It's 7pm, Wednesday February 24th at the gates of Paris, the scenery is in diametric contradiction to the idyllic town of Bright Falls. However, it's there that we had the chance to try the long-waited Alan Wake and to discuss it with the developers. An exceptional evening for an exceptional game.
For the few people who haven't heard about Alan Wake, it's important to remind that it was one of the first next-gen game announced, five years ago. The first screenshots made quite a splash, then we had no news until last year E3 Microsoft conference where we were shown a pretty average looking gameplay demo. Consequently it's with high hopes (it's a Remedy game after all !), but with a little bit of fear too, that we started to play the game.
No more suspense, Alan Wake astonished us from its production to the atmosphere that's been created, but above and beyond all, its technical mastery. Remedy used to be known for its top-notch rendering engines, and they prove again they are worthy of their fame. To be clear, none of the existing Xbox 360 games even compares to it, and even on PS3, which have more real exclusive titles, it's hard to find an equivalent. Killzone 2, Uncharted 2, Crysis, these are the few games which can compete with it. Whether it's the real-time projected shadows produced by the essential flashlight (those were obviously missing in Condemned 1 & 2), the total absence of aliasing (720p 4x FSAA), the breathtaking realistic lighting effects, the huge size of certain levels, SSAO, the atmospheric effects, the humongous size of some moving objects, the vegetation which interacts with characters and wind, or the largely satisfying framerate (with a light tearing that should disappear in the retail version) and many other physical and graphical effects, Alan Wake never ceases to amaze you with relative ease.
This technical mastery leaves us deploring Microsoft's choice not to favor more real exclusive titles for its console, as it shows how powerful the Xbox 360 is and how poor multiplatforms engines can be. But let's stop moaning and let's appreciate this one as it's not only a technical performance but it also comes with an excellent production.
The first 90 minutes, corresponding to the first "episode" of the game, that we played successfully switched between action sequences during the night and daylight exploration. The developers have chosen to deliver a maximum of in-game information through some conversations, instead of systematically interrupting the game with cutscenes (although there are some when needed), and this choice seems to be totally relevant. Alan is simultaneously the main character and the narrator of this adventure, this seems again to be absolutely logical.
The first episode directly begins with a nighttime scene, which is in fact the tutorial of the game where the player can learn all the controls. This sequence is already amazing as the hero tries to escape from a twister destroying huge parts of the scenery. This sequence is interrupted by the voice of Alan's wife, Alice. She wakes him up as they are arriving in Bright Falls by boat. Was it a dream? A premonition? That's what we will discover later on in the game. The arrival at Bright Falls gives the opportunity to admire this magnificent small town and to discuss with Alice and a passenger on the boat, and then to visit a typically American restaurant in order to retrieve the keys of the villa you've rented to spend your vacation. In the restaurant you'll meet some of the local citizens and you'll learn more about Alan Wake's notoriety, which seems to be about as big as Stephen King's. Once in possession of the keys, after an enigmatic meeting, a beautiful cinematic sequence brings us to the villa, where we discover that Alice is terrorized by the dark, a detail that will be very important in the storyline.
After some unclear events, Alice disappears and Alan wakes up at night after a car crash, 7 days later, without any memory of what has happened since his wife disappeared. What happens during that time is obviously essential to the central part of the scenario. In fact, Alan discovers some pages from a manuscript that he has supposedly written even though he doesn't remember writing them and these manuscript entries unequivocally describe his currently situation. These pages are scattered all along the game and are more or less hidden. The last part of this episode is a mix of action and exploration, which ends in a thundering scene at the top of a dam.
Concerning the gameplay, we have to face the fact that it's quite classic in design yet quite riskless in return. The action sequences look like any TPS shooter, with a shoulder-level aim and free movements which allow you to shoot while avoiding enemies attacks. The flashlight is of course very important as it helps for aiming, but it also weakens the enemies by taking away the darkness that inhabits them and protects them from bullets. In tighter situations, you can even use distress flares, which will result in some superb lighting and slow-motion effects. Dazzling, in every sense of the word. Controls are responsive enough to let you manage stressful situations (we've seen a sequence where the hero, helped by two other characters, have to resist a massive wave of enemies while waiting for an elevator, a typical survival-horror scene that you have come to expect in games such as Resident Evil or Left 4 Dead) and a dodge button (the same as the Run one) is set to limit virile contacts against enemies or elements from the scenery. The slight inertia of the character and some stiff animations could annoy the nitpicky gamers, but exploration and action sequences quickly become comfortable and captivating. One question remains: will the adventure deliver enough variety to keep the player interested until the end? Considering the excellent narrative and the incredible atmosphere of the game, no doubt that it should keep you interested until the ending, said to be worthy of the best TV shows (according to the developers).
It's hard not to enthuse after this first episode of Alan Wake. There still are some drawbacks, like the stiff animations or the rendering of faces when in close-up, but Remedy has proved once again that their technical mastery, and most of all, their capacity to create a deep atmosphere with a perfect narrative. Hopefully a game which, unless a huge down turn in the rhythm of the following episodes, will captivate us as soon as May 21st.
For now, check out our Oskari Häkkinen interview, featuring the voices of our good friend Spawn from xbox-mag and of course, Driftwood.