I spent some time with the finished version of Remedy's "psychological thriller" Alan Wake over the weekend. Here's what happened.
This is the first hour of Alan Wake. Below I'll describe what I saw, what I did and what was going through my head at the time. It's not a review, it's my first-hand impressions of what I've played so far.
For those paranoid about spoilers, why did you even click on this post? Yes, there are spoilers here, inasmuch as you can spoil what essentially amounts to the game's prologue. The first hour sets the scene, but it only asks questions, it doesn't supply answers.
Declining the offer of Hard or even Nightmare difficulty, I choose the default Normal option and we begin.
00:00 - The opening cut-scene plays. The first words I hear are "Stephen King once wrote that nightmares exist outside of logic and there's little fun to be had in explanations" as the camera swoops across the fictional town of Bright Falls, a lakeside community huddled amongst heavily forested mountains. "The unanswered mystery is what stays with us the longest and is what we'll remember in the end. My name is Alan Wake. I'm a writer."
00:01 - The cut scene continues as Alan relates a recent dream. He's driving down a coastal road at night, desperate to reach a lighthouse ahead. He hits a hitchhiker who was standing in the middle of the road. Alan gets out of his car to investigate when a noise startles him, his car's headlights switch themselves off and the hitchhiker's body is gone. The game starts.
00:02 - "Suddenly the body was gone," Alan's voiceover tells me moments after the cinematic described precisely that. Such a statement of the obvious irritates me. I thought there was little fun to be had in explanations?
00:03 - Alan's standing on the road. It's night. Streetlights mark the way ahead through swirls of thick fog. Somewhere in the distance I can make out the lighthouse. Alan wants to go there - as indicated by the text "Go to the lighthouse" displayed in the top left of screen, just below what I presume to be a red health dial - so off we go.
00:04 - I hold LB to sprint and note that Alan can maintain said sprint for about 10 seconds before tiring. He is clearly a writer. Now staggering down the road, we arrive at a collapsed bridge. We'll have to find an alternative route to the lighthouse. Before we do though, Alan picks up a coffee thermos that was lying on the broken bridge.
00:05 - We find a walking trail that appears to lead out to the point on which the lighthouse stands. There's a missing persons sign pinned to the fence that carries a photo of a man who appears the spitting image of Alan. Huh. It's only a dream, I guess.
00:06 - We step out onto the footbridge that commences the walking trail and suddenly the camera swings back over Alan's shoulder to where his car is parked back up the road. Standing precisely where the hitchhiker's body once lay is a shadowy figure. The camera swings back to Alan and the shadowy figure is now on the footbridge, holding an axe and quite clearly in no mood for friendly conversation. "You don't remember me, do you, writer?" the figure asks, before swinging his axe.
00:07 - Alan runs, stumbling down the rickety stairs, as the shadowy figure follows, his threats growing ever more menacing. "You're never going to publish another of your shitty stories... because I'm going to kill you." Yikes. I learn how to dodge attacks by holding the LB button while moving with the left stick. A particularly close call is greeted with a slow-motion "bullet-time" presentation which, I have to admit, looks quite cool.
00:08 - Alan's voice-over realises that the hitchhiker is actually a character from the novel he's been working on. As he does, the hitchhiker's anger rises and, with it, so does every fence paling, bush and old tyre in close proximity. Within seconds, Alan now has an entire tornado chasing him down the path.
00:09 - Ahead, a man cries "This way!" and ushers us towards a little wood cabin on the other side of a rope bridge. We run across and dart inside, the door slamming behind Alan and leaving the other man outside. Alan watches as the hitchhiker appears and plunges his axe into the man's chest, killing him. The cabin starts shaking. I notice an giant eyeball appear on each of the four TV screens around the room. A dismebodied voice chants "Die. Die. Die!" I try to get Alan to hide in the fridge. It doesn't work.
