Review: Alan Wake (PC)

AlanWakePC

As someone who started gaming on the PC many years ago (the first games I remember playing were on a KayPro II–look that up for a walk down amnesia lane) I often found myself discouraged and a bit disgruntled when I would hear games coming out for the PC were just ports of a console game.  Often times a game being released for PC and consoles simultaneously would leave the PC version lacking.  Either the camera controls didn’t work right with a mouse and keyboard, or the textures and resolution were locked in with whatever resolutions were optimal for best performance on the console side.  PC gaming was for the adventurous geek who liked to push the limits of their graphics cards.  How high could you turn up the resolution, or bump up the anti-aliasing before a bottleneck was created in either the CPU or the graphics card and thus ground gameplay to a stuttering halt?  Tweaking settings to get a perfect experience was a source of pride five years ago.

The freedom of binding commands to any key (and every key if possible) on a keyboard made PC gaming fun, but also frustrating.  Learning and remembering every combination at times could be a detriment, and heaven forbid your fingers ever slipped off of the home keys just enough so that every input was incorrect.  I have to admit that there is a bit of beautiful simplicity in forcing complex game controls into a relatively small number of buttons on today’s console controllers.  Camera and movement seem to have fallen into a natural agreement of right stick to adjust the camera, left stick to move around in the game space.  While sometimes game pad aiming isn’t as precise as a perfect mouse aim, developers have figured out how to fudge aiming with assists to the point that gaming on either console or PC can be an almost equal experience.

While I digress a bit here about the conventions of console gaming vs. PC gaming, I have to admit that I switched to a PS3 as my main choice for gaming five years ago for a few reasons: 1) I started working in front of a PC all day and didn’t want to sit in front of a PC at night for gaming; 2) console gaming had begun to offer gaming experiences that I couldn’t find on PC; and 3) I was growing tired of constantly needing to upgrade my PC every year or two in order to stay on the bleeding edge.  That being said, my choice of PS3 over 360 five years ago also kept me from playing some 360 exclusive titles. In particular, Alan Wake.

My first exposure to Remedy Entertainment was during Christmas of 2001 when I was given a copy of Max Payne on the PC.  I was blown away by the moody, noir shooter that contained a deep story, fun gun fights and of course introduced Bullet Time to gaming.  The repetition of Norse themes, story told through comic book panel style cut scenes, and a strong narrative voice over kept me playing until the wee hours of the night just to find out if Max would get his revenge.  Flash forward to 2010 and all I kept hearing was how amazing Alan Wake was.  Unfortunately I’m not in the position to just go out and buy a console to play one single game, even if that game sounded like it was a riveting gaming experience.  With no PC version being released I chalked up Alan Wake as one game that I would never encounter.

Fortunately, Remedy never gave up on the idea of releasing the title on the PC and after almost two years, a modified 360 port of the title has been released through Steam.  Two variants are available for the PC version which includes the original 360 game plus the two DLC episodes, “The Signal” and “The Writer.”  A Collector’s Edition also includes Developer Commentary videos, the game’s soundtrack, and an illustrated book called Alan Wake Files in .pdf format.

Remedy modified the 360 version of the game in several ways.  First off, they enhanced the engine to take advantage of current multi-core CPUs, a luxury that the seven-year-old 360 does not have.  Additionally, the PC version taps into current graphics card technology to push the visuals beyond what was already impressive looking on the 360, and yet the game still runs remarkably well even on older systems. Controls with mouse and keyboard also work well but feel optimal with a 360 controller. Overall, Alan Wake is a perfect example of console game porting to PC done right.

As I mentioned above, I had heard and read lots of fantastic praise for Alan Wake, but I also intentionally avoid learning too much about any game in the hopes that some day I’ll be able to play the title. Fortunately, I went into a media blackout shortly after its original release (plus add almost 2 years of time to allow my memory to forget most of what I had previously learned about the game) and I began the game with a completely fresh view.

