I spent some time with the finished version of Remedy's "psychological thriller" Alan Wake over the weekend. Here's (the second part of) what happened.
This is the second part of my first hour of Alan Wake. You can find the first part here. 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.
00:31 - As Alice yells Alan's name, I guide him back across the bridge towards the cabin. In my haste, I fail to notice until it's too late a flock of black birds (bats? smoke monsters?) swoop down upon Alan, knocking him about and severely depleting his health meter. I shine his torch on them as they circle back around for another bombing run. They hit him again and I realise any confrontation is probably futile. We head straight for the house.
00:32 - Alan bursts through the door and a cut-scene kicks in. It's dark inside, but the rear door is wide open. Alice screams once more. Alan runs out onto the back porch where the balcony railing has collapsed. He peers over and down the sheer drop to the water below. Is that a body in the water? Could it be Alice? He dives in without pausing to think. It fades to black.
00:33 - A female voice is coaxing Alan to wake up. Is it Alice again? I'm not sure. Maybe. He wakes up. It's dark. Night time, by the looks of it. And he's not underwater. He's in a car again. Is that blood running down the side of his face? He touches his forehead gingerly. Yeah, that's blood alright. Still in the cut-scene, Alan's heaves himself out of the car. He's parked it - somehow - on the edge of a cliff, a worse fate avoided only by the impact of the crash barrier on the side of the road. "I couldn't remember how I'd got there. All I knew is that something terrible had happened to Alice." I have no idea what is going on at this point.
00:34 - Alan checks his phone, but it's not working. He says we'll have to find help on foot. I spy a book lying in the open boot of the car: The Creator's Dilemma by Emil Hartmann. The Wake's suitcases are scattered on the ground. Didn't they unload them earlier at the cabin?
00:35 - We follow a path down the side of the cliff. In the distance we spot a gas station - someone's there, the lights are all on - but it's on the other side of the valley and there's no obvious route across. We press on along the path hoping it will eventually snake around to the other side of the valley. Above us, the crashed car suddenly lurches forward and topples down the cliff into the ravine below. I'd say we're not using that again. To the gas station we go.
00:36 - Heading into the woods, it dawns on me that Alan no longer has his flashlight. Did he drop it in the lake? Or leave it in the car? Or...? He doesn't have a gun either. Awesome. Ahead on the path is a bright light. Alan calls out "Hello?" Why would you say that? As we near the light, we see some loose sheets of paper float to the ground, as if caught by some temporary breeze. Alan picks them up. They're pages of a manuscript entitled "Departure" - that was the name of the next book Wake had planned to write, but had yet to even start. Wake's name was even printed on the manuscript, but his voice-over informs me he'd never even seen these words. The excerpt tells the tale of the author being attacked by a woodsman in the middle of the night.
00:37 - Unlike the earlier paths I'd followed, this one lets you wander off perhaps ten or twenty metres into the woods to the side of the track. Still the path is the only way to go and we continue to let it funnel us forward. Another light up ahead. A human silhouette appears and then vanishes. It looks suspiciously like the hitchhiker from Alan's dream. A hitchhiker with an axe. A woodsman? "Is anybody there?" Alan calls out. Shut up, Alan!
00:38 - We round a corner and pause at an outcropping overlooking the river that runs through the valley. The gas station lights are still visible way off to the right, but before us is a lumber mill situated above a waterfall. There's light at the window of the main building. Alan reckons there could be a phone in there. I reckon there might be a woodsman with an axe in there.
00:39 - Making our way down the path leading to the lumber mill, I'm struck once again at just how incredible the world looks. The way the rolling fog catches the moonlight, the deep blacks of the trees in shadow, the variety and detail in the vegetation: everything stands testament to the skills of Remedy's artists and coders. At the mill's perimeter, I spy a tree that has fallen onto the fence and guide Alan up and over and inside.
00:40 - Between the stacks of logs there's a human figure, apparently tending to some heavy lifting machinery. Alan starts to call out again, but stops when the figure grabs a nearby axe and lurches around, mumbling incoherently. Carl Stucky?
00:41 - I lose sight of the figure as it dashes off deeper into the lumber yard. We try to follow, coming across another manuscript page and then almost being flattened as a pile of logs come crashing down. I catch sight of Stucky leaping from one pile of logs to another and make a run for it to the lit building. As Alan slams the door, Stucky's axe isn't far behind. On a table there's a handgun and a flashlight, replete with product placed Energizer batteries. There's also a phone. We get through to the Bright Falls sheriff's office only for Stucky to bring the telephone pole outside crashing to the ground. He's still muttering crazy man things. It's not looking good.
