The survival horror genre has changed somewhat in recent years, with Resident Evil becoming more of a third-person shooter and Dead Space relying more on shocks than real scares. Alan Wake is a return to the terrifying ways of the genre's past, with the setting, enemies and storyline working in tandem to create a truly unnerving experience. The world is linear, with the path to your objective usually quite obvious, but there are just enough 'off the beaten path' locations to make you believe Bright Falls is a real place. Enemy encounters aren't overused and the stock of bullets and batteries (for your torch) is just enough to make you hesitant to keep your light on full beam, while also not too fearful to use it.
Storylines in games quite often wash over me, merely serving to give reason for the action that's ensuing, but here it's completely engrossing. The plot develops at a perfect pace, with twists and turns that make sense and compel you to continue. At the end of each of the game's six chapters you're treated to an incredibly cool piece of licensed music, followed by brilliant story recaps. I assumed these would be somewhat cheesy, but they've been handled superbly and add so much to the game's cinematic quality.
Alan himself narrates as you play, which could conceivably annoy some players, but it undoubtedly keeps you engaged with the story and showcases the brilliant voice acting. Manuscript pages from Alan's latest book - one he doesn't remember writing - scattered throughout the levels detail events that have happened and, more interestingly, also those yet to occur. They serve as a clever collectable, with some only available to find when the game is played on the hardest difficulty setting. Hidden crates, coffee thermos flasks and tin can pyramids are also hidden in the environment for players who like to explore.
Much has been made of Alan Wake's less-than HD resolution, but the bottom line is that it's a stunning looking title. No game released so far this generation features lighting effects more impressive, or so much going on. At times, with the wind blowing, smoke in the air, objects flying around, flares alight and enemies coming at you, there'd be an argument for this being one of the most visually striking games ever released. It's that impressive. During certain dramatic moments the game even pauses and pans around Alan, giving you a chance to take it all in.
Things take an unfortunate turn for the worse during the game's many non-interactive cutscenes, however. Quite why isn't clear, but in these scripted video sequences the animations appear to be jerky and the lip syncing is terrible. It doesn't hurt the overall experience too much, as the voice acting is still excellent and the direction superb, but compared to the high quality on show at all other times, it's somewhat jarring to see a car judder along a road and a woman speak as though she's a ventriloquist's dummy.
A special mention has to go to the audio work, too, which will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up if you've got a good surround sound setup. It adds an immeasurable amount to the game's atmosphere, which at times is so thick you'll want to remain rooted to the spot, flare held aloft while you take a moment to calm down. The use of licensed music is a great touch, too, with the soundtrack being one of the best and most memorable I've ever heard in a video game.
Remedy and Microsoft haven't made a perfect masterpiece, but Alan Wake may well be one of my favourite releases of 2010 – an escapade I'm going to remember for a very long time. It's a stunning action game, a superbly scripted adventure and a technical showcase for the now-ageing Xbox 360 hardware. If you go down to the woods today you're sure of a big surprise, but this ain't no picnic.