Good things come to those who wait, or so they say. It took almost half a decade for Remedy to drag Max Payne through development hell, and now, several years later, Alan Wake seems to have gone through a similarly drawn out process. It's been a long journey, to the extent that some of us started to worry whether it would ever reach its destination. But now, almost five years after its E3 2005 reveal, Alan Wake is finally getting ready to step into the light.
First things first. Alan wake is an action game. True, it has quite a few hallmarks of the survival horror genre, and it most certainly places story at the forefront of its appeal, but it's an action game nonetheless. Max Payne took its cue from countless comic books, film noirs and hard-boiled detective tales; Alan Wake prefers to riff off of Twin Peaks and the likes of Steven King, but there are clear similarities between the two: a male protagonist who's clearly out of his depth, frequent use of voice-over and other cinematic flourishes, and oodles of stylish combat. This is a game that revels in its sinister atmosphere, but it's also one that wants you to enjoy the fight. And when the action kicks into slow-mo to mark an impressive event - as Mr Wake sparks up a flare, perhaps, or as he dodges a falling axe - you'll be more than a tad reminded of a certain trigger-happy cop.
A quick reminder for those of you who may be in the dark about this project: Alan Wake is the tale of an identically-named author who's been suffering from writer's block. Following a suggestion from his wife, Alan decides to take a trip to the quiet Midwestern town of Bright Falls. Unfortunately things don't quite go according to the Thomas Cook itinerary: Mrs Wake promptly disappears in a puff of smoke (well, not exactly - but I'm not allowed to talk about this bit too much) and our suffering scribbler finds himself under attack from The Taken: creepy figures who have been possessed by a mysterious, as-yet-unexplained force.
I've been waiting a long time to get a proper look at Alan Wake, so it was particularly gratifying that I got an extended gander during my visit to Remedy's HQ in Helsinki last month. There's an awful lot for me to cover here, so you'll have to forgive me if I jump around a bit in a bid to paint as full a picture as possible. Perhaps the best place to start is with the combat, since it clearly plays a major role in proceedings. As last year's E3 presentation revealed, Alan's battles against the Taken generally have to be fought along two fronts. Guns are the weapons you'll use to ultimately kill your human foes, but before you can open fire you first have to rid your enemies of the darkness that surrounds and protects them. As you might expect, your basic tool for this job is your torch: if you direct the beam at nearby Taken, it'll slowly start to burn away the inky blackness that surrounds them. If you're feeling impatient, you can also concentrate the beam for a more powerful attack - but this will drain its power quicker. Alan can carry several spare batteries with him, allowing for quick changes mid-combat, but if he completely runs out of juice the last battery will recharge itself, albeit slowly. In short, energy is a resource that has to be spent carefully.
In addition to the torch, Alan can also carry a number of supplementary light-bringing devices. Hand-held flares do an excellent job of cleansing several enemies at once, and keeping large groups at bay, but if you manage to find a flare gun, you'll have what essentially amounts to a rocket launcher. Flashbang grenades also take on a far more destructive quality than what we're used to in standard action titles. It's also worth pointing out that your torch beam doubles up as the aiming reticule for your firearms. There's no over-the-shoulder zoom, and as a result the controls effectively function like a dual-wield setup, with bullet-based weapons on one trigger, and light-based ones on the other.
As you can probably tell by now, there's quite a bit of flexibility in Alan Wake when it comes to combat. However, if you're bit of a scaredy-cat (which is quite understandable, given the circumstances) it's often acceptable to turn your tail and run. Remedy has created something it calls BETS - Bring Enemies To the Scene - which will cause Taken foes to spawn in the area surrounding Alan if he choose to linger about. The idea behind this is that players who favour combat can stick around, while other more flighty types can turn heels and flee. It's a perfectly viable option to take the cowardly route: even when you're out of bullets, the flashlight can be used to temporarily blind foes who have been rid of their dark presence. Alan is also pretty good at performing evasive manoeuvres, triggered via a single tap of the dodge button, and as I mentioned earlier, a last-minute escape will often be rewarded by the game suddenly shifting into slow motion. A similar slowdown will sometimes kick in during light-based attacks; there's no tactical advantage to these moments, but they look extremely cool.
This kind of visual swaggering is a key part of Alan Wake's flavour. So far I've focused entirely on the way the action works, but there's certainly a quieter side to the game - a side that underlines Remedy's commitment to slick, high-end TV production values. After a short dream sequence that serves to introduce the player to the light/dark mechanics, the game begins properly with Alan and his wife arriving in Bright Falls by ferry. With the threat of the Taken apparently pushed to one side, this daytime interlude allows the player to fully absorb the beauty of the game's graphics. In a nutshell, the game looks dreamy: Heads-up display info is kept to a minimum (in fact it's invisible during this intro sequence), while the Midwestern scenery of Bright Falls itself is packed with subtle detail. Human characters also look impressive, although I was slightly disappointed by the game's rather patchy lip-syncing.
