Friday, April 30, 2010

Seriously, Alan. Wake UP!

 By Kirk Hamilton

Most of the time when I get home, the only mail waiting for me is a bill or two, a Chinese delivery menu rubber-banded to the door and maybe a Pottery Barn catalog addressed to a former roommate. But today I got something a little different - a FedEx package containing a shiny new copy of Alan Wake.

So here I am, a very public disliker of 95% of video game previews.... and yet I actually have this game two weeks before launch and I kind of wanna do an preview of it for you guys. So, I'm going to.

Until the press embargo lifts, I can only talk about the first "episode" of the game, which translates to about the first hour and fifteen minutes. There are plenty of perfectly sufficient breakdowns of what happens in that chapter out there already - I thought that instead of just recounting my playthrough, I'd offer some specific impressions. A subtle distinction, maybe, but it's enough for me.

So, I'll be very vague with details, especially plot-related ones and will mainly just share some impressions of how the game looks and plays. But if you're skipping previews for fear of spoilors (which I totally understand), I'll give you the short version: It's pretty damn good times.

Gameplay-wise, Alan Wake is definitely survival horror, with combat hewing a bit closer to Dead Space than to Silent Hill or Resident Evil. When it's go-time, enemies materialize from all angles and rush Alan, swinging heavy tools and yelling all manner of rude, terrifying gobbledygook. For a writer, Alan handles himself pretty well, and has a dodge move that proved to be effing invaluable once I got the hang of it.

Similar to lopping limbs aboard the U.S.G. Ishimura, taking down the "Taken" (as the baddies in Alan Wake are dubbed) requires a very specific approach. Since the game is all about light and dark (it would seem they were having a sale this month at the "Thematic Lynchpin" store), Alan must use his flashlight to burn away the darkness coating each foe before they're vulnerable to other attacks. It's a cool twist and quickly makes fighting tense as hell - I was constantly balancing batteries with bullets, dodging and running to keep enemies at bay long enough to reload either Alan's light or his gun.

And for what it's worth, I can add my report on the graphics of the opening chapter, as well - they are really, really good, particularly the environments. The character models are run-of-the-mill, certainly not in the league of Uncharted 2, but the voice acting is strong and the cutscenes aren't bad. The maps feel surprisingly wide and roomy, which I can only think is due to the fact that Alan Wake was initially conceived as a sandbox game before Remedy changed course and streamlined things. Every map of the first chapter is linear, but the areas off the beaten path feature plenty of nooks, crannies, and even entire buildings that can be explored for collectables.

The game also takes advantage of some of the innate qualities of the Xbox 360's graphics capabilities and as a result has a refreshingly distinctive look to it, particularly at night. I've always thought 360 games have a sort of warm, impressionistic glow to them, particularly when compared to the razor-sharpness of the PS3. What Alan Wake appears to do quite well is play up the gauzy contrasts between extreme brightness and dark. Moving quickly from one to the other is quite disorienting, which seems to be the idea.

In addition to Uncharted 2, another game that surely demands comparison is Atari's stinker reboot of Alone In The Dark from a couple years ago.  I only played enough of that game to ascertain that I truly did not want to be playing it, but it seems pretty clear in the early goings that Alan Wake is in many ways the game that Alone in the Dark wanted to be.

It's also nice that the game has a Teen rating and doesn't try to be hardcore and gory just for the sake of it - the whole thing has a PG-13 vibe that I actually really like. It's more "startling" than ever truly scary, kinda more "Giant Killer Ginuea Pigs" than "Shrieking 9/11 Stand-In." But combat is intense, stressful, and at there are some really great gotcha moments even in daylight. As Sam Rami's Drag Me To Hell so ably demonstrated last year, you don't gotta be R-rated to take people on a wild, freaky ride.

There isn't very much of the story revealed in the first chapter, though I have a feeling that I saw a lot more than I know I saw, if that makes sense. The story looks to be at the very least interestingly put-together. As he progresses through the episode, Alan picks up pages of what appears to be a mysterious manuscript that he himself has written, and each page hints about some impending event in a way that is both clever and occasionally nerve-wracking.

The last point I'll mention is the TV-like "episode" structure. Back when Alone in the Dark tried it, I remember being really turned off by the idea. I like when games keep me going, when they flow from one task to the next to the next... would it really work to have each chapter end on a cliffhanger like a TV episode does?

Then Mass Effect 2 came out, and I thought that game executed the same sort of approach really well. Alan Wake takes it one step further, actually ending the first episode like it's an episode of TV... the only thing missing is the "To be continued..." chyron at the bottom-center. And in the that first episode at least, the approach really and truly works.

I've grown accustomed to watching TV shows on DVD over the past few years, as I'm sure have a lot of folks. It's to the point that I actually prefer watching TV shows to watching movies. I love the rhythm; it's an entirely different experience from watching a film.

A TV show gives you three acts in forty-two minutes, and watching a bunch of episodes in a row provides a really great flow of peaks, valleys, resolutions, cliffhangers, cliffhanger resolutions, mid-season surprises, and eventually a big fat season finale. Watching TV, particularly on DVD, is both rewarding over the short-term (one episode) and the long-term (a 12-episode arc). It's a rhythm that film can't touch, but that a video game could actually approximate. It would appear that the designers at Remedy have come to the same conclusion, and I'll be very interested to see if they can make it work for the entirety of the game. 

 I will spare you the big preview ending, since that stuff is kinda tacky and I don't even know yet if the game is worth your money. But I will say that initial impressions are very positive.

I'll have some more on the game up next week when the embargo lifts. In the meantime, Bright Falls beckons...