Microsoft – Alan Wake review

survival horror where an author seems to be trapped in his own story
Photo of Microsoft – Alan Wake

Hype is a terrible thing. Well, perhaps terrible is a bit strong, but while hype might do its job in getting your creation noticed, it can also work against you. We recently saw the film Paranormal Activity, for example. We’d been told by friends that it was the most frightening movie ever made, the reviews spoke about how supremely scary it was, one film critic even said he couldn’t sleep properly for a few days afterwards. Hence we were expecting something truly special in terms of a horror flick.

And yes, it was pretty unsettling and very well done, but not as hair-raising as we were expecting thanks to the hype. It’s still a great film, although Blair Witch was actually a scarier amateur-cam horror in our opinion. And neither caused us to lose any sleep. Expectations meant that we were just a touch disappointed with Paranormal Activity simply because the hype bar had been set so high.

So what’s all this preamble about? Alan Wake is probably the scariest computer game we’ve ever played. There. We said it. We’ve given the hype bar a quick shove upwards. As a caveat, we’re not going to claim that playing Alan Wake late in the evening will cause sleepless nights, hair loss, or result in you being carted off to the nearest loony bin where you’ll spend the rest of your days scratching words of warning about the “darkness” into the walls until your fingernails split into bloody shards. It is, however, a truly chilling game that’s likely to make you jump fairly regularly, and probably shouldn’t be played alone late at night unless you have a reasonably strong mental constitution.

All the horror tricks are here in this third person shooter survival game. A period of quiet, before the sudden noise of a bird flapping off, or a raccoon knocking a bin over. A shadowy figure dashing past a window outside, caught out of the corner of your eye. Yes, these are clichés, but very effectively paced and delivered ones (a cracking implementation of Dolby 5.1 surround helps here, too). Wandering through the forest, the leaves of the trees blowing in the wind start to look like moving shapes, like the “taken”, the figures shrouded in a perceptible swirl of darkness, possessed ex-townsfolk who charge at you making guttural noises and slashing fast with blades and axes.

Alan Wake has a definite cinematic sense of style. When the clouds of misty black darkness roll into the woods, like James Herbert’s fog, you’re on edge immediately. The taken, a number of them, will soon be on their way, dashing out of the gloomy mist. Sometimes the camera will cut away from your character to show them emerge, which has you spinning around, fumbling to get your flashlight on them quickly, because they move fast. It’s genuinely tense combat, more so because of the manner in which you must dispatch the taken.

The player’s friend is the light, which burns the darkness out of the taken. By shining an amplified torch beam on them for a prolonged period, the dark cloud is forced from their bodies. In their dark form, they are invulnerable to bullets, but when cleansed of the cloud the taken can be killed with a revolver, rifle or whatever else is to hand. It isn’t easy to handle a group of attackers, as you can imagine, shining the light on them one by one, dodging around like crazy, before you can deliver the killing shots. Ammo is scarce too, and even on the default difficulty setting, you really feel the pressure when you’re facing a crowd of darkness-infested maniacs. It was enough to get us lightly sweating, at times.

The game’s story helps elevate the eerie atmosphere further, delivered as it is via the scattered pages of a book your character keeps coming across. You actually play the eponymous Alan Wake, a writer who takes a holiday with his wife, though it’s a vacation that quickly goes wrong as the first night falls. With his spouse dragged off by some dark force, Alan loses consciousness, waking up in a crashed car.

He then becomes embroiled in a race against time to find his other half, and he also discovers that a week has gone missing from his life, of which he has no memory. Then Alan starts to find the pages of the book, apparently written by him, which indicate what’s going to happen in the future: and these predictions come true. Have his written words somehow shaped reality, or is he in a dream? Is his name – “A.Wake” – ironic?

The plot is genuinely intriguing, and built along the enigmatic lines of Lost, a theme reinforced by the division of the game into TV series style episodes, complete with “Previously on Alan Wake…” summaries at the start of each. A very effective touch. The way in which the storyline is revealed, and fragments of the future are gleaned, adds to the overall horror ambience substantially. When you’re lost in the woods, and you discover a page of the book which says, “I had found my way out of the forest – then I heard the sound of a chainsaw starting…” The anticipation of that future encounter is a suitably foreboding taster.

But – and there is a but – amongst all this sweat-soaked horror, tense combat and excellent cinematic scripting, there is a hand-holding linearity about the game. There’s generally only one way to go at any point, aside from the odd secret ammo stash a little way off the main trail. And even in the more open areas, such as blundering through the forest, the correct route is always pointed to by the mini-map radar, something that the folks in Blair Witch would have found pretty darn useful.

While the combat mechanics of having to use both torch and gun in tandem work very effectively, the other controls aren’t quite so impressive. Jumping is awkward – Alan bounds about with all the grace of a giraffe with rickets – but luckily there aren’t that many places where accurate leaping is crucial. Similarly, the driving sections of the game are rather clumsily implemented, with unconvincing vehicle physics.

When you’re a good eight to ten hours into the Alan Wake experience, it must be said that being rushed by the taken once again doesn’t have quite the same impact as it did earlier in the game. That said, they always remain disturbingly dark figures, and the tougher fights, when you’re surrounded in a room, for example, definitely keep things interesting. Plus the game introduces some new enemies as it progresses, which number psychotic flocks of birds and poltergeists (spot the horror film influences).

Most of all, though, that plot keeps you hooked as it unfurls, because you really want to find the next page of the manuscript, and the next hint as to what twist is coming down the line. Alan Wake can spin quite a yarn, we’ll give him that, though stuck in the midst of it all, we bet he wished he’d chosen a different writing genre, like children’s stories about fluffy kittens and candy houses.

Company: Microsoft

It's true that Alan Wake is a little derivative when you step back and consider it, with inspiration taken from a number of horror films, from The Fog to The Birds. But all this is pulled together so well, and it's so slickly presented, that any thought of clichés was quickly banished to the back of our mind. Equally, some of the game mechanics could have benefited from some polishing. But despite it falling short of perfection, Alan Wake is without doubt a superb survival horror title which rewarded us with some of the most intensely chilling gaming moments we've ever experienced.