Monday, September 27, 2010

Alan Wake

I'm not much one for suspense/thriller/horror games. I hate jump scares. I find them cheap, and usually greatly telegraphed. They still work for a quick burst of adrenaline though, because there's always a great burst of noise/motion to accompany them. I'm pretty much of the same opinion of horror movies, too. Over-reliance on jump scares dilutes their effectiveness eventually, rendering the game not-scary, and generally just annoys and angers me, to boot. That said, so far, I've really enjoyed Alan Wake. It does have some moments that could be jump scares, if they were pushed a little harder, but not many as far as I've played. Instead, it's done a great job of building the mood, setting the stage, and ramping the tension. I'm not going to discuss plot except as it relates directly to mechanics. Partly so I don't spoil anything, partly because since I'm not finished, I don't think I could really talk intelligently about it without making some wild, and probably incorrect guesses. So with that said...
I've said I'm really enjoying the game so far; I'm going to admit here that it's not perfect, but I'll get to why later. The UI is very clean and clear in-game. Life bar, radar, single indicator on radar, flashlight battery indicator, all in the top left. Objective, and ammo for equipped items, and not a lot else. I do feel the camera follows Alan a bit too closely, so it is rather difficult to see enemies not directly in front of you. Of course, the only reason this is an issue is the enemies act like the velociraptors from Jurassic Park. A few in front to keep your attention, and one from behind/the side to beat on you. Keep that in mind, and the camera shouldn't be too much of an issue.

Mike Patton is out to get you in this game. ... Huh? Sorry? Wrong Darkness? Whoops. Okay, well, darkness is out to get you in this game, and so light plays a huge part in the mechanics of this game. You can't kill an enemy until you strip away the protective darkness. Most of the time, you'll be doing it with your flashlight, which can usually only nail one enemy at a time, unless you're lucky. There's also other methods, including some environment sources. The only time you're safe is in the light, and there's usually supplies near or in the light. This means getting to those lights is very useful. However, in a great tension-building move, since you're in the wilderness, you may not be able to take a straight path to the light, or the darkness manages to destroy the light before you get there, meaning that safe point you see cannot always be relied on. The light effects in this game are amazing. You know what? If you called this game "Alone in the Dark," and just claimed it was a spin off, or something like that, I'd believe it a lot better than the crappy Alone in the Dark that we did get, since this has you alone a lot more, in the dark, fighting with light, rather than just going around as a pyromaniac.

You're never really hurting for supplies, as long as you're not wasteful. You get plenty of bullets for the basic handgun, and a lot of enemies can be taken out fairly quickly with it, once you strip away their protective darkness.

The big conceit of this game though, is that Alan Wake is an author, and he keeps finding pages of a manuscript that he supposedly wrote, and the contents are describing what he's going through. I really find this strangely effective. There's no real indication of when things are going to happen, so for some events, you wonder when exactly it'll happen, and for others, you're given a hint on what to do when the event happens. It adds a level of meta-gaming surreality to the proceedings, which I feel is helped, rather than hindered, by the admitted wonky physics engine, since everything seems to have little weight, and simply bumping a garbage dumpster causes it to move a foot. The paths through areas is fairly obvious, but you can wander off the path. There are some collectables and stashes to find, but you can accidentally wander off a cliff if you're not careful, and there's usually more enemies than if you stuck to the path. There's also... I guess you'd call them puzzles? Sorta? More like environmental manipulation to proceed. At one point, turn on a generator to turn on a spotlight to shine on a spot in order to get through. At another, you move a bundle of logs to form a bridge across a gap. One annoying point is the story is split in to episodes, and at the start of each episode, you start out with pretty much nothing (or at least that's how it's been so far, to episode 3), so it can kind of feel like you're not making progress. I'm willing to mostly forgive this though, since the game gives you a flashlight fairly quickly each time, and weapons when you need them, and not being able to stockpile items actually helps heighten the tension for once. Your supplies are limited, and you're going to be eyeing your reserves, and you're never going to want to use that last flare, or those last few rounds of ammo, and you get nervous because outrunning enemies is possible, but very difficult, and as I mentioned, refuge isn't always as close as it seems.

My honest recommendation for this is that you should give a heavy consideration to giving this a rental. If you're at all interested, go for it. If you play over a weekend, you should probably be able to finish it. Even with the few flaws, the story is engaging, the combat solid enough to present a challenge without being overly or unfairly frustrating, and the game looks pretty. Seriously, rent it!

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