Announced during 2005’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, Alan Wake was set to be one of the biggest XBox360 exclusives. Half a decade later, as we are drawing closer to its imminent release in May, Console Monster got a hands-on preview of the game at Remedy Studios in Finland. Braving the freezing temperatures, I was going to be checking out one of the most exciting 360 titles to release this 2010.
After a brief flight and a short sleep in the snow covered hotel, we were driven to Remedy’s studio early in the morning to get one of the first hands-on play of the opening hour of the game. We were treated to a studio tour, checking out various aspects of how Alan Wake layers together from the mountain of props and costumes, map editing to the sauna (yes sauna!) where various important team meetings would take place. Later we were taken for lunch on top of a water tower to admire cars driving over a frozen sea. Eventually we returned to the studio. Enough teasing Remedy, I have been waiting long enough.
Alan Wake is set in the beautiful Pacific North West town of Bright Falls. A famous author, Alan, has been unable to write anything new for over two years, so his wife decides to take him on a trip to clear his mind and attempt to refuel Alan’s creativity. After arriving in the town and grabbing the keys to their lodge, things take a quick turn as Alan realizes his wife’s true intention for the trip. After a heated argument he leaves his wife in the house alone to clear his mind. The house blacks out and after some panic screaming from his beloved, he runs back only to find her missing, setting the rest of the game up to finding Alan’s wife.
Remedy are dubbing Alan Wake as a ‘Psychological Action Thriller’. I was surprised originally to see action in there, seeing Alan Wake more of a slow, supernatural survival horror rather than an action thriller, but after an hour and a half of tense story, atmosphere and combat, any scepticism was thrown out of the window.
In regards to action, you are thrown straight into combat. The ‘Taken’, residents of Bright Falls who have been invaded by a strange darkness surround you quickly, disappearing into wisps of smoke to confuse and startle you during battle. They prove a big threat to Alan early on with the only real weapon being light. You combine both torchlight and bullets tactically, shining your light until their barrier is broken and then the Taken can be killed with a few well-placed shots. The massive challenge however, is taking out groups effectively which the game relentlessly throws at you.
There are a variety of weapons to Alan’s disposal. The trusty handgun, a shotgun and flare gun are some of the earlier weapons we got hands-on time with. There are also flash grenades, flares and various environmental lights to aid your fight against the darkness. The revolver and shotgun work as you would expect, but the real fun I found was by using the afore mentioned explosives. If you time your shot well a flare gunshot can take out multiple enemies and the flash grenades are perfect when dealing with exceptionally large groups.
Your flashlight requires batteries to run meaning you can’t just point the torch constantly at enemies in hope of victory. Things can take a serious turn for the worse if you don’t keep an eye on your torch power, much like ammo, batteries need topping up as energy drains away. The stronger weapons have small magazine clips so require reloading more often, tapping the reload button repeatedly speeds up the process but is hard to master when several Taken are lunging at your face.
Of course, there will be times where the Taken get a little too close for comfort. Alan Wake features a rather satisfying dodge manoeuvre which slows down the enemy progress if pulled off perfectly. This looks fantastic if you dodge an oncoming axe and see it slowly flying past, inches away from your face. The camera also slows down when you perform spectacular assaults, making for pleasing cinematics.
Weapons and ammo are placed pretty generously around the various environments you explore. Usually in emergency boxes located near lights or hidden off the main road. Large ammo and weapon boxes are hidden in nooks and crannies and you can locate them usually by shining your light on the walls for light sensitive paint messages. A lot of the games secrets and general directions are painted onto walls in the same way, who is painting them though is yet to be uncovered.
While the Taken are the main enemy you find yourself attacking, the game features a rather interesting poltergeist enemy. Anything around Alan can potentially attack and this really kicks up the suspense during long walks in the dark. At one point, Alan is asked to call in a lift. After his companions walk into the lift, something crashes down in front preventing Alan from joining them. A Taken attack kicks off and after taking out them you presume things will be temporally safe. Wrong! Giant wooden wheels suddenly come alive as they fly up in the air and pummel towards you in an attempt to take you out. Thankfully light works against these obstacles and you can take them out of you are tactical about it. Moving behind a tree helped stop the attacks from the front connecting and giving Alan a few precious moments to shine lifesaving light into the direction of the possessed wheels.
Logs, cars and various other objects come alive when you least expect it. Combine this with the Taken who frequently teleport around you, Alan Wake sure puts on a great suspense filled show. Combine this with finding pages of a novel you don’t remember writing, only to see the contents unfold in front of you later on is a real terror.
So away from the action, Alan Wake is a very story focused and atmospheric game. The story is told via bits of novel found around Bright Falls as well as flashbacks, creepy TV sets and cut scenes with the locals. Alan Wake has a very TV Drama show feel and Remedy were keen to carry on that theme by including various homages in the scripting as well as a “Previously on Alan Wake” intro when you load back up the game. While the 2008 version of Alone in the Dark attempted this style, Alan Wake has polished it enough to work. From what we see, Alan Wake’s story has a good continuous pace without shoving it in your face all at once.
Continuing along with the TV show theme, Alan Wake tries to include some light heartedness into the story with the inclusion of Alan Wake’s obsessive literacy agent who provides the comic relief. Various one liners brought a smile to my face and even the fact he pops on Christmas lights onto his coat in an attempt to fend off the Taken really life up a rather intense and dark story. You are also accompanied by a Bright Falls cop called Sarah who attempted to help you early on in the game. While a little more serious than chubby and loveable Barry, Sarah provides additional combat support and is a real asset on the field when things get a little tough.
There were a few niggling issues with the preview build we played. First was the one off lip-sync during the cut scenes of the game; timing the lip movement felt a little off. This is such a shame as Alan Wake’s atmosphere and visuals really suck you into this world and you end up losing that immersion at points. Tag that along with a few frame rate problems during the cut scenes, it is a real downer. We are sure these are things Remedy are currently polishing off though for the release in three months time.
Alan Wake is back on the radar after a long wait and not only is it looking to be one of the most promising Xbox 360 titles to release this May, it is also looking at being one of the most exciting titles to release this year. An intriguing story with breathtakingly visuals and clever scripting, Alan Wake is a must have pre-order for 360 owners this year.