What's the light without the darkness? What good is action if tension isn't built first? These are questions developer Remedy's psychological action game seeks to answer, and based on the latest demo we saw at Microsoft's X10 event today, it may do just that. We saw two separate sections of the game in this demo. The first, which occurs early on, is about building anxiety by showing the lighter side of Alan's adventure. Here, Alan meets the people of Bright Falls, a small town where everyone knows everyone else. The second portion of the demo focused squarely on the action and took place mostly under the cover of darkness and featured Alan's main enemies--zombie-like atrocities called the Taken. Alan Wake has been a long time coming, but we're happy that the end is near: Remedy announced a final release date today: May 18 in North America and May 21 in Europe.
In the cutscene that opened the demo, we saw Alan wake with a start in a car's passenger's seat. He is stirring after a bad nightmare, but thankfully, his wife Alice is there to announce their arrival. The camera pans across a river and we see a bridge that spans its width, welcoming everyone to Bright Falls, an idyllic town that seems to hold nothing but hope and prosperity to all who enter. A few moments later, Alan walks into a diner, filled with colorful people eager for his arrival. The author is a celebrity of course, and the waitress, clearly excited to meet a star, chats with him cheerfully. As Alan, you can walk about the diner at will to see what the locals are all about. One diner regular drinks so much coffee that the waitress is convinced he must be made of it, and two old-time rock-and-rollers argue in their booth. However, you're there on a mission: to meet Carl Stuckey, who's waiting with the keys to his cabin at Cauldron Lake.
The sunny introduction doesn't stay so bright for long, however. Just as he starts down the hallway to see Carl, an older woman in a booth warns him of the darkness ahead, and indeed, the hallway is almost devoid of light. Alan knocks on a door asking for Stuckey, but Carl is a no-show. Instead, a mysterious figure emerges from the blue and black shadows, and she (at least we think it was a she) tells him Carl is indisposed, and she has the keys. Alan thanks her, but clearly there is something sinister at work, and the kooky woman that warned him of the darkness has a similar warning for him when he emerges from the dim hallway. There seemed to be a lot yet to explore, but the demo then moved forward in time to a point later in the game.
We didn't have a good idea of the full context of the events since Alan's diner visit, but it was clear that his beloved Alice had gone missing, and Alan was searching for clues. The current goal was to investigate a crash site--a helicopter crash site, as it turned out. Alan sets off through the forest and is eventually accompanied by two cohorts called Sarah and Barry (we learned later that Sarah was the town's sheriff). In contrast with the luminous lighting of the first part of the demo, the second half was eerily dark. It isn't long before Alan is attacked by several of the Taken, so we got to see plenty of action here. The Taken avoid the light, making your flashlight as important as your firearms. By shining your flashlight on them, you make them vulnerable to gunfire, at which point you can pump them full of lead. In most survival horror games, shooting and aiming are laborious affairs, but based on what we saw, Alan moves and turns fluidly in combat. Alan seems comfortable with both a handgun and a powerful-sounding shotgun, and we got to see both of these weapons in action.
Those aren't Alan's only offensive tools, however. As you can imagine, flares are anathema to the Taken, and shooting them at your foes results in some cinematic slowdown and a lot of screaming as the light vanquishes these denizens of the dark. Light sources are obviously important. You'll be turning spotlights on the Taken, and your companion Barry wraps a string of Christmas lights around him, hoping they will ward off enemies in the way garlic wards of vampires. It didn't seem to help, but it certainly didn't hurt either, though the Taken still descended on the group with axes in each hand.
The troupe eventually reaches a dam, where Barry refers to Mordor, Sauron's sinister home in The Lord of the Rings. This wasn't the only pop culture reference, either; we also heard a reference to Stephen King's The Shining at another point. The trio heads for a doorway from which light is pouring, but as soon as Barry and Sarah enter, a load of industrial waste falls from above, blocking Alan from the doorway and forcing him to continue--alone. From here, things get even freakier. A moment later, Alan is besieged by a number of industrial-sized spools, obviously possessed by an unknown evil. They fly toward him out of the air, though Alan manages to dodge them on his way to the top of the dam.
These giant spools aren't Alan's only new nemesis. A short while later, the lights dotting the top of the dam are extinguished one by one, and a flock of shadowy ravens descends upon him. They are soon replaced by a horde of Taken. Outnumbered, Alan uses a searchlight to even the odds, with the help of a few flashbang grenades, which blind and injure the oncoming gang. When Taken are defeated, they vanish in a bright flash of light, an effect that never got old, no matter how many times we saw it. Remedy is clearly going for a game of great contrasts. The black of night is all the more effective when distinguished from the glowing light of the aptly named Bright Falls, and the Taken seem all the more evil because they're so very different from the happy-go-lucky locals. Your companions even remark that your arrival in Bright Falls has not been exactly fortuitous.
Alan Wake's story further contributes to the creepiness of these contrasts. As you wander through the threatening woods, you discover pages of a manuscript--a manuscript based on a novel you never wrote. These pages warn you of upcoming dangers, but they hint at something far greater. How is it that Alan's imagination is coming to life before his very eyes? Where is Alice, your muse? Who are these Taken? The narrative is presented as an episodic television series, each part of the story separated into episodes that recap what has come before and that end with an appropriate "to be continued."
Based on what we saw, the game's visuals are outstanding, and the voice acting--of which there is plenty--is great as well. If you were looking for a survival game that offers something truly unique, Alan Wake might offer just what you've been hoping for. This creepy, story-driven experience is beautiful to look at and fun to watch in action, and we look forward to bringing you even more information as it becomes available.