Thursday, September 1, 2011

SC On Alan Wake (360)

And that's when the chuds came after me...

You ever have one of those games that you intentionally avoid for a long time so you aren't influenced by what the media and their parrot-like followers say about it when you finally play it?  Welcome to Alan Wake!

The game centers on famous writer Alan Wake, who is suffering from a two-year long case of writer's block.  His wife Alice takes him on vacation to Bright Falls, Maine to try and get him past it only for a strange dark presence to kidnap her when he steps out of the cabin they stay in.  Alan's first attempts to rescue her lead to confusion about where he is and what's going on as the locals don't know what he's talking about.  He also discovers several pages lying around of a manuscript he doesn't remember writing which details events that have happened or will happen as the game progresses, as well as the thoughts and motives of the people around him, indicating that his story is coming to life as he tries to find a way to get himself and his wife out of it.

So to recap, the game is about a writer (red flag) who travels to a small town in Maine (red flag!) and is met with a long-dormant supernatural force (RED FLAG!) that has been ingrained into the town to the point where the locals largely don't realize it's there or write it off as an old wives' tale (RED FLAG!!!) which kidnaps his wife. (RED FUCKING FLAG!!!)

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Stephen King: The Video Game!

The only things missing are a cemetery for pets and Tim Curry.

 The bulk of the game is spent running around Bright Falls, usually through the woods, in the dark.  Thankfully there are enough stops either in town or at construction sites/farms/gas stations/other places to break up the potential monotony.  During this time various townspeople warped and possessed by the darkness called Taken attack Alan in ways similar to, but more threatening than the villagers from Resident Evil 4, because even though they have similar weapons like axes, sickles, sledgehammers and chainsaws:

1. Taken exercise group tactics more effectively.  Attacking a couple Taken in front of Alan only to get blindsided by another one is fairly common.
2. Taken are much, much faster.  If Alan tries to run away, not only will he get tired before getting away from them, they can chase him down at a full sprint anyway.  Some of the smaller ones can even turn into Predator-like blurs and dart around the screen almost at random.

These enemies are complimented by several poltergeist items, which hover and fling themselves at Alan and range in size from trash cans to bulldozers, to several reoccurring murders of crows (Hitchcock much?).  When all of this is combined with the swirling darkness that occasionally envelopes the town at night, making it difficult to do anything but hear approaching Taken, it can be a little unnerving at times to play.

There is however one thing far more frightening than the enemies Alan faces in the game:

His wife's smile.

Why didn't Alan write a story about his wife's creepy smile?

I have to think that this was some kind of accident, or different people directed the art for every scene she was in, because Alice smiles way too goddamn much.  In fact, it was only in searching for the image above that I was able to remember a time I didn't see her smile.

But there's another level of creepy on top of that thanks to the facial animations.  Simply put, they are sporadically Muppet-like and will go out of sync at random.  That and when people smile while talking in this game, 95% of the time their upper lip doesn't move.  This becomes unintentionally creepy to watch, and unintentionally funny when Alan is screaming something as I hear him yell "ALIIIIIICE" but it looks like he's saying "HAW HAAAAAW!"

This is the picture I got when searching "Alan Wake HAW HAW."  I won't question it.

The idea is to run from light source to light source (usually generator-powered lamps) during the night, fighting through areas blanketed in darkness to recover Alan's manuscript and find a way to end the story so that he and his wife escape.  Despite the usually wooded environment, I almost never got lost because of the "radar" in the upper left.  Taken and other enemies are defeated by being doused in light to penetrate the shadows around them, then taking them out with one of a limited amount of guns: a revolver, shotgun, hunting rifle or flare gun, as well as flares and flash bangs.

Hey, I'm not complaining about the weapon variety.  Rocket launchers are pulse rifles wouldn't exactly fit.

Besides, the light ends up being more important most of the time.  Alan gets several different flashlights from standard store-bought ones to heavy-duty lanterns, all of which can have their light focused on Taken to not only drain their shadows faster but also stun and/or slow them down, allowing him to bolt for the next checkpoint/light source and save ammo.  This drains the battery pretty fast, but there are batteries (at least on Normal) laying everywhere from the cafe at the beginning of the game to the blatant product placement down the road.  As a result there's not much of a challenge unless you go to the highest difficulty.

Verizon: We never stop working for you, even when your town is being consumed by evil.

