Alan Wake E3 2005 Impressions

We were fortunate to be among the first in the world to see the E3 demonstration of the next game from the maker of Max Payne: the psychological horror action title, Alan Wake.


Our first order of business at E3 this year was to make a beeline for the ATI booth, in which we were treated to a behind-closed-doors demonstration of Alan Wake, the next game from the maker of the outstanding Max Payne games. The demonstration was conducted by Sam Lake, writer of the Max Payne titles, as well as the likeness of Max Payne from the first game. You can tell from the name alone that Alan Wake has some elements in common with its predecessors--a scenery-chewing antihero, an influence from other media (in this case, psychological thrillers, especially the cult classic show Twin Peaks), and more. However, Remedy was also quick to explain what's going to be so special about Alan Wake. We waited with bated breath to see some action, knowing that Alan Wake was going to feature plenty of fighting, because Remedy admits that action gameplay is its bread and butter.

In the end, though, all we got to see was a technology demo, featuring the game's "world" of Pride Falls, Washington--a quaint mountain town--and the game's protagonist running and driving around in it. However, the technology itself is quite impressive, and we're also excited to see the direction in which this game is headed. Remedy went out of its way to demonstrate the scope and scale of the world. While Pride Falls is just a small town--pretty on the outside, no doubt disturbing on the inside--the outskirts feature a majestic mountain range, a beautiful lake, and tons of greenery. Seeing it almost made us long for a little getaway from the din of the convention center. What's impressive about the engine is how it scales. The developers could easily zoom way out to show the entire landscape or zero on in Alan himself, looking a little uneasy next to his beat-up station wagon.

Let's back up and talk about the premise. Alan Wake is a successful horror story author. His fiancée was his muse, according to Remedy reps, and she instilled in him both his inspiration and his nightmares. One day, Wake's fiancée goes missing, and as a result, he starts to crack--and stops sleeping. Yes, folks, Remedy's latest protagonist also has problems with women and badly needs a shrink. The difference between Alan and Max, though, is that Alan actually gets his shrink appointment. That's how he winds up in Pride Falls.

At the hospital, he meets an attendant who's a spitting image of his missing fiancée. And sure enough, the nightmares start up again. Only this time, they're a little too real. Is Alan going mad? Or is a sinister plot starting to unravel in Pride Falls? The game's psychological-thriller influence is exciting, since it hearkens back to arguably the best parts of Max Payne and Max Payne 2: the parts where those games got real weird and took some surprising and original twists. The Alan Wake demo was evocative of those sequences, and it left us with a real tease that found Alan desperately rushing to reach a lighthouse, where he tried to crack open the lock. But the sun sets. Alan then collapses, as if lost. The camera next pans back to reveal several standing black-robed figures, peering in his direction.

The freaks will come out at night in Alan Wake. According to the developers, darkness and light will be key aspects of gameplay. As Wake descends into madness--or into a world gone mad--the nights will seem to grow longer as the days grow shorter. And the nighttime is what will bring Wake's enemies upon him. Again, unfortunately we didn't get to see any real gameplay. But we did get to see Wake running around with a flashlight and a gun, though we were led to believe that the light may end up doing most of the damage. Light will weaken or hurt Wake's enemies, and creatively taking advantage of any and all light sources within Alan Wake's grim world ought to be one of the interesting aspects of play.

The weather effects were another highlight of the demo. Volumetric lighting lends a hazy, wistful look to the proceedings, and the weather effects--including a torrential storm--looked very real and could develop and change in real time. Plenty of games feature day/night cycles at this point, but you'll just have to take our word for it that the effects in Alan Wake are quite a bit more impressive than what you're used to. Of course, the game doesn't have a release date yet, nor does it have a publisher. And the fact that we didn't really get a sense of the gameplay (apart from the GTA-style free-roaming and driving mechanics) suggests that Alan Wake's got a way's to go. One aspect of the game engine that's already up and running quite nicely is the physics engine. For example, we got to see a massive mountainside collapse, as logs and boulders crashed down upon a bridge.

Remedy's Max Payne succeeded against all odds at being a stylish shooter that combined equal parts The Matrix and film noir. Alan Wake clearly is headed in its own separate direction, though we were glad to see that the game seems to have a similar sense of style and attention to storytelling as its predecessors. We're eager to see much more of the game, which is headed to the PC and next-generation consoles.

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