Since its announcement at E3 in 2005, Alan Wake has been a gaming Sasquatch. But we had a sighting this week, grabbed a controller and played it.
Alan Wake has been touted as a more grown-up suspense game, a subtler and more sophisticated take on a genre more commonly infested with zombie nurses and chainsaw villains.
Other games of this type seem to be about darkness. We discovered a game that's just as much about light.
What Is It? Alan Wake is an Xbox 360 exclusive in development at Max Payne studio Remedy Entertainment. Players control Alan Wake, a man lost in a strange town in the forest of Washington State, searching for his fiancée. As much a shooter as it is a mystery and a game that uses the negative space of quiet, creepy drama, the game is slated for an early 2010 release.
What We Saw I played through the game's E3 demo, which starts with a tutorial that explains the game's core mechanic of using light as a weapon. The setting was a night time sequence high in the tree-lined peaks of Washington state. The action moved from a fight against some bad people on a dirt road, to a spooky tree-shaking event at a cabin, and then a dangerous tram ride over a valley, with a jeep thrown in Alan's face at one point for good measure. Then, a cliffhanger.
How Far Along Is It? The game has been in development a long time but could be as much as a year from release. Still, the demo we played was a complete vertical slice.
What Needs Improvement? This Is Not TV: The demo began with a recap sequence entitled "Previously on Alan Wake" and also used a title card to lead into the action that read "Tonight On Alan Wake." Remedy is trying to make their game feel like an episodic TV season, a structure tried previously in Alone in the Dark, among other games. Maybe that would make the game more approachable for non-gamers, but it just seems odd to pretend that a gameplay session is a night-time broadcast.
What Should Stay The Same? Light As A Gun: Alan Wake always carries his flashlight and frequently must shine it on the people and things attacking him. He can't hurt them otherwise. Wake has a half-circle meter that represents how much light he has left to project with his flashlight. Holding down a trigger shines that light on a target, cleansing it of some sort of darkened cloud possessing it. Only then can bullets hurt the bad guys. So you aim and shoot with the light. Then you aim and shoot with your gun. Some enemies that were hurled our way — as well as a truck — required a fire-hose stream of light blasted at them. That blast diminished Wake's light energy, which would either be replenished over time or, in a pinch re-filled with a switch of batteries. Essentially, the mechanic requires Wake to have to shoot enemies twice, with light, then a gun. The developers promise more light weapons than just a flashlight (we're guessing flaming torch and strobe-light, but who knows.) Possessed objects didn't need to be shot with a gun… that jeep plummeted to the ground after being flooded with illumination.
A Good, Haunted Mood: It's hard to predict whether Alan Wake will be scary. But it is definitely spooky. Remedy is using their creepy forest environment well, letting distant but mysterious shakes of the treetops or the nearby flocking of dark birds (or were they bats?) strike the wonderfully discordant note of a menacing other presence making itself known.
Good Fighting: Combat in Alan Wake was smooth. That's not a big deal, unless you consider that many other thriller games that are great on atmosphere are often clunky with combat. Not here. Alan Wake is no super-hero of a demon-fighter, but he can run, duck and shoot like you would hope that you would, if possessed woodsmen and jeeps were messing with you.
Final Thoughts Alan Wake has the right mood, that something in its world is very wrong. The mechanics are promising though potentially repetitive. As long as having to shoot enemies with light and then guns doesn't become tiresome, the game could play quite well. Whether the game can present the intellectual and tonal sophistication that some fans have been hoping for is something we could not judge at E3, unfortunately. It is those potential qualities that could make Alan Wake transcend the pack of thrillers and horror games it is still among. We'll keep an eye on that angle, because that, in the end is what could make or break Remedy's long-in-the-making game.