they are just leftovers from the original open world design. There's one longer driving section later on, though.

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