So, the game looks beautiful - but it's the general atmosphere more than anything else that really gets under your skin. As the Wakes enter the town we're given ample opportunity to soak in the surroundings. From the rusty railway bridge that crosses the harbour to the kooky locals to the giant, forest-strewn hills that dominate the skyline, Bright Falls is a town that has been built around a very familiar image of the American Midwest. The story works quickly to establish Alan as an outsider in this place. As our hero enters a local diner, he's immediately confronted with a life-sized cardboard cut-out of himself; one of the waitresses in the café recognises him immediately, much to his shame, and then he engages in a slightly weird conversation with two elderly bikers slumped in one of the booths. The old-timers ask Alan to put a tune on the jukebox, which he does. Then, just as the scene is beginning to get really weird, things start to get a bit dark. Wake asks where he can find Stucky, the owner of the cabin in which he's staying, and the waitress directs him towards a shadowy corridor at the back of the diner. And just as he approaches, a strange old woman pops up and starts mewling about the dangers of the dark.
I won't spoil what happens next, but suffice to say that the whole scene is absolutely dripping in the spirit of Twin Peaks - David Lynch's seminal weird-out drama from the early 90's. Remedy has been very open about its attempts to emulate the feel of high-budget television, and from what I've seen so far the results have paid off. I won't go into detail exactly what I learned of the game's early plot (time is short, and I'm not allowed to anyway), but I will say this: the mysterious tone of the story sucks you in very quickly. And Remedy isn't just interested in using TV as a source of inspiration, either: as was the case with the Max Payne games, Alan Wake will often use in-game media as a means to tell its story. If you listen in to the radio at your shack, for example, you might hear the star-struck waitress calling in to a local radio station to discuss Wake's arrival. Even better than that, at one point later in the game you'll get the option to watch a re-run of Alan appearing on a Jay Leno-like chat show... an appearance which is presented in the form of genuine live-action video, starring the real-life actor who provides Wake's voice and likeness. Oh, and if that isn't odd enough, Sam "Max Payne" Lake is also a guest on the show. As himself.
These post-modern nods and winks are quite intriguing in their own right, but they also tie in heavily to the key device that's present in the action-packed nocturnal sequences. As Alan fights his way through the darkness of Bright Falls, he keeps stumbling across pages from a novel that he doesn't remember writing - pages that seem to foreshadow what's about to happen. Again, I'm not allowed to discuss the content of these in pages in detail, but I can tell you that they do a grand job of making you dread what's coming up around the corner... particularly since its not just human Taken that you'll be squaring off against.
Do you remember the video presentation for Alan Wake that was shown at Microsoft's E3 press conference? Do you remember the bit where Alan was attacked by a possessed JCB? Some people thought it was amazing, some people thought it was ridiculous, but pretty much everyone talked about it. Well, it looks like that kind of thing will happen a lot in the full game. Whatever the evil presence in Bright Falls is, it has the power to corrupt anything it touches. The human enemies we've seen tend to be dressed as lumberjacks, hunters, and other rugged outdoorsman, so it's no surprise to see the mechanical foes following a similar industrial theme: along with the aforementioned digger, I've also seen glimpses of a struggle against an evil combine harvester, while another bizarre battle found Alan duelling with several floating reels of steel cable - each one the size of a wagon wheel (and by that I mean an actual wheel, not the sickly marshmallow biscuits).
In short, it seems that the full game will be pretty jam-packed with action set pieces. You won't always be fighting alone, either: sometimes you'll be joined in the fray by friendly NPCs, including a happy chap named Barry, Alan's hapless agent. Barry seems to largely serve as comic relief in the game - at one point he appeared to have wrapped himself in Christmas lights in a desperate bid to protect himself. There seems to be a lot of pithy banter between characters during the bits where you're fighting alongside NPC allies, and like the frequent voice-over narration from Wake himself, these snippets of colour help the game to feel a bit more alive than your common or garden third-person shooter. At times I almost felt as if there was a bit too much voice-over from Alan, as if his authorial tones were infringing upon the otherwise gripping atmosphere. Still, most of the time the balance feels about right - and the game certainly feels quite unique in its approach to story-telling.
As I said earlier, I was lucky enough to see an awful lot of Alan Wake, and after two thousand words there are still loads of things I've not touched on. There are the mysterious messages left in luminous paint that guide you towards hidden ammo stashes. There are the mobile generators that can be only be started via a simple timing mini-game, showering your enemies with light just as they close in around you. There's the heart-pumping stand-off at the open-air rock concert, a fierce battle in which Alan must dash about the stage, blowing away Taken while Barry fiddles with the pyrotechnics.
All of these things are worthy of further discussion, but for now I shall leave you with this: If you've read all this and are now thinking, "Alan Wake sounds awesome" you'd be right on two fronts. It does sound awesome, but it also sounds awesome. The audio work on this game is really impressive, from the moody backing score to the licensed music tracks (yet another thing I can't mention) to the ambient noise of the woods at night; the latter was actually recorded by a member of Remedy staff who went on a lengthy camping trip, solely for that purpose. That's the level of detail we're dealing with here. It all adds up to what should hopefully be one hell of a package... and I, for one, can't wait to open the box.
Alan Wake is due for release exclusively on Xbox 360 on May 21.