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Final thoughts: Alan Wake

“It’s not a lake. It’s an ocean.”

I’ll have to begin here with a disclaimer: one of the writers of this one is a friend of mine. However, I only remembered that fact after I had finished the game and was watching the end credits roll. Thing is, I remember him talking about the game way back when it was first published on the XBox, but since at that point it was console-only and I don’t do consoles, I wasn’t really paying all that much attention. Now, years later when Remedy finally released Alan Wake on the PC, I’m finally paying attention. It’s a very good game.

[Here I originally had a rant about the stupidity of Remedy originally claiming that the game was console-only for “artistic reasons” and was only suitable for sofa + TV in living rooms. Well, I have since been educated that Remedy didn’t in fact make any such claims, it was Another Party. My bad, I remembered something I read when the game was originally published, and got that bit wrong. Glad to hear that Remedy isn’t the stupid party in that one. Their reasons for originally going XBox-only were only due to contract reasons with Microsoft, to the best of my knowledge.]

Anyway, now that the game actually is out on the PC, how is it? Pretty damn good, but not without its faults. I’ll talk about the good first: it mostly involves the plot and the writing. The game is a linear story about a writer who goes to a Twin Peaks -style town on vacation with his wife, and weird bad shit starts to happen. There are multiple references to Stephen King in the game, and the town even has a Log Lady analogue. Now, since I love Stephen King (when he’s good) and Twin Peaks, this made the game a fairly easy sell for me. The writing is very good here, and I played many a long night just to see what twists we get next. Sure, it’s very linear, but here that doesn’t bother (me) much – the story is king, here. In more ways than one. Most of the action happens at night, and the atmosphere is mostly very nice; you spend a lot of time in the dark with your flashlight, with fog twirling all around. The combat mechanic is interesting: the bad guys hate light, so you use your flashlight to slow them down or drive them back, and then you shoot them until they drop. It’s a nice enough mechanic, but…

… here we come to the “not so good” section. The action scenes get very repetitive as the game progresses. There are some set pieces with nicely creative solutions needed, but all too often it’s just “walk along forest path at night, wait for next predictable bunch of bad guys to appear”. Also, perhaps it’s just because I suck, but I found the combat very difficult at times, even on “normal” difficulty level. There were some scenes where I had to retry the damn battle time and time again until I got lucky. Most of these involved hordes of bad guys, and me being low on critical things like flares, so the moment they closed in I was toast.

Also, the PC port is a fairly quick port from the XBox base version, and it shows in performance at times. Playing at 1920x1200, I had to tone lots of details down before the thing became playable, and this was with a fastish video card (560 GTX). It’s plain to see that Remedy didn’t spend all that much time with performance tweaks on higher resolutions (the comparatively crappy resolution of an XBox is quite different from a modern-day gaming PC).

Getting back to the good stuff, the story is told in a style that mimics a TV series. There are “happened in the previous episode” preludes, and the game is split into a number of episodes (with end soundtracks, one of which is the brilliant song “Haunted” by Poe). It works very nicely, and helps the storytelling by embedding the game into a familiar storytelling format. The PC version also comes with two additional episodes (which I also liked a lot), where the cliffhanger end of the base game is expanded on and where things get really weird.

Another good point was the environments. Even though the game progress was totally linear, most of the environments felt lived-in and more open than then actually were.

In sum, it’s a game with an addictively good Stephen King / Twin Peaks -style story, which is punctuated by lots of annoyingly repetitive combat. I usually find myself putting up with mediocre plots to get to the interesting action in games, but here the usual situation is reversed. I’ll definitely be picking up “Alan Wake 2” when/if it comes out (and will be pissed off if it’s again some “console only” crap), and I’ll probably pick up the sort-of-but-not-quite sequel “Alan Wake’s American Nightmare” at some point.

I could bitch about some small annoyances… the game is extremely linear, some of the character animations are non-optimal, the weird thermos flasks all over the place served no useful purpose, and some plot twists are a bit redundant… but I don’t feel like it. On the whole, they didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the game. It’s rare enough for me to actually play a game from start to end nowadays, and here I did.

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