Friday, February 19, 2010
How good is ´Alan Wake´?
How good is ´Alan Wake´? The game by Finnish studio Remedy (´Max Payne´) has been tipped as one of the big hopefuls for the Xbox360. I just attended a presentation of the exclusive title in Hamburg and had a good hour hands-on time – enough to give you some first impressions.
Alan and I go way back
´Alan Wake´ has been in development for at least five years. I remember a presentation at Microsoft’s showcase event X06, where the basics all seemed in place and at least one level was playable (though journalists did not get any hands-on time). It is an open secret that the game was reworked significantly a number of times. The developers noted that the game was finished last summer and they have allocated almost a year for quality assurance and fine tuning. Obviously, after pouring this many resources into it, Remedy and Microsoft have a lot riding on this ticket. To be fair, the developer is only about fifty people strong, which is rather small for a project of this magnitude. They did use sub-contractors for a number of tasks, though.
So, was it worth it? Can ´Alan Wake´ measure up to upcoming exclusives on the competing consoles like ´Heavy Rain´ on PS3 or ´Metroid: Other M´ on Wii? Luckily, at the event, Microsoft lifted the original embargo agreement, which all attendees had to sign beforehand, which would have prevented me from writing in detail about the game until mid-March.
Photorealism meets ethereal effects
The brief presentation by the developers was impressive and the visuals lived up to the hype. While the character models do not measure up to those in ´Heavy Rain´ and the lip-syncing is off far too often, the environments appear more detailed and meticulously crafted. This type of photorealistic depiction is offset by many ethereal effects like mist or fog. The contrast between light and dark plays a central role in the gameplay mechanics and glow and burn effects give the game a unique visual touch. Also, the zombie-like attackers, which Alan encounters in the night, called ´The Taken´, are surrounded by a smouldering aura and they often become semi-transparent or vanish completely. When attacking them, Alan needs to blind them with a light source and shoot them with either a gun or, more effectively, a flare. When dead, ´The Taken´ dissolve in a burst of glowing light. Flares are fired in slow motion with the camera following the projectile.
A leaf or two out of Stephen King novels
The central element of ´Alan Wake´ is the story. The main protagonist is a famous writer who has come to the little town of Bright Falls for inspiration. As his wife disappears, Alan finds himself entangled in a thriller he has written but has no memory of writing. He finds pages of a script by him which anticipate what will happen next, which makes for an eerie and uncomforting sense of foreboding.
Obviously, Remedy took a leaf or two out of Stephen King novels like ´Misery´, television series like ´Twin Peaks´ or movies like ´The Shining´ (the latter is even mentioned by Alan Wake when an axe-wielding foe is about to break down the door separating them).
Inspired from seminal horror films and television series
Rather than putting Alan up against ´The Taken´ only, the game presents them only as one humanoid manifestation of what is referred to as ´The Dark Presence´. In other manifestations, oil barrels start to roll around and hover or cars are tossed up into the air and rammed into the ground. This way, the game continuously reminds you that you are up against something much larger and much more powerful than the regular foes you are facing – a very effective and fairly unique aspect. Games like ´Resident Evil´ usually put you up against larger enemies in boss battles only. ´Alan Wake´ often confronts you with those forces without you being able to fight back. With these supernatural phenomena suggesting an evil omnipresence, you may be reminded of movies like ´Poltergeist´.
The game also draws on many other elements from seminal horror films. As in the original ´Nightmare on Elm Street´, no enemy is clearly visible. ´The Taken´ are dark, as if they are covered in soot, and further shrouded in the ethereal, smouldering aura I described earlier. As in ´Evil Dead´, evil voices constantly turn from shrieking high-pitch to an unnatural low and back, while also sounding metallic or robotized. I found this feature as effective as it seemed familiar and almost obvious, which made me wonder why no other game has utilized this before, to my knowledge. Many other journalists at the event noted the outstanding audio design in general.
Finally, the presentation of the story is also unusual for videogames and invokes jargon known from television series. Players a given a recap of the story so far, introduced by the narrator announcing “previously on Alan Wake” and finishing the segment with “Alan Wake continues.”
The hour or so of hands-on time was too short to comment on gameplay mechanics at great length. The level we were able to play took place mostly during the night. We were simply told that the night and day cycle were key gameplay elements, as well as the dynamic weather. As far as health goes, I should mention that your health recharges with time or while standing under a street light or such, where you are also safe from attacks.
The hour was sufficient, though, to be able to say that ´Alan Wake´ looks like a very solid effort and is genuinely scary. It is clearly inspired by media other than videogames, which is refreshing. Its gameplay mechanics, though, draw mainly on tried and tested elements with a few original ideas thrown in for good measure. In stark contrast to a title like ´Heavy Rain´, ´Alan Wake´ feels more like a traditional game. It throws you into the action straight away and gives you the story basics later, while ´Heavy Rain´ takes a long time before you get to do anything exciting in the traditional sense of action videogames. Whether this will help or hinder sales remains to be seen. But, perhaps unfortunately, I believe that the majority of gamers will stick with what they know. So I expect ´Alan Wake´ to sell more copies than ´Heavy Rain´.
Finally, I will be attending the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco next month. So stick with me while I can bring you more exclusive impressions of upcoming titles. Later this year, I will be able to make a big announcement regarding my work. And if only my various contacts get back in touch, I should also be able to publish the article on Polish Wii developer Nibris within a few weeks.