The air hangs damp and cool in the forests surrounding the town of Bright Falls. Mountains jut up from the ground like rows of sharks’ teeth. Picturesque daytime vistas give way to suffocating nighttime darkness, and a thick fog conceals supernatural predators. The occasional light source that pierces the gloom only reminds you of your isolation. This is the eerie world of Alan Wake, a horror game that proves, once again, that developers don’t need to reinvent entire genres to make a good game — they simply need to play to their strengths.
|Alan Wake | for Xbox 360 | Rated T for Teen | Developed by Remedy Entertainment | Published by Microsoft Game Studios|
In this case, Remedy Entertainment meshes fairly pedestrian third-person shooting with a forbidding atmosphere and a story that stays interesting even as it ceases to make any sense. As with Remedy’s previous franchise, Max Payne, Alan Wake stars a grim but handsome white guy whose life has so far not been adversely affected by his awful pun of a name. Our title hero is a bestselling novelist suffering through a bout of writer’s block. Hoping to find solace, he and his wife decamp to the Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls, where, you will not be surprised to learn, spooky things begin to happen.
Across six episodes, each just an hour or two, an unwieldy narrative unspools. Alan keeps finding pages of a manuscript he doesn’t remember writing that seems to be predicting the haunted happenings around him. His wife disappears and he’s charged with the crime. All the while, he’s stalked by possessed locals and a massive smoke monster. I still can’t tell you exactly what happens, but the plot twists come fast enough that it doesn’t much matter. The minute-to-minute story line is simply Alan’s fight for survival against the forces of darkness.
It’s in the darkness that the game really shines. Alan Wake has been in development for about five years, and if all of that was spent perfecting the lighting engine, then it was time well spent. Alan’s primary weapon is his flashlight, which burns the forces of darkness away. Lots of games have tried to use flashlights to impose a sense of fear, and this one may be the most successful. The way Alan’s beam lights up unseen corners and incinerates the plasmic darkness off his foes is a special effect that’s truly special.
In the end, though, Alan Wake is a shooter, and merely a competent one. The interplay between flashlights and firearms is a fun one, and advanced weapons like flashbang grenades are a feast for the eyes. But resources are plentiful. At least on normal difficulty, it’s rare that Alan runs out of bullets for his gun, or batteries for his flashlight. The setting implies a lurking horror, but the action is the same old superman stuff. “I never even used a gun before two days ago,” Alan quips, after mowing down his 300th bad guy of the day.