Lost in the Darkness

User Rating: 5 | Alan Wake PC

Alan Wake is a game that I didn't really hear too much about around its initial console release date. After it had been out for a good while I saw it was discounted on Steam and proceeded to check out some reviews for the game. As usual I watch reviews to see some gameplay and to familiarize myself with what I will be getting into--as opposed to allowing somebody's opinion determine the value of a game for me. Almost all of the reviews I read were positive, with some of the consistent nods going towards great PC optimization and graphics. The first of which is really important and the other of which is a bit more complex. At any rate, I kept those two common merits in mind.

When I first tried the game, I was gaming on a laptop. A Radeon HD 5650 and a dual core i5 (with hyper-threading) were the equipment I was working with and it usually fared well. Typically producing frames in the 30-50 range on medium settings in the majority of games I played, it wasn't a beast, but got the job done. Most of the time I would out-perform the consoles in multi-platform games, but this particular game ran terribly on my laptop. Even with every setting on low I was not achieving what I would consider my standard (at the time) of playability.

Cut to around a couple years later. I've built my own PC and put it together for the express purpose of handling games. Two 7950s in crossfire and an i5-3570k. This time around I can run the game with no technical (at least on my end) issues.

The first thing I noticed was how unspectacular the graphics are. Don't get me wrong: the game is not terrible looking. The flora have a nice organic motion when characters walk through them and wave believably in the wind. The art design creates a realistic depiction of a small town and a surrounding forest with a lake-side view. There was no issue suspending my disbelief and getting sucked into the well-created world itself. However, the character models are just not that great. They have the very common plastic look about them reminding you that they are in fact video game characters and nothing more. The tree models are thin and sickly in places and the textures are very muddy in others. The lighting is not impressive either. Days could be brighter and shadows darker. Nights could be darker as well. A pet peeve of mine is the fake Hollywood "blue tint" night time effect. A plethora of games claiming to have "day-night cycles" are guilty of this. Essentially night time is just as visible as day time, only the sun is now emanating a different color. This makes the flashlight useless in its traditional sense and only practical as a weapon against the Taken. I wonder: why have a night time that's not even dark? Every game that does this baffles me. Having a light source in a near pitch black environment would have ramped up the atmosphere so much and made the experience more immersive instead of settling for blue sunlight nights. The flashlight also has the tendency to overexpose surfaces which are already subjected to light. This might seem minor, but the flashlight is something Alan carries nearly all the time so it's something that happens frequently. After experiencing so many visual foibles I wonder why this game received so much praise for its graphics. Sure it's almost 2015, but I've seen older games look just as good and more aesthetically pleasing to myself. Technically, I don't see anything outstanding about the game. The artistic direction, again, is beautiful. The engine, however, doesn't appeal to me as a powerhouse as I was led to believe and merely does decently at every level what I've seen done better in other engines.

In regards to audio I found that the game seems to support 7.1 surround. This could be attributed to my audio settings propagating sound to my two side speakers, meaning the game only supports 5.1. Either way the sound design is decent. Under certain circumstances the audio would ignore coming through back or side speakers, even with the camera orientated such that the sound would be coming from behind Alan. This touches upon one of my biggest problems with the game: inconsistency. More on that later. When listening to characters speak I could rotate the camera and hear sound from all speakers. Sometimes. Other times the audio was centered on the left or the right speaker, in opposition to where Alan was standing or which direction the camera was facing. The radio broadcasts never use the back or side speakers. If I turned around to walk away, the front speakers were still the focus. I know it seems like I'm nitpicking, but when other games have brilliant sound design, it's very obvious when others do not. I just want to note the inconsistency in audio design. I found the voice acting to be pretty enjoyable. I wouldn't give any awards for performances, but I didn't find any particular issues. In fact, I would say that the voice work is definitely one of the stronger points of the game. The Taken are adequately horrific sounding, the doctor is convincingly reassuring to the point of being irksome, and the comic relief of Barry is my personal favorite. Alan is dark, foreboding, curious, lost, but sometimes didactic and obvious. The writers have the tendency to have Alan narrate exactly what the player either already knew, or would have within the next few seconds. That is no fault of the actors and can be attributed to the script itself. Present sound effects fit nicely into the atmosphere of the game. The whittling away of darkness with light has an appropriate dynamite-esque fuse sound ending with a satisfying burst to notify the player of the enemy's vulnerability. The guns sound fine--to myself who has never shot a gun before. As usual I turned off the music after a couple hours, as I prefer my games that way. Typically music conveys tension in these types of games when the game itself is actually devoid of the feeling. I wont, therefore, comment on the music only to say that some sound effects add tension still when music is off. The sound in the game is not bad at all. The voice work and effects are solid, while the technically side could have used some work.