AlanWake_PCvsXbox360

The first thing I noticed once the game was running was just how incredible the lighting and fog looked. Sure, still shots give the game a dark, foreboding look, but it isn’t until you see for yourself the light from the moon pouring down on the forest, catching on the fog as it is blows through the pine trees, that you realize just how incredible the effect is.  Add to the increased flow of the fog, a stirring shrill of violins and suddenly you can hear shadowy figures appear out of nowhere charging from the front and back, and the fear factor intensifies.  My desire to just run through the shadowy forest kicked in.  I don’t particularly like playing scary games and I wasn’t expecting Alan Wake to turn up the scares as fast as it did during the first few moments of the game.  Fortunately the game offers plenty of checkpoints and introduces a fun combat technique that at times felt challenging but truly adds to the overall experience of the game.

Without going over too much of what many folks already know, Alan Wake uses light and darkness as an effective combat device.  Carrying around a flashlight at all times, Alan can charge (or intensify) the light beam to more quickly bring down the shadowy shield that surrounds the enemies that are perpetually out to get the title character.  Once the shield is down, a few bursts from a handgun, shotgun or hunting rifle will take the enemy out in a brilliant shower of sparks.  To add to Alan’s arsenal, there are road-side flares that can temporarily illuminate an area, as well as a flare gun and eventually even flash grenades.

Remedy tells the story of Alan Wake through a combination of in medias res plot devices and flashbacks to relate Wake as a successful writer stricken with writer’s block.  Wake and his wife are on a vacation to help remove the block only to wind up with his wife missing (and possibly dead), a psychotic FBI agent trying to gun him down for the potential murder of his wife, and confronting the main enemy, the Dark Presence, a demonic like force that has taken over the town of Bright Falls. Narration is handled by a voice over of Alan Wake’s thoughts as he walks through the environment as well as conversations he has with his agent Barry and other members of the town.

As the story unfolds, different types of shadowy enemies appear which force various tactics to be employed, such as dropping flares to keep swarms at bay while you use the moment of respite to reload ammo or batteries in the flashlight.  Combat is fun and constantly kept me on my toes, switching out flashlight bursts for gunplay, dropping flares to keep enemies away.  While the first few minutes ramped up the scares, I found that by the end of the game, they were mitigated more by the tension of which enemies I might be facing as well as inventory management with ammo.

A dark humor is also present through a lot of the game to help balance some of the more tense moments. The humor often times comes from Barry; one of my favorite moments comes late in the game when Barry has wrapped Christmas tree lights around his body, puts a lamp on his head and declares it to be his flaming eye of Mordor.  Throughout the game are manuscript pages written by Alan which often foreshadow events that happen shortly after finding the pages.  The descriptions are usually not pleasant and at one point Alan has a conversation with a town local who indicates that he is a fan of Wake’s work, to which Alan quips, “Right now, I’m not a fan of my own work.”

While I was impressed with the narrative structure, combat and overall visuals, one aspect of the game that I felt detracted from the overall experience was the option to hunt for coffee thermoses and the extended narrative manuscript pages.  While the game was originally designed as an open world, Remedy decided to redo the game and guide Alan in a much more structured storyline to focus interest on finding out what happened with his wife.  Unfortunately, I often found myself exploring sections of the forest or back alleys of Bright Falls in order to find a thermos or a page from the manuscript.  While this scavenger hunt didn’t completely break the experience, I can’t help but think that the manuscript pages could have been left in more obvious spots to help flesh out the story so I wouldn’t feel like I was missing a vital piece of information when I finished a level but didn’t have every page.  The thermos hunting was just plain mindless busywork that didn’t add anything.

Again, I don’t want to retell a story that is worth experiencing firsthand, but I do want to say that now that Alan Wake is available on PC, gamers without a 360 finally have a chance to play an exceptional game.  Dark humor, a deep and engaging story, and fun combat all combine to make a game worth sinking into.  If you are like me and didn’t have a 360 when Alan Wake was originally released, this is your opportunity to play the game. You should take it.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Gorgeous, spooky environmental effects
+ Rich story
+ Fun combat

Cons:
– Combat can be repetitive
– Original open world design can be distracting at times with the collectible coffee thermoses to find and manuscript pages

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Remedy Entertainment
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Release Date: 2/16/2012
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

[nggallery id=2157]

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.