Alan Wake ReviewJoe Shaffer
Horror and action are not always best buds. The two make appearances together, but usually with one taking center stage while the other shuffles uncomfortably in the back. I'm sure you've noticed that, especially when controlling combat-trained heroes with top of the line weaponry. We don't fear for such characters because they can ably handle horrific situations. I'm also betting you've played games in the opposite case as well, where ordinary citizens take up arms against the supernatural. Although we shake in our vulnerable boots while demonic schoolchildren latch onto us, we aren't wooed by fancy gunplay, nor should we be. Tossing in action-packed thrills would distract us from cerebral aspects a developer might want us to experience.
This isn't to say, though, that it's impossible for the two genres to share balanced roles. However, any developer who would undertake such a project would find it a difficult negotiation that takes careful consideration and equal devotion to both genres. Thankfully, there are some developers like Capcom and Remedy who have learned how to accomplish this.
Consider Alan Wake, a third-person shooter where you guide a novelist through dense Washington woods on a mission to find his wife. While on vacation in the quaint town of Bright Falls, Alan's wife Alice is spirited away by a malevolent force, prompting him to snatch up firearms to battle the forces of darkness that attempt to stymie her rescue.
Straight away, we know that Alan isn't a combat-trained warrior. The only instrument he can wield proficiently is a typewriter, and it's likely that the most action he's seen is on television. Suffice to say that he also isn't particularly skilled with a gun. Understand that and you might come to appreciate Alan Wake's wonky control response. Don't expect to spin around with ease or make dead shots like a sharpshooter, as that wouldn't make sense from both a gaming and a character standpoint. Besides, as I said earlier, we wouldn't fear for him if he started off a capable, easy to control combatant. Instead Alan learns along with us, growing in weapon proficiency as we acquaint ourselves with the controls.
As we grow comfortable with the control setup and response, the challenge factor adapts along with us. Rather than jumping into the same gunfight repeatedly, Alan Wake finds various wrenches to throw in our works by increasing foes and delivering new challenges. While early battles pit you against mostly smaller, swifter enemies (known as "Taken," townsfolk corrupted by the malevolent force), later encounters produce hulking madmen with chainsaws and explosive-lobbing psychopaths. Throughout various scenarios, you'll battle different arrangements of enemies, adding much needed variety to the combat. Multifariousness doesn't stop there, though, as you'll confront diverse perils throughout an episode. For instance, you might start off with slew of average enemies out in the open. Afterward, you'll battle a few large villains in closed quarters, only to rush outside and navigate narrow walkways over deep gorges while corrupted birds attempt to Ninja Gaiden you over the edge. Surmount that issue and you'll enter a scuffle with mixed opponents, only this time with the added constraint of dodging enormous objects hurled at you by a poltergeist-like entity. Whatever the situation, Alan Wake keeps you on your toes and maintains a strong pace throughout the experience.
Only at few points does the action decide to take five and let the horror have its moment in the sun, preferring to happily share the spotlight with its costar. The two stand side by side, even when you're in the midst of a heated battle. It's then that your head will swim with violent delight, distracted as a Taken sneaks up behind you and blathers in a demonic voice. Before you can turn around, slow motion effects kick in and you watch as a tire iron completes an overhead arc on top of Alan's dome. Temporarily dazed, other Taken descend upon him and rain bone-crunching blows.
In a typical shooter, all you need to do is bust a few caps and walk away with a few wounds, but violent retribution is not so streamlined in Alan Wake. The Taken, as it turns out, don't obey natural laws and are therefore immune to conventional weapons. The only way to damage a Taken is to shatter its barrier with a flashlight before pulverizing it with a few rounds. While this may sound simple, there are some factors you should take into account. For instance, you can only shine the flashlight on one Taken at a time, and you're wide open when aiming the beam. And there it is, ladies and gentlemen; that vulnerability bit again. This is where terror and tension take hold, when you're trying to juggle light-shining, gunplay, evasion, and your awareness of your surroundings and enemy placement. Adding to the nightmare is the Takens' hellish nature, which serves to unnerve you. It catches you off guard, muddies your thoughts, and causes you to make horrifying mistakes. You might think you're winning the day at one moment, with a beam trained on your nearest opponent, only to hear the zip of a chainsaw and a monstrous voice behind you. You'll spin around, forget about the Taken currently flanking you, and lose yourself in a confusing mess of possibilities. And what does your instinct tell you? Run.
Too bad you forgot about the cliff five feet away, which sends Alan crunching against multiple jagged rocks as he plummets.
This isn't to say that Alan Wake is another Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Silent Hill 2 in terms of scares. It wisely skips cerebral elements to deliver fright that's more visceral, which meshes wonderfully with the game's astute action. However, this doesn't prevent the game from establishing a solid, brooding atmosphere. After all, you're alone in Pacific Northwest woods at night, surrounded by darkness and a sea of tress, unable to discern what's next to you. You won't encounter much inherently fear-inducing stimuli like arbitrary noises or horrifying visions, and you likely won't need to. The best kind of tension is the kind you build for yourself. Plunged in darkness, it's hard not to imagine that there are Taken around every tree or hiding inside every dilapidated farmhouse.
Worse, the game rewards you for straying from the path and running headlong into the darkness by granting you access to various treasure troves and secret areas. In such places you'll find improved artillery like flashbangs, which act as grenades against the light-fearing Taken, all at the cost of endangering yourself.
Upon finishing Alan Wake, both the action and horror sectors of my mind were satisfied. I wasn't entirely freaked out by the experience, nor was I frothing at the mouth from an opulence of badass gunplay and copious amounts of violence. I was somewhere in between, unnerved by the game's tension and dark surroundings while engaged by its reasonably underscored combat system. Maybe this isn't the best fusion of action and horror--I still say that honor goes to Resident Evil 4--but it is a tense and delightfully action-packed tale with plenty of bite. Hats off to Remedy for successfully bringing two egomaniacal genres together and convincing them to share the spotlight.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.