00:10 - Presently, the cabin's rear door opens and blinding white light streams inside. A second disembodied voice instructs me to head for the light. Outside, we follow a trail to an overhead light which miraculously heals Alan's wounds, returning him to full health. The light beckons us onwards and explains that the hitchhiker has been infected with darkness. We have to drain that darkness in order to kill him. The light gives Alan a flashlight and I can point it at the hitchhiker - holding LT to boost its power while quickly draining the flashlight's battery. Once all the darkness has gone, the hitchhiker appears dressed in normal attire rather than his former murky shadowy mess. The light then gives Alan a revolver and I plug four bullets into the hitchhiker before he collapses in a slow-motion backflip, sparks flying from his body.
00:12 - Pushing ahead, we encounter a couple more shadows and dispatch them in the same fashion. We find a flare gun in an emergency supply box and use it to take out three shadows simultaneously. The flare floods the area in a luminous red glow as its light is reflected off the smoke and fog. It looks spectacular. In fact, the use of light so far is hugely impressive. It really is a seriously good-looking game... oh, and I just died, falling off a cliff while attempting to dodge an attack.
00:13 - I restart at the emergency supply box, thanks to the checkpoint auto-save system.
00:14 - We make our way down the rest of the trail and arrive at the road leading out to the lighthouse. Again, our shadowy hitchhiker friend appears, tornado of debris in tow. We dash out along the pier, avoiding the carnage as the hitchhiker hurls cars and other junk towards us. The lighthouse door is open and we scramble inside. There's a banging at the door, but it slowly subsides and Alan is left alone in the lighthouse.
00:15 - "Alan! Wake up!" It's a female voice. It's Alan's wife. He's fallen asleep in the car. They're on a barge travelling across the lake to dock at the town of Bright Falls. It's day time now and you can feel a genuine Pacific northwest chill in the air. As Alan and his wife talk, I notice two things. One, their interaction is awkward, strained, as if their relationship has seen better days. Two, the facial animation is equally awkward - wooden, stiff, unconvincing. The latter perhaps betrays the game's protracted development period. We've certainly seen better lip-synching in recent times.
00:17 - Alan's wife asks him to pose for some photos with the picturesque township in the background. We wander over to the railing and make some small talk with an elderly gentleman, the local radio announcer as it turns out. Canned dialogue is triggered as soon as Alan approaches the man, there aren't any conversation options or anything like that. He recognises Alan immediately - Wake is, after all, quite a famous author. As the barge pulls into the dock, Alan and his wife jump back in the car and drive off. She asks him to collect the keys to their holiday cabin while she fills up the car at the gas station.
00:19 - We're dropped off at a diner owned by a Carl Stucky, the guy who is renting us the cabin. There's another strained exchange between Alan and his wife. She thanks him for coming here, while he shrugs it off, clearly downaplying his reluctance to go on holiday. We walk into the diner and Alan is again immediately recognised, this time by the girl working the counter. She's even got an Alan Wake standee set up next to the entrance. Her breathless enthusiasm is a little disturbing, actually. She tells Alan that Stuckey is out the back.
00:20 - As we walk through the diner, some old coot in an eye patch asks Alan to put a song on the jukebox for him. I'm feeling generous, so I wander over. The mechanism that changes the record is stuck and I have to hit the A button a few times as Alan bangs on the side of the cabinet. I suspect that's a gentle tutorial for some future - perhaps more urgent - situations.
00:21 - Towards the rear of the diner, a middle-aged woman is peering down a corridor that disappears into the back of the building. She warns Alan not to go in there. Odd. Alan's voice-over informs me that he's in a hurry and he's sick of this little place. So we walk down the corridor. Overhead, the fluorescent light flickers before the hall gives way to darkness. We press on.
00:22 - It's almost pitch black at the end of the hall. I get Alan to knock on the door to the mens restroom. No one answers. A woman appears from out of nowhere. She's dressed entirely in black, her face obscured by a black veil. She tells Alan that Carl couldn't be here, but she has the keys to the cabin. As she hands them over, she tells Alan she'll drop by soon and that she would especially like to meet his wife. Alan is somewhat perturbed by the encounter, muttering a brief thanks, but really he's nowhere near as weirded out as he should be. I'm half expecting the woman to vanish as quickly as she arrived, but as we walk back down the hall I spin the camera around and see her still there, leaning against the wall in the blackness.
