X06: Alan Wake Updated Impressions

We check in with Remedy for an update on the upcoming Xbox 360 title from X06.

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BARCELONA, Spain--We haven't heard much on Alan Wake since the moody title debuted at Microsoft's Electronic Entertainment Expo press conference. The game is named after its main character, a troubled writer coping with the loss of his girlfriend. At today's behind-closed-doors meeting with Finnish developer Remedy at X06, we found out what's going on with the unique psychological action thriller.

The demo was led by Remedy's creative director and Alan Wake's lead writer, who traded off speaking during the demo. The pair reiterated Alan Wake's action thriller approach and laid out the game's premise. You'll play as Alan Wake, a writer who's going through a rough patch. It seems his fairy-tale life took a bizarre turn when, after meeting the perfect woman and writing a best-selling novel, his special lady disappears in circumstances similar to those seen in his book, and he's wracked by insomnia. We expect he should have been a touch concerned upon realizing that his novel almost wrote itself (courtesy of the voices in his head), but hey, sometimes you just need to roll with those creative surges of energy, right? At any rate, he's hit hard by the disappearance and heads out to a clinic near the slightly too picturesque town of Bright Falls where, wouldn't you know it, he starts having odd visions of his lady and finding that someone is writing in his journal. Creepy? Yes. Good setup for a psychological action thriller? Totally.

The demo showed a bit of the game's intro off, which began with an eerie array of images, as logos drifted in and out of view, and then panned to a dramatic zoom of Alan hanging out on a mountain top. The view from his vantage point offered a stunning showcase of the area around Bright Falls. The game is re-creating a 10x10 kilometer slice of the Pacific Northwest, which should offer plenty of places for you to explore.

Once the impact of the opening passed, the demo shifted to gameplay and showed off how you'll be getting around and interacting with folks. The basic structure of the game is modeled after a season of a TV series. The episodic structure is being used to support multiple endings in the game and let each episode be broken up into different parts to complement the game's storytelling style.

The demo showed one of the early missions in the game and found our troubled lead starting to explore his surroundings. The game's interface is being kept simple, with a task bar in the lower left-hand corner of the screen displaying your current mission in handwritten font. For the demo, Alan was tasked with going to a mountainside cabin. Alan spoke with a gas station employee and got a key before heading out to the cabin, which was near the charmingly named Cauldron Lake (we're sure it's a fun, happy place). As Alan drove, his inner monologue served as commentary on his situation--a gameplay element that occurred several times in the demo. Not long after he starts his drive to the cabin, Alan encounters a hitchhiker who he picks up (we'll say right now we're a little concerned that Alan might not be the brightest lead character we've ever seen in a video game). During the drive, the situation takes a turn for the creepy, as Alan chats up his passenger with a fun fact: The events taking place are reminiscent of a hitchhiker scene in Alan's book where the fictional hitchhiker is killed. A little later in the ride the pair come across a car wreck. While Alan leaves the car to check out the busted vehicle, a truck zips by and hits his car head on, apparently killing the hitchhiker. A few disoriented moments later, Alan drops like a sack of potatoes.

Unfortunately, unconsciousness isn't the pleasant break from harsh reality you'd think, as Alan must deal with disturbing imagery that ends with what appears to be his lady beckoning him to wake up. When Alan wakes, he finds himself sprawled on the road where he dropped holding a gun and a flashlight. Fortunately, the cabin is nearby, and he heads over to it via a rickety rope bridge. As he nears the cabin, the view changes to a cinematic that shows something wicked coming Alan's way. Just what the mysterious, invisible creature is remains unclear, but if you're thinking it's bad, then you're probably right. The demo ended with Alan encountering what appears to be the hitchhiker on the rope bridge, which served as a snappy cliff-hanger to the experience.

The visuals in the game are looking very sharp, thanks to a cracking level of detail. The environments shown off in the demo featured crisp detail that the Remedy boys took pride in showing off, as they adjusted the time of day and tweaked environmental effects such as wind and fog. The game is set to feature high dynamic range lighting that was shown to good effect as time of day and weather conditions changed. At one point, Alan entered a garage at night with all manner of light sources casting shadows every which way, which was mightily impressive. To really sell the environment's dynamic nature, the team created a tornado that ripped through a house near where Alan was standing and showed all the particle effects it stirred up as it tore into a house. Just as impressive were the character models, which were still a work in progress. However, they looked amazing due in no small part to Remedy's desire to create the most realistic-looking characters it could drop into the gorgeous, but disturbing, playground of the game world.

The audio added a lot to the demo thanks to the speakers set out around the room. The incidental music had some bite to it and helped sell the game's atmosphere. The voice acting was so-so, but we expect it will see some refinement as game development continues.

Based on what we saw, Alan Wake is looking like a promising original title from Remedy that's attempting a lot of interesting ideas. The story and the episodic nature of how it's structured is something we're very curious to see play out. What little we've seen of the game's presentation has a very good feel and seems to be striking the right balance between something you watch and something you play. Look for more on Alan Wake as it becomes available.

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