Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
In a Nutshell: Conquer your fear of the dark and bad writing with a flashlight, pistol and seemingly endless supply of flares. You're an author whose writer's block has a body count in a psychological thriller aimed at fans of interactive storytelling and survival horror. It's like Silent Hill set in Twin Peaks - with both the extraneous locked doors and mind games to make the comparison complete. There's even a mysterious and strange agent who appears in Bright Falls without explanation, though as far as we know he's not obsessed with the local diner's pie and coffee. There are six episodes (complete with "Previously On" recaps to help it resemble a TV show) and more are promised as downloadable content to extend the series indefinitely - at least until cancellation when ratings inevitably plummet.
Learning Curve: You can pick up the game pretty quickly thanks to a short but engaging nightmare prologue/tutorial, but the difficult ramps abruptly in Episode 2. Be prepared for some frustrating times until you master the controls (review our tips) and then finally reach the part of the game where flares become plentiful. Light protects you from the darkness, get it? You'll spend a lot of time "burning the darkness away," which will either become fun or endlessly repetitive depending on how you feel about the flashlight, shoot, rinse and repeat game mechanics or the story's ability to intrigue you enough to carry on despite them.
The Save Game: Your progress is saved at frequent checkpoints, usually when you step under a lamppost in the middle of a dark forest or park. Listen for the musical sting and visual indicator to be sure it's saved successfully before quitting for the night.
Family Factor: It's T for Teen. We know parents frequently bend this, but we suggest you stick to the recommended age range in this case. You shoot a lot of human enemies (at least they look and sound human) though clearly the Taken, as they're called, are more spectral in nature. Younger kids won't understand the distinction. Also, the horror element might induce nightmares with the young'uns (and possibly the older'uns though they'd never admit it!).
Buy, Rent or Skip? You can beat the game in 10-15 hours, so rent it unless you are a survival horror junkie or you find a cheap used copy. It remains to be seen whether the downloadable content episodes will make it worth holding onto the game after you beat it.
On a Personal Note: As a writer myself, I really wanted to love Alan Wake. Alas, the most I can muster is a grudging "like." The descent into chaos is abrupt, you don't get nearly as much freedom to explore what could be a very fun and chilling world, and busy gamers will quickly abandon the quest to collect every manuscript page and coffee thermos. Your primary "enemy," the Taken, endlessly respawn - in part to keep you from finding the boundaries of what should have been a giant sandbox with deep exploration potential but ends up being only a slight improvement on the rail shooter genre. There's a fairly linear path; step off of it at your own peril.
Here's an example of the disconnect between reality and what the game expects you to figure out. In the first chapter, I was directed by some mysterious yellow paint (which appears only when you shine your flashlight on it) to a flare gun. So I did what you would expect to do with a flare gun - I fired it into the air to attract the attention of someone who might help! Waste of ammo. Then I found a strange box with what appeared to be flames on it. So I shot it with another flare thinking I was being directed to burn it open. Another wasted shot. Flareguns are only used to decimate large hordes of Taken, which - incidentally - is different from what you use standalone flares for (and the ammo can't be interchanged). I think this illustrates what a muddled mess Alan Wake rises above to become a good though definitely not great game.
In between relentless bouts with dark enemies are boring stretches where you drive around in daylight or visit past events in the protagonist's life. These latter segments should be deep and fascinating but end up being short and shallow side trips. The good news is that persistance pays off - the last three chapters are quite fun if you enjoy a bit of mindless repetition (as I do). You'll get into a rhythm of taking down the Taken and may even get a little sad when it all comes to a somewhat predictable end.
The truth is that I found the story more trite than the pulpiest Stephen King novel I've read, and I've read (and enjoyed) more than a few. Once you get into the groove, the action is solid but ultimately not fulfilling. So while I'm glad that I played through it, I'm not eager to return for another visit. Since there was a code for a free a DLC episode included with the retail copy we bought, I'll give it one more chance and then most likely send its remains floating down the river.
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