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Alan Wake wants to be emotive and psychological. It constantly barraged me with smug references to other works of fiction in the hope that I would compare the two favourably. But in the end this is fun to play, but by no means unsettled me as a person.
Alan Wake advertises itself hard as a Psychological Action Thriller. This conjures up images of being truly unnerved by the experiences within. Unfortunately while it holds these lofty ambitions, it doesn't quite achieve them. The more I played it the more plainly flawed it felt. Enjoyable as a game but forgettable as an emotional experience.
You play Alan Wake, a best selling thriller writer who's suffering badly from a case of writer's block, a condition I can appreciate all too well. That was as far as my empathy stretched though as Alan is far from a likeable lead.
In the early stages he is constantly rude and moody to his long suffering wife who is trying to help him cure his writer's block. This leads him to leave her alone in a darkened cabin despite her fear of the dark. She then mysteriously vanishes and the plot of the game truly kicks off. Alan Wake is thrust into a world full of the Taken, possessed town folk, and the Dark Presence which is out to destroy him.
Throughout the story it's clear that much is liberally borrowed from famous pieces of horror and suspense. Although not a huge aficionado I noticed the Shining's maze scene as well as a number of more subtle references to Twin Peaks. This does tie in nicely with the concept of Alan Wake offering episodic content in a TV series manner, but it all felt a bit too forced and self aware for my liking. This isn't helped by the nature of the gameplay elements of Alan Wake.
I found myself yearning to get through such stages just so that I can learn more of the storyline.
Wake feels clumsy to control. While interactive fiction such as Heavy Rain was happy to put aside typical gameplay elements in favour of more cinematic and emotive progress, Alan Wake straddles the game and film world awkwardly.
As a gamer it was fun to defend myself against the Taken. I had to reduce their strength by shining light on them before shooting them. There's a reasonable array of different light sources such as a flashlight and even flares and flashbangs, making it more entertaining. However the regular action scenes too frequently detract from the psychological experience. I found myself yearning to get through such stages just so that I can learn more of the storyline.
This isn't helped by the constant hand holding though. Such were these signposts that I never felt under serious threat. Whether this was by liberally scattering ammunition around an area just before a big fight or by the fact that destroying the last Taken in a group would evoke a slow motion cinematic moment signalling an end to the danger.
In the first half of the game I often found myself bored. It just all too obvious and I couldn't understand how this game could be described as a 'psychological' experience. Thre was none of the difficult moral decision of the likes that Heavy Rain or Mass Effect 2. It was all too linear a tale.
I'd decided to play through the game in a darkened room by myself, despite normally playing in a communal setting, hoping that this would make the game more thrilling but it wasn't to be. Even here I found myself more often reaching for snacks and other distractions to alievate the repetition.
The lack of interaction between Alan and his cohorts meant that I never felt anything more than a passenger on this journey.
The second half provided more excitement though, with some particularly inspired set pieces that had moments of real claustrophobia - of being trapped in this ghoulish world. But these never really took hold. It was style over substance. Wake offers the right scenario - empty small towns and foreboding forests full of possessed people - but never really capitalised on these to evoke fear or reaction. The lack of interaction between Alan and his cohorts meant that I never felt anything more than a passenger on this journey.
Solely as a game Alan Wake is enjoyable. It offers some terrific moments to participate in. But as an emotive experience, it's severely lacking. It's too clichéd to offer any real surprises. Throwing someone into a peculiar confusing world should be a terrifying experience yet Alan Wake turns this into something mundane and a little shallow.
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