00:42 - I hear an engine start. It's a bulldozer. I can't tell if Stucky is in the driver's seat. We don't stick around to find out either as it slams into the side of the building, ripping it from its foundations. We turn tail and leap out the door as the building and bulldozer tumble straight off the cliff into the rapids below. I hope Stucky was with them.
00:43 - Through a gate we reach the other side of the yard and find ourselves immediately set upon by two workmen obviously infected by the darkness. I use the flashlight and revolver combo on both. Nearby is a battery-powered spotlight. I switch it on and it highlights an otherwise invisible arrow scrawled on the side of a pallet. Heeding its direction, I notice Alan's flashlight also reveals a second and then a third arrow, pointing the way to the rear of a shed. There I find another symbol - a flaming torch in a circle - painted on a rock and, next to it, a case containing a flare gun. Alan wonders, as I do, who might have left these messages?
00:44 - We head out of the lumber yard and back into the woods, finally it seems on the trail on the other side of the valley that will lead to the gas station. While the path veers down to the right, a light catches my eye off to the left, between the trees. Investigating, we discover a small shack and another page from the manuscript pinned to the wall. It mentions a girl called Rose and her meeting with Alan Wake. Was Rose the girl in the diner? I think so.
00:45 - Back on the path, Wake is hit by a second brief vision - similar to the one he had upon first entering the study in the cabin - although this time the presence of the woman in the black veil from the diner is much clearer. As he shakes it off, we hear a ghostly howl coming from some indeterminant direction. Well, that's not entirely true. It's clearly coming from up ahead, as I find out shortly after guiding Wake across the river. It's Stucky... and he's waiting for us.
00:47 - Oh great. The lumber yard continues on the other side of the river. Only here it's larger and more open and with higher towers of logs just waiting to crush a poor writer. I dispatch two more shadow workmen and set about finding a way out of here. Luckily Wake's torch highlights a scrawled arrow that leads us up a ladder and to an old shed overlooking the yard. On the wall someone has scribbled "The taken are filled with darkness" and inside there's another torch symbol next to a supply crate. We pocket the batteries and head back down.
00:48 - The way out seems to be cut off by a collapsed staircase. In the centre of the yard is a crane that is still carrying a load of logs. If I could power the crane, it looks like I could move its load near one of the log piles and use it as a bridge to cross to the top of the broken stairs. Now where's the power generator? Ah, what's the green light over by those bulldozers? We head over and find ourselves ambushed by two more shadow workmen. With my attention on them, I don't spot the third shadow sneaking up behind Wake until he's already attacked me. I spin around, fumbling some new batteries into the flashlight and just manage to finish him off.
00:50 - The generator duly cranked, we duck into a nearby shed to collect another manuscript page and - oh! - a lovely shotgun, before heading back to the crane and swinging the load across to align with the other piles. I guide Wake up another ladder and it's jump a couple of easy jumps and we're at the top of the stairs ready to exit the yard. On the track out of the yard there's a shed underneath a bright streetlight. We venture in and find some shotgun shells and a radio, which I flick on. It's tuned to a local talkback station and the host is enthusing over what a beautiful night it is in Bright Falls. Could have fooled me!
00:51 - We continue up the hill and over the crest. Looking down, the path seems to diverge, opening out into a much wider area than I've seen so far, and continuing down towards the neon glow of the gas station sign. My sigh of relief at the sight of the latter is shortlived. I can hear Stucky again, chattering away to himself like a lunatic, and the fog begins to gather pace as it coils between the trees. We take a fork to the right and come across a battery-powered spotlight. Mid-crank, the camera zooms back to show a figure closing in, but I get it running just in time and the new light source disintegrates the looming shadow.
00:52 - Moving on from this safe haven, the path seems to get lost in the undergrowth and we're stumbly blinding towards a light up ahead. Four shadows appear and I'm quickly switching to the flare gun and firing a shot into the crowd. It takes out three in one hit, while the fourth hurls some kind of blade. As I'm training the torch on it, the camera leaps back again, this time showing me two more shadows approaching from the rear. I quickly gun down the one ahead and then sprint forward to gain some distance, neatly dodging another projectile attack. I turn Wake around and first torch then shoot his pursuers. We scramble over the next rise and huddle beneath another spotlight.