Initially I found the combat to be intriguing. Break through what is effectively a shield with light to expose the weakness of your enemy. I haven't seen a concept quite like this one before. Over time the player comes into contact with more and more Taken and eventually slightly different variants. The opposition was evolving, yet they all have the same weakness. At some point combat became a chore. It was repetitive and the novelty quickly wore off. I spent more time purposefully avoiding enemies, not because I felt I couldn't defeat them, but because it was literally more fun to die multiple times in a game (within a game) I made to avoid everything when I could than to stand and fight. I'll just say what I think: the combat is bad. The concept is not, but the way it plays out is. In a sequel I hope they work on adding some intricacies to it, but that's not pertinent. Controlling Alan is clunky. I found that by chapter 3 I had endearingly began calling him "old man" usually prefaced with a series of expletives. So given the option I always turn HUDs off. That's just me. I can't comment on what the HUD looks like, but I can assume that if there is a stamina bar it would be about as long as my patience when trying to escape from the Taken: not very. I get it, he's a writer not an athlete. In high stakes situations our bodies--as humans--secrete epinephrine or adrenaline. For the love of God, nobody with a working body would possibly stop running from a crazed axeman trying to murder them after a mere seven seconds. I'm not saying it has to be a full sprint, but seriously. A brisk I-don't-want-to-die pace. That is all. For the most part dodging was doable. In some instances I felt like I moved at the right time, but no dice. While dodging was a bit inconsistent, jumping was incredibly so. The game has a ridiculous amount of invisible walls. I'm not kidding. Alan can mantle onto certain necessary chest-high platforms, while shin high obstacles require a vigor that he just doesn't have. Waist high fences can be jumped over--wait why is he not...never-mind: some waist high fences can be jumped over. Man-sized openings can be walked through--sometimes. I experienced a building in which two of the three support beams could be walked under, but for some arbitrary reason the third could not. It was exceedingly frustrating and illogical.

Gameplay wise, Alan Wake is inconsistent and illogical in many places. At one point the player has to shoot a piece of wood off of a door to open it. Thinking there was something behind the door I naturally moved a considerable distance away before firing into the indestructible plank forged from bark of the God tree. Completely confused, I inched closer and closer. Finally as I approached the imminent splinter zone the wood broke only to bring about an ambush. After reloading several times I realized that you had to be ambushed. It was scripted. Even though I had seen that coming and done something logical, the game says no: step inside the radius we have defined for you. Again, it is illogical that a piece of wood can't be broken from a bullet at a 20 or 30 yard distance when I had previously damaged Taken from much further away. I know that the story is already written and things go a certain way, but on a gameplay level that remains irrelevant. Inconsistent and illogical. I could go on with little anecdotes, but my point is that the game design really hampered my experience. There is no reward or even option for being smart in this game. In fact the level design itself is repetitive in that your objective is to move through predominantly linear forest trails (hitting checkpoints along the way) to reach some final house, cabin, et cetera. The sights are nice, but most cannot be reached do to the invisible barriers. The great art design went to waste in my opinion, because the levels, with a few exceptions, pretty much all play out the same. There's really not much to the gameplay that I haven't already touched upon. The driving is finicky and bad. Maybe that's just the mouse and keyboard. There's an awkward delay when trying to reverse, for some reason. There are collectible thermos'. Cool.

I know it sounds like I'm tearing this game a new one and I really I am. The game could have been much better, in my opinion. I'm not really sure where all the praise came from. Sure I'm a little late by a few years, but with all the positive reviews I was expecting something really top-notch. Yet, I couldn't stop playing until I finished the game, once I got into it. Why is that? The most redeeming quality about this game is the story. I want to know what happens next. I do. I really do. Even though all of the flaws I see are right there if front of me I still found that I wanted to keep going. I've always defined entertainment as anything that holds one's attention. Entertainment doesn't need to be fun or awesome or new or radical. The story is entertaining. It holds your attention. Absolutely I think the gameplay is frustrating, repetitive, and only seldom compelling, but the story made it worth finishing. Sure it's long-winded in places, meandering in others, convoluted at times, predictable even (pages and Alan literally tell you what's going/about to happen), but it's good and I did enjoy it. I found that going through a chapter was more interesting when a new morsel of information was there to contemplate. The I lost all my weapons, slowly recover my weapons, fight a boss, formula was just filler to the real game which was the story. Even the bits where Alan interacted with normal humans in towns or mental hospitals were so much more than the samey forests for the hundredth time.

Alan Wake is just one of those games that I appreciate playing once and will never go back to. Very much like the original Assassin's Creed. Both games introduced beautifully represented settings and unique concepts that became too repetitive and just fell flat. Hopefully, like Assassin's Creed II, a sequel will really outshine the blatant weaknesses of the original game, while staying true to its essence. I may not agree with the vast majority that this game is great, as I think it's merely mediocre, but I was entertained. I do believe that the story was great and the other elements have the potential to be great as well, with refinement. Then again I'm just one man with a pen and paper. Maybe I'm clueless and everything I wrote was an elaborate ploy. Maybe my mind was touched by the shadows and I'm merely a pawn to bring about the strengthening of the darkness.