Alan Wake Hands-On

We finally get a chance to explore the inside of Alan Wake's mind in this creepy and intriguing thriller.

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Last week, we brought you our impressions of developer Remedy's excellent Alan Wake showing at Microsoft's X10 event. Not only did we see a demo of this psychological thriller in action, but we also got our hands on a completely different level, making this the first time we were able to play Alan Wake. We knew it was beautiful to look at and the story intrigues us the more we glimpse of it, so we're happy that the gameplay makes as good of a first impression as the game's presentation values. The controls were solid and the combat felt slick during our play time, which gives us great hope for this long-in-development story-driven experience. Luckily, that development time is almost over, for Remedy has announced that Alan Wake is coming to North America on May 18 and to Europe on May 21.

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In the section we played, a visually slick cutscene and narration fills us in on the premise. Alan quotes horror writer Stephen King, which seems appropriate given the prolific author's obvious influence on the story. As the camera pans across a dark lake, Alan tells us how he has driven to visit a lighthouse, for reasons he can't explain--yet this drive is incredibly urgent. As he drives through the dead of night, he hits a pedestrian. Shocked, he gets out of his car to discover that the man he struck is dead. Dazed, Alan wonders what will happen next--and the body vanishes, as if it were never there. Obviously, Alan is even more shocked than before, though there isn't much time to dwell, for the scene--and the voice-over--then shifts tone.

The following scene offers us a quick rundown of what has been happening in Alan's life to lead him to where he is now. If you've read previous coverage, you probably know that Alan is a famous author, looking for peace and inspiration in the quiet hamlet of Bright Falls. The scene fills us in on even more information: His wife, Alice, is missing; he woke up behind the wheel of a crashed car to discover a week had gone by, the time all but lost; and most importantly, his imagination is coming to life before his eyes. Alan's idea for his upcoming novel is happening as he watches, and he even finds manuscript pages from this book on his travels--a book he has yet to write. In the demo, we discovered several such pages, but they are more than just a narrative device: they also provide clues of what you might next encounter. For example, one page talked about a flock of black birds that descend upon you almost like smoke. And as we saw in last week's demo, you do indeed encounter such a freaky phenomenon.

The demo began after Alan wakes from his stupor. As Alan, you see a gas station in the distance, across a deep ravine and the river that flows through it, and Alan surmises he'll probably find a telephone there, or someone who can help. We started off down the path and through the forest, but as you can imagine, this was not a stress-free trek. We glimpsed a shadowy figure on the path, who appeared and disappeared, spouting gibberish that didn't make a whole lot of sense. However, we did catch his name as he rambled: Carl Stuckey. As we mentioned in our prior preview, Carl is the man Alan was to meet in order to receive keys to a lakeside cabin. When he went to the diner to meet Carl, a mysterious figure emerged from the shadows and told Alan that Carl was indisposed. In this case, it seems "indisposed" is a major understatement.

Eventually we saw lights ahead at a logging camp, where a cabin rested amid a maze of stacked logs. However, Carl continued to flit across our path, and it became quickly clear that we'd need to defend ourselves. Eventually we made our way to a shed and found a telephone inside. We tried to make a call out and reached the sheriff's office, only for the call to give way to some far more insidious cries and scowls. A phone was not the only device to be found in the small cabin, however, and we picked up a flashlight and a pistol, knowing they'd come in handy. As soon as we did, however, we met with the realization that something wasn't right. Indeed, Carl was trying to push the shed into the ravine with some industrial equipment. We jumped out just in the nick of time, and the makeshift cabin plummeted into the river.

Thankfully, the pistol and flashlight came in more than handy, and it wasn't long before we were filling Carl's cronies with lead. The "human" enemies you fight in Alan Wake are called the Taken (the ones we saw dual-wielded axes and weren't afraid to throw one), and as you might know already, they are sensitive to light. To weaken their defenses and slow them down, you shine a bright beam of light on them by holding the left trigger, and you shoot your weapon by pulling the right trigger. Focusing light on a Taken also functions as a sort of lock-on, honing in on the enemy closest to the beam and making it easy to take shots at him. Your flashlight doesn't have unlimited energy, though. Each time you focus light on an enemy, you lose battery life, and you need to replenish flashlight batteries in the same way you replenish ammo. Tapping Y replaces your battery, while tapping X reloads your ammo. When you are running low on either, a prompt will appear on the screen to let you know.

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Alan controls smoothly, which might be a relief if you've played a typically sluggish survival horror game before. When you turn, the flashlight's beam leads the way, so while Alan isn't the most fleet-footed guy, he can certainly pivot the beam around as quickly as he needs to. Nevertheless, this is no third-person shooter. Alan still moved more authentically than you would see in a shooter, ambling along when sprinting and landing with a thud if falling from too high above. The path was fairly narrow, but we moved along easily and were able to fight off baddies without getting hung up in the environment or having trouble getting about and honing in on the Taken. We used both a pistol and a shotgun in our travels, and both felt solid and had just the right amount of heft. The shotgun in particular felt powerful and weighty.

The rest of the gameplay followed somewhat traditional lines for a creepy adventure. In order to get to an upper path, we needed to use a logging crane, but there was no power available, so we had to search for a generator. While we did so, we discovered one of Alan Wake's more interesting facets. Ammo stashes are hidden around the various areas, placed there by an enigmatic helper who scrawls arrows and cryptic messages on the sides of buildings. You can see these hints only when you pass the beam of your flashlight over them, so you'll need to keep your eyes open if you want to have enough ammo and batteries to get by. Once we found a few stashes, we could confidently move forward, making our way to the upper path before we had to make way for the journalist next in line to take a look.

Alan Wake looks impressive. The way shafts of light cut through the darkness or softly waft through doorways sometimes sets an ominous tone and other times seems inviting, urging you to escape the darkness. The forest is littered with authentic touches, like junked cars, axes stuck in rotting stumps, and makeshift log bridges. Alan's narrative will keep you constant company, so thankfully the voice acting seems solid and unforced. The ramblings of the Taken cut through the silence of the forest, while the shotgun in particular makes an impression with its dominant boom. If you're a sucker for slick production values, this is a game you'll need to keep an eye on.

Luckily, you won't have long to wait. May 18 is just around the corner, and Alan Wake may be just the story-driven adventure you've been craving. Only time will tell, of course, but for now things are looking good for the game, though we're not so certain about Alan himself or his missing wife. We can't wait to find out more about the evil forces directing this drama, and we'll share more news as it becomes available.

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