00:54 - Up ahead is a road leading down the hill, hopefully towards the gas station. We jog past a couple of bulldozers and spot a building near a gate at the foot of the hill. Suddenly one of the bulldozers starts moving and three, maybe four, shadows emerge from the trees. Fight or flight? I grip the LB button and Wake sprints down the hill to the building and crashes through the door, unharmed. Peering out the window, there appears to be no sign of the bulldozer nor the shadows. I restock on ammo and flick a switch to open the gate outside.
00:56 - Oh man. The road leads into another section of the lumber yard. Stucky's voice is tormenting me once more with gibberish. The music is picking up, along with the whistling of the wind through the trees, and the fog is now a pulsing miasma. As I near the centre of this particular compound, they attack. Four shadows at first, then Stucky himself - much faster and clearly more dangerous - and then another pair of shadows. I get a lucky shot with the flare gun and somehow vanquish the first four, then switch to the revolver and take out the other two while ducking behind crates and log piles to avoid their attacks. Finally I get Stucky, though his speed makes it tough to focus the flashlight beam for any length of time, and finish him off with a few blasts from the shotgun. Beyond the final section of the lumber yard, just fifty metres or so up a trail, is the gas station. We've made it.
00:58 - Parked out front is a truck carrying a parade float, a giant deer mounted on top. Alan's voice-over recalls seeing the float as he and Alice arrived in town. (He's right. I even started a new game to check.) A sign advertising the 68th Annual DeerFest says there's only seven days to go 'til the parade. Alan recalls the parade having been two weeks away when they got to Bright Falls. Where did those seven missing days go? Inside the gas station, there's no one there and the place looks a mess. A TV set flickers to life and shows Wake in the study at the cabin forcing himself to start writing and talking to himself about "trying to save her." Watching the screen, Wake wonders aloud if he's going crazy. Behind the desk is a phone. We call the police.
00:59 - In a cut-scene, a deputy turns up. Alan tries to tell her about being in a car crash and about staying in a cabin at the lake. The sceptical deputy informs him there hasn't been any island in the lake since the volcano erupted in the '70s. But she'll humour him and drive by the lake on the way back to town. As she helps Wake into the car, she asks if he's seen Stucky, the guy that owns this place.
00:60 - And that's a wrap.
I like what Remedy have done here, even if it's not quite what I was expecting. Early talk about Alan Wake suggested it would - not just an open world game - but more of an adventure than an action game. I'm not sure why, given Remedy's Max Payne pedigree, but I went in thinking it would be slower paced than it is, that there'd be more exploration, more character interaction. I was wrong.
Alan Wake is an action game. It gives you the kind of nimble control over your character you'd expect in a third-person action game. The weapons you use - including the flashlight - are based around aiming and shooting. You have to dodge. It's fast-paced and a far cry from the stodgy tank controls and awkward combat we've grown accustomed to in many survival horror games.
Yet Alan Wake is also a survival horror game. It's in the way it wants to tell its story. It wants to disorientate you, to throw you curveballs and keep you second guessing. It jumps between dreams and time periods and doesn't offer obvious explanations - after all, where would the fun be in that? It even, in its manuscripts, lets you know what's coming (a woodsman with axe) and then leaves you to freak yourself out in the time leading up to the inevitable event.
Despite the slick controls, Alan Wake is a survival horror game in its combat too. Survival horror is about resource management just as much as it's about giving you a good fright. The flashlight mechanic delivers a resource management system that provides an interesting choice, but doesn't run the risk of leaving you unable to fend off an attack. Batteries power the torch, but only deplete when you hold LT to focus the beam, and it recharges when in normal use.
Each encounter plays out under a heightened degree of tension as you prioritise targets, choosing when to focus the flashlight and when to stick with the regular beam. The guns enhance it, too, as you fumble to reload - tapping the X button lets you reload faster - and have to choose between finishing off one enemy or hitting the next with your flashlight.
After my first hour, I'm finding it hard to find fault in what I've played thus far. Alan's voice-over occasionally grated and stated the obvious, but I can forgive that - it's a stylistic choice and it draws out more of his character than if he'd been more reticent. And yeah, the facial animation is off.
But the story has sucked me right in. I want to know what the hell has happened. And I feel confident that Remedy hasve the story telling ability to take me somewhere interesting and satisfying. I'll be playing well beyond the first hour. In fact, I think I'll start Episode Two right now...