00:23 - Alan's wife is waiting in the car out front. Alan jumps in and they head off to the cabin. As the car pulls away, a man staggers out of the diner. He's clad in a blue uniform bearing the Stucky's logo and holding something in his hand. "Mrs Wake! Wait!" he calls, as the car drives into the distance. "You've forgotten your keys." He doubles over, gasping for air.
00:24 - Another cut-scene and another fly-by of the mountains surrounding Bright Falls. Alan and his wife - her name's Alice, by the way - park their car on a cliff overlooking Cauldron Lake, below which sits the tiny island that houses their cabin. Alan looks weary as he gets out of the car, like this is the last place on earth he'd rather be. "Look Alan, it's beautiful," says Alice. "It's something alright," sighs Alan.
00:25 - The sun is setting. Which is as good as time as any for Alan's voice-over to let me know that Alice is afraid of the dark. We should get her inside as quick as possible. She brought flashlights, too... you know, just in case. Before I worry about that though, I get Alan to run all the way back up the path to the car. I don't know why I did this, but I'm rewarded with another coffee thermos and a truly magnificent vista. Did I mention this game is gorgeous? From this vantage, I can see the little island is shaped like a bird's claw and the bridge leading to it resembles a leg - hence Bird's Leg Cabin. Alan also notes that the lake once was a volcano. Hmm.
00:26 - We return to Alice and wander across the bridge to explore the island. We trot up the stairs onto the balcony and unlock the cabin door via a second "hit the A button a few times" mechanism. (I now fully expect to be doing that under considerably more duress later in the game.) There's no light in the cabin, so Alice waits outside and asks Alan to find some way of getting the power on. We wander around inside for a bit, using the flashlight to guide us. On the desk is a pile of books written by Thomas Zane, an author of whom Alan claims to have never heard. Strange.
00:27 - Alan's voice-over kicks in to remind me to get the power on, hinting that there had to be a fusebox or generator somewhere on the island. I ignore him and instead explore the remainder of the house. Two doors next to the stairs refuse to open - one possibly leading to a bathroom, the other more likely to the basement. In the kitchen I find another coffee thermos and quickly stuff it into my copious coat pocket. Upstairs we enter the bedroom. A calendar is pinned to the wall. It reads: July 1970. Across the hall is what looks like a study. A momentary vision flashes across the screen and Alan mentions how it reminds him of the nightmare he had earlier. A framed photo depicting someone in an old diving suit standing in front of the cabin sits on a shelf.
00:28 - I head back outside. Alice points out that a power cable runs from the house to a shed across the way. We jog down just a few metres past the shed to the very edge of the small island. Looking up at the hills on the far side of the lake, Alan spots Cauldron Lodge, an old hotel that he says is now not even open to the public. With nothing left to explore, it's time to get the power running. Inside the shed is a generator. A quick pull of the cord - via a "hit the A button at the right time" mechanism - kicks it into life. I can hear Alice call out in thanks as she heads into the house.
00:29 - A brief cinematic plays, accompanied by another monologue from Alan. He's talking about whether he'll be able to start writing here. He's had writer's block and hasn't tasted success in over two years. Back on the island, it's now dark. Before heading into the house, I look up at Cauldron Lodge and notice that all its windows are lit up. Which is unusual for an abandoned building.
00:30 - Inside, Alice is calling from upstairs. "Alan! I've got a surprise for you." We find her sitting on the bed in her underwear. That's not the surprise though. She tells Alan to go look in the study. She's brought his typewriter with them and set it up on the desk. Alan's not impressed. She mentions there's a doctor here - a Dr Hartmann - who specialises in treating artists. Alan's even less impressed. The lights flicker off and a menacing figure is clearly visible in the momentary darkness. Alan storms off in anger and heads outside with the knowledge that Alice won't follow. He gets to the bridge leading off the island and stumbles. Behind him, every light in the house goes out and Alice screams.
And that concludes my first thirty minutes with Alan Wake. Look for part two later today.
Got any questions so far?