Five years after it was first announced, and 4 years after we first saw it running at a Microsoft press conference, it's a little weird to actually play through Alan Wake. On the one hand, there's no getting past the fact that this is not the game we were originally promised. Surprisingly conventional, sometimes shockingly linear, it's no longer a ground-breaking or genre-busting game, and we don't think that anyone can argue that it's an all-time classic, or even one of the best games of this generation. And yet, while not a flawless game it's an incredible experience - or at least it can be if it connects with you in the right way.
Let us explain. Just in case you've never heard of Alan Wake, it's the tale of a successful writer, now crippled by writer's block, who takes a vacation with his wife to the small lakeside town of Bright Falls. There, surrounded by craggy mountains and soaring alpine forests, he hopes to get some rest and recapture his mojo. Unfortunately, sinister events intervene, and before long Wake is fighting for his life and his wife in a nightmare world that seems linked to a mysterious manuscript - a manuscript that Wake himself might have written. It's a smart premise for a storyline that twists and tangles like there's no tomorrow. Alan Wake frequently makes you wonder what is real and what is not, with a range of devices that cleverly foreshadow events in the future, and clarifying what's happened in the past. It's deeply creepy stuff.
Now, however, things get tricky. When first announced and demoed, Alan Wake was pitched as an open-world adventure with our hero exploring the area around Bright Falls, solving aspects of the mystery and interacting with the local population. The finished article, by contrast, is a surprisingly straight survival horror game, with linear levels carved out of a hefty chunk of the local scenery, each one packaged into one sizable, 1- to 2-hour TV-style episode. On paper the actual gameplay is quite mundane. In most sections of the game, Wake needs to get from one part of the area to an objective far away, with an objective marker and various barriers - walls, mountains, rivers - keeping him moving along the path. Along the way our hero faces groups of "The Fallen"; possessed townspeople armed with knives, scythes, axes and various other sharp implements.
Light is all-important here. All the action levels take place at night, in darkness. The Fallen, creatures of darkness, are invulnerable under its cover, but if Wake can hit them with a bright source of light - normally a flashlight - then he can kill them with his current choice of firearm. Light also recharges Wake's energy, meaning that any strong light source also functions as a safe haven, allowing Wake to recuperate and frighten off his attackers. What's more, certain weapons like flare-guns or flash-bangs, can decimate groups of Fallen in a stroke.
Believe me - that's pretty much it as far as gameplay goes. Run from safe haven to safe haven, blast the Fallen when you can, run like hell when you can't, repeat until you hit the next objective. When you can, you'll also need to grab more bullets or batteries, as you'll be eating through them at a ferocious rate. There are some isolated puzzle elements, but nothing tricky, and while there are secret caches to discover, there's nothing like the exploration or background research you might get in, say, a Resident Evil or Silent Hill. The plot and background details are dripped through via Wake's interior monologue, TV and radio broadcasts and pages from the manuscript that you'll find along the road, but - barring tracking down the pages - there's not actually much active work for you to do in this regard.
At first, we thought this mattered - that it limited the game and rendered it utterly superficial - but we were counting without one thing: atmosphere. Now, we'll be honest here and state that your experience may differ. Some have found the plot of Alan Wake ridiculous, the central character one-dimensional and unlikeable, and the dialogue clumsy and pretentious. To be fair, they have a point.
Wake is a self-centred misery-guts, who for some reason is incapable of maintaining a decent jogging pace for more than 30 seconds without wheezing his rubbish little lungs out. If we were being chased by axe-wielding supernatural killers, we might make a little more effort. Fair enough - the dialogue can be laboured, and the close-up animation and lip-synching is so far behind Mass Effect, Heavy Rain and Uncharted 2 that it almost makes you feel embarrassed for it.
And yet we've found Alan Wake consistently gripping, unnerving, even terrifying. The Fallen, coming at you in increasingly larger groups as the game goes on, from surprise angles or even outflanking you, are frightening adversaries, and though you soon learn tricks to reduce numbers quickly or cut the tougher Fallen down to size, they never become just another baddie. When you're running out of batteries and ammo, scrambling for the next light in the desperate hope of reaching it alive, Alan Wake is a horribly tense experience.
The game makes great use of its outdoor settings and creepy small-town architecture, skilfully implying doom around every corner. We can't think of a game outside the Silent Hill or Project Zero series where fog and shadow are so gainfully employed to promote fear, and - on both a technical and artistic level - the fog and ambient light effects are leagues ahead. Alan Wake boasts some fantastic creepy characters and situations, and those cinematics that aren't conversation-based do a great job of reinforcing the overall sense of dread. We feel confident that one or two will give you the creeps.
The sound is also absolutely brilliant. When you're in an abandoned mine building and you hear pacing on the floor above, you know there's trouble on its way. When the Fallen start muttering odd phrases in their creepy, distorted voices, make that double. The use of urgent music and sudden, spot effects to shock and scare is nothing new, but Alan Wake always uses these techniques with precision, to keep you off balance and on the edge of your seat. And the more you play, the more the episodic format, complete with cliffhangers, end-title music and a "previously on Alan Wake" review at the beginning of each episode, makes sense. In the unlikely event that you can finish one chapter without going on to the next one, you'll spend the hours in-between games on tenterhooks as to what happens next.
Graphically, Alan Wake is no longer the showcase game it once promised to be. Sure, the dynamic lighting and atmospheric effects are impressive. True, it's impressive to see large chunks of scenery torn up by powerful dark forces. Yes, the wilderness scenery around the town of Bright Falls looks stunning. Climb to a high position and you'll be rewarded with vistas that other games would kill for. Yet in a lot of ways other games have now caught up with Alan Wake's cinematic style, and even surpassed it. You couldn't say that it looks dated, but it's certainly not setting any benchmarks.
But if Alan Wake is too late to be a flagship title, it's still a memorable, exciting game. For all that the gameplay is linear and the exploration limited, it doesn't matter, because the hands-on experience of playing the game (preferably with lights off, on your own, with sound turned high or headphones on) is so powerful. Tense, atmospheric and engaging, Alan Wake is the scariest, most ruthlessly efficient fear machine since Dead Space.