 Combat is generally fast-paced and requires the player to be able to dodge attacks and constantly be aware of the surrounding area, as Taken will climb down from rooftops or appear from the shadows. This, however, is usually preceded by an orchestra sting and a slow-motion shot of the enemy approaching Alan, usually giving just enough time to spin around, hit it with the light and put it down.

Good thing they do this, too, otherwise I'd get really tired of being ninja'd every two minutes.

Control-wise there isn't much to complain about, even in the driving sequences almost entirely on dirt roads.  Like most of the Silent Hill games the idea was to have an average person thrust into this largely-dark world and largely that feel is there.  Alan is not very athletic as he can't sprint very long and his dodging, while effective, is also clumsy-looking.  There's no crosshair or laser sight for aiming (unless you use the flashlight with it.  Holy crap, a game that finally does that!) so his shots aren't always on-target.

Nor does it seem to matter, as I didn't notice headshots or limb shots doing any more/less/specific damage.  Whatever, I don't expect beings composed of darkness  to function by the same logic as a typical FPS.

And no, aiming down the sights wouldn't help this game.

You know who you are.

For a game about a writer getting lost in one of his stories, though, the dialogue is unusually poorly written at times, to the point where I thought it might fit better in the original Resident Evil.  See, one of the oldest (and most frequently broken rules) in writing is the old "Show, Don't Tell" rule.  Breaking this rule in a video game cutscene basically means you're explaining things that we just saw happen.  It's ham-fisted, unnecessary, and to a degree insulting to the player.

Alan does this all the goddamn time.  And God help you if there's a movie reference in a cutscene, because it tends to go like this:
(actual example from the game)
*Taken with an axe attacks a door Alan just went through.  Camera angle is almost exactly like the one scene in The Shining*
Me: Oh hey, that's just like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
Alan: blah blah blah Jack Nicholson in The Shining blah blah escape.

In fact, let's pretend for a moment that every obvious allusion to something is one punch to the face.

Alan's name can be abbreviated A. Wake.  Best attempt at subtlety since Other M. *punch*
This game themed around light -vs- darkness takes place in a town called Bright Falls. *punch*
Alan's wife, who is taken by the darkness which she has a crippling fear of, is named Alice.  Wonderland aside, they're both named A. Wake! *punch*
One of the antagonists is an FBI agent named Robert Nightingale.  Sorry, let me retype that:  Robert Nightingale. *punch*
Several times Alan needs to turn on generators or restore power to places to get the lights on.  Did I mention one of the other protagonists is the town's sheriff, Sarah Breaker? *punch*

For the sake of brevity I'll stop there, but it can become grating rather quickly.  Or maybe it's because I'm an English major?


Aside from those mentioned earlier, the game also references things like H.P. Lovecraft (directly by name), The Twilight Zone (a TV show and easter egg game called Night Springs), Twin Peaks (see: everything), and perhaps unintentionally, other survival-horror games such as Deadly Premonition (similar characters, some enemies reminiscent of the Raincoat Killer), Silent Hill (can't say without spoiling parts of the game), and Resident Evil.  I mean, what else am I supposed to think when it turns out one of the supporting characters, Alan's agent, is a protective guy in a red jacket who helps Alan in various ways named Barry?

WHAT?!  What is this?

In terms of replay value, the game tries to add elements that can only be found either through obsessive exploration or multiple playthroughs.  There are collectibles like coffee thermoses scattered all over town, as well as radio broadcasts to listen to, the aforementioned TV show to watch, boxes of flares and other supplies to find, and beer can pyramids to knock over (seriously).

And yes you whores, there are achievements tied to all of these.

There are also some manuscript pages that can only be found by playing on Nightmare mode, so a second play is necessary to see everything in the game.  In addition there are a couple DLC chapters, but my problem with them is that, just like the game's ending (which I won't spoil), it seems blatantly set up as sequel bait.  Say what you want about Stephen King shelling out books at the rate he does/did, at least he knows when a story should end!

 I'm not good with this thing called subtlety.

In fairness though, the developers have said in interviews that the game's story was "bigger than one game" and there would be a follow-up to Alan Wake, beyond the aforementioned DLC.  Given the open-ended conclusion, this surprises me very little.

Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't like this game.  It's by no means bad, it's just lacking in some areas that, given the subject matter and the main character, seem like they should be better than they are.  If they ever do create a follow-up that isn't only on X-Box Live Arcade (I don't have X-Box Live) I'll most likely check it out.