Alan Wake has garnered as many headlines for its protracted development time as it has for its impressive technology, but this year's E3 was a completely new beginning for the game. Seeing it in action alongside the development team at Microsoft's booth, we caught ourselves watching open-mouthed numerous times. Let's just say that Alan Wake will top a lot of Best of E3 lists by the end of the show.
The game puts you in the shoes of, er, Alan Wake--a struggling writer who decides to head out to the countryside with his wife. So far, The Shining, you might be thinking, but Alan Wake is much more like a TV series than a movie. The game is split up into distinct parts, such as the 18-minute demo we saw, and each "episode" will open with the message "Tonight on Alan Wake." It will also feature a previous episode recap and a cliffhanger ending, hopefully propelling you through the overall story by providing plenty of thrills along the way. This is a format that people may remember from Alone in the Dark, and while the developers do acknowledge the similarities, they seem to be confident with their implementation of the idea.
The setup for the game comes shortly after Alan and Alice arrive on their holiday. Alice disappears, which leaves Alan understandably distraught, and he soon comes to believe that she's being held hostage in return for pages from his manuscript. As the story unfolds, he collects pages in various locations, and as he reads them, he sees the events he's written about come to life. In the demo we saw, Alan read how a man was firing his gun, and these events played out in the game shortly after.
As for gameplay, it's clear that Alan Wake revolves around the interplay between light and dark. The unspecified enemies are all controlled by the darkness, which can control humans, animals, and vehicles such as trucks. To fight them, Alan has to use light sources such as his flashlight, flares, or streetlights to remove their "dark shield," and he can then kill them using his gun. Basically, darkness means death for Alan, so he always needs to stay in the light to stay alive. Sometimes this means starting up a generator, as we saw in one minigame, or upgrading his flashlight. We didn't see it in the game, but Remedy stated that Alan is able to concentrate on the light to make it stronger for short bursts of time.
The combat mechanics look to be fairly simple: you just point the light at your enemies to remove their darkness shield and then open fire with your handgun. However, with multiple enemies or vehicles, you have to use a flare, which will vanquish the darkness in an explosion of light. We watched the developer of the game toss a flare at a couple of human enemies, and the camera panned round to offer a slow-mo view of the action. Remedy's previous series was the famously stylish Max Payne, and while Alan Wake is in a different genre, it looks to be just as beautifully presented.
From a technical standpoint, Alan Wake looks like one of the most accomplished Xbox 360 games yet. The lighting and shadowing are excellent, as you should probably expect from a game that puts so much emphasis on using light as a weapon, but there are plenty of other subtle details to take in. The trees look particularly beautiful, and when the darkness begins to topple trees right in front of you, it's a very scary thing to witness.
At the end of our demo, Alan Wake jumped into a car for a short driving section. The driving looked like it was fairly simple--the only weak part of the whole presentation--but it was worth it for the cliffhanger ending. Alan arrives at the lighthouse, but the lights are soon turned off and he slowly realizes that it was all a trap. As a tornado of darkness approached, Remedy turned off the game and announced the end of our E3 session, and we were certainly left wanting more. There's no playable code at this year's E3, but expect to hear more about the game soon ahead of its first-quarter 2010 release.