Friday, December 10, 2010

Alan Wake Pre-Completion Reactions

I've been playing Alan Wake for a few days now. So far I am enjoying it, in fact I would say I am enjoying it more than I had expected to, even despite the good reviews raising my expectations. A lot of that has to do with the combat. It's quite satisfying. Unlike traditional cover-based third person shooters, it's fast and fluid, your enemies react to your shots and don't take multiple magazines worth of bullets to kill - even a single shot can stagger most of them for a moment, so your weapons really do feel powerful. Using the flashlight to aim feels natural, tapping to reload faster makes it feel more engaging somehow, and desperately ducking under a swinging axe with the dodge button is enjoyable. Enemies disintegrate in a burst of light, which makes killing them even more satisfying.

Don't get the idea that's it's easy, though. Well, actually, it is kind of easy. That's mainly because you can't select the hardest difficulty setting from the start, only the medium setting. Even so, there's tough moments, but if you explore a little you'll find enough flares and flash-bangs to fight your way through most of the toughest parts. Personally I'm extremely conservative and somewhat egotistical, I always try to stick to the regular weapons and save the strong stuff for "when I really need them" - which generally means that I play the tough parts three or four times, too stubborn to even slip new batteries in my flashlight, and then episode ends and Alan falls off a cliff or something and I lose all my lovely flare-gun rounds without using them.

Part of the reason for that is that the game is not actually all that scary. Perhaps it's the low difficulty, or the fact that single enemies are usually not hard to deal with and even the tougher ones are quite slow, or even just that the enemies are basically human. Personally, I think the third person perspective has a lot to do with it. First person games that drop you in the dark are very claustrophobic, and things like the muzzle flash lighting up the monster that's RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU really get your heart racing. In Alan Wake, not only do you have a better view of what's around you, the fact that they are attacking the guy on screen rather than coming straight at you just makes it less engaging. Also, the consequences for dying are minimal, you fall over and then the game loads up again - there's just not much impact there.

Personally I don't really mind though. It would have been better if it was scarier, but as it is I'm loving it. The story so far is very good. It's told piecemeal; scattered manuscript pages gives hints of the truth and snippets of the future, random television sets lighting up with views of Alan himself pacing and rambling, strange conversations with crazy people, brief flashbacks. While the story does start to take shape, it still keeps you guessing until the forth episode, during which enough is explained for you to finally understand what's happening. And it's a pretty cool story.

In fact, I would say that the story is brilliant because of what it allowed the creators to do: make a game that takes all the elements of a horror novel that can work in a game and use them without worrying about the bits that can't. Take for example the trigger-happy FBI agent. We don't need to worry about why he's chasing Alan; he's there because it makes a more exciting story, that's all there is to it. It also explains some of the questionable logic; why does the kidnapper keep setting up meetings at night? Because it makes a more exciting story. Why is there ammo and weapons scattered around the middle of the forest? Because in a book, the protagonist is often helped by fortunate coincidence, perhaps almost as often as he is caught by unfortunate coincidence. The use of the scattered manuscript pages works very well, in addition to foreshadowing future events, they give glimpses into the other characters that would be hard to fit into the normal narrative. And the fact that they are obtained one at a time and narrated by Wake makes them easier to read than the blocks of background text some games have hidden in their menus.

The setting works well too. A small village, isolated, surrounded by dark forests, mountains, cliffs and rivers. The scenery is quite beautiful sometimes, dark and scary others. Broken down wood buildings, winding forest paths, old abandoned mines, all lend themselves well to the horror setting. The abundance of weapons and survival equipment does not feel out of place either.

I had heard that some of the characters and dialog did not fit with the rest of the game. Personally, I didn't really experience that. That characters were lively and had character, sometimes they talked too much but it's probably better than talking too little. Sometimes people were quite quick to accept strange things, but it's not a TV show, we would get bored if we had to watch every character react in a completely realistic way. Sometimes I worried specific people would die, and I hoped they wouldn't, I guess that says it all really.

Sound plays a big part in a game like this, and Alan Wake seems to get it right. Audio cues do a good job of warning you of danger, making you feel that an enemy's protective darkness is really burning off, etc. Background music and sound sets the scene, and there's some nice audio tracks at the end of episodes.

Gameplay is divided into episodes that even have mini recaps at the start. At first it seems extraneous, but after a while it seems to make sense, dividing the action and story into arcs that keeps the game moving without making it feel drawn-out, and also makes it easier to jump in and out without feeling that the immersion is broken. It can also give you a moment to contemplate the previous chapter, which I suppose can put your mind in a better position to appreciate the next one, perhaps helping to keep the story in mind so you don't get confused or just miss anything. Plus it just fits with the whole "fiction" idea.

Graphics are good. There's a lot of light bloom that helps emphasize the importance and power of the light. Sometimes it's a little overpowering and makes it hard to see, but this is rarely out of places and usually feels natural. In contrast the Darkness twists and flows like it's alive, looking very sinister. Characters and animation look good, except for facial animation which is quite wooden. The environment looks great, with some beautiful scenic views.

So what's wrong with the game? That's just it; very little - even the driving mechanics are solid. That's another one of the things I really like, there nothing to get in the way, to break the spell. Well, very little anyway. There may be a few plot holes, I'm not sure yet, but like I said they whole nature of the story means plot holes are easy to ignore (most can probably be discounted as holes in his story, not in THE story). Alan himself acts a bit like a jerk sometimes, but that also is part of the story. The facial animation is rather poor compared to some other games, which hurts a game like this a bit, but it's not too bad.

My biggest criticism really would have to be the collectibles. I always feel a strong narrative-driven game (along with fast directed action games) should not have collectibles. I've just been told my best friend is in mortal danger, I can hear him yelling for help, calling my name, but all I can think about is that there might be a coffee flask just down that path and if I go to help him I'll miss my chance to get it. Well, he can wait, it's not like the game will kill him if I don't get there in time. And that's the problem; it breaks the immersion, lessens the impact of otherwise powerful scenes, distracts you from the story. I know that collectibles have many advantages, perhaps some people will just ignore the collectibles and focus on the story, but I just can't seem to do that. I firmly believe I would have enjoyed the game more if it weren't for the coffee flasks. The pages are slightly harder for me to rule on because they are brilliant themselves, but searching for them distracts me in the same way. Perhaps just handing them to the player would work better even if it is less immersive?

My other main issue is that my AI-controlled allies actually get on my nerves in a fight. I'll be aiming my flashlight at an enemy and suddenly my friend steps in the way of the beam - sometimes they insist on staying there, whenever I step to the side to try to aim past them they just step right back in the way. The same thing happens when I'm trying to get a shot with a gun too. Sometimes when they start to shoot at someone, I turn my attention to a different threat, and as I'm lining up for a shot, suddenly my target gets blown apart by a shotgun blast, my friends deciding to ignore the threat I trusted them to handle (and usually the enemy has run past them and is now coming at me). Basically, they make the fights much more chaotic and out of my control. But that's not too surprising, friendly AI is always difficult, and it's really a minor part of this game; you're alone far more often than not.

I guess the most important thing is that it's quite different to the standard fare. Combat is not completely unique but certainly different enough to feel new, and it is enjoyable. The story is interesting and certainly a change, again I quite like it. The episodes help control the pace, making it easier to jump in and out without it feeling disconnected. And all the "old" stuff just works. In conclusion, it's a polished game that has a good story, good gameplay, good graphics, good music, good voice acting, with very little wrong with it.

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