Alan Wake is a really frustrating game. It’s not that the gameplay is obtuse or afflicted by poor design. Rather, it’s because the lofty ambition of developers Remedy is so obvious, and so obviously let down by the dreary repetitiveness of the combat. A brief recap: Alan Wake was originally intended to be an open world game, and heavily influenced by the horror tropes of Stephen King, David Lynch and The Twilight Zone. The game as released on Xbox 360 and PC retained the latter characteristic, but the dreams of GTA set in Twin Peaks were drastically scaled back in favour of episodic progress. The open world aspirations are still tantalisingly in place. The setting in Alan Wake, beautifully brought to life by Remedy’s designers, is full of massive traversable mountainous areas filled with verdant forests, atmospheric structures and imposing lakes. The driving sections in particular betray what must once have been very expansive open world design. Real-time day/night cycle would have done wonders for the game’s theme, since the eponymous main character literally uses light to vanquish the shadowy hicks who constantly appear out of nowhere to try and smash his head in.
Even without being an open world game Alan Wake could have been a really great experience, but another thing that is painfully obvious is that Remedy is in love with the game’s combat mechanics. Taken in isolation, they’re excellent: pressing the left trigger aims with the flashlight which whittles away the enemies’ darkness defence, and then you can shoot with either the heavier rifle/shotgun or the revolver to put them down. It looks great, feels satisfying and makes perfect sense within the context of the game’s narrative. The problem is that the player has to wade through an overwhelming amount of shooting to get from A to B. Remedy’s superlative art direction and level design create an inimitable atmosphere, but it’s all undone by an outrageously indulgent frequency of enemy encounters. This would have been alleviated somewhat if new skills or mechanics are introduced as the game progresses, but once Wake gets a torch and a gun in the first episode the combat essentially stays unchanged. The most potently scary moments in Alan Wake are when the enemies are unseen, and Wake is alone, wandering through some of the best wooded areas created in gaming. The moment the axe-wielding spectres are introduced – always telegraphed in slow-motion, frustratingly – any tension the game has built up dissipates, and the pyrotechnical chaos of the later shootouts is less Silent Hill and more Diablo.
Remedy’s attempt to weave the horror meta narrative into Alan Wake is a great idea executed with the heaviest of hands. The game is littered with discarded pages from the novel that Wake is supposed to have written, and which is coming to life around him. These pages describe what is about to happen, which would be fine except that once the events take place Wake proceeds to vocally describe them in detail. So what the player is really getting is a story told three times: from the pages, through narration by Wake, and then the actual gameplay. There’s no variation to this either: from the beginning right to the end Remedy sticks faithfully to this structure, to the eventual exhaustion of the player.
The great mystery horror game is yet to be fully realised. Alan Wake is technically accomplished and has some nice ideas, but Remedy’s allegiance, whether by choice or necessity, is clearly with the combat. Another developer (or maybe even Remedy) could take the setting and the visuals, and with a more considered approach to the storytelling, weave a cracking thriller out of this.