Wednesday, July 13, 2011

First Impressions: Alan Wake (X360)

Alan ain't afraid o' no ghost.

Last weekend, Amazon delivered two new bright young things to Notre maison d’amour numérique: Alan Wake and Alice: Madness Returns. I spent the week mostly engrossing myself in the psychological thriller that is Alan Wake, and took a backseat to watch my girlfriend work through Spicy Horse’s sequel to American McGee’s Alice. Both games deal with eerie worlds in almost diametrically opposed ways.
Alan Wake plays like a television series – the game goes so far as to even be split up into ‘episodes’, whilst Alice: Madness Returns is a more whimsical affair, though its cute and colourful visuals look to belie a serious, blackened core of a story. Essentially, both of the protagonists in these games are disturbed by their thoughts, and suffer in varying degrees as victims of their own psyche. Whilst running and gunning certainly has a time and place in terms of good, clean fun, I have always found myself to be most drawn in by a good story, and if there can be even so much as a dash of suffering, I’m on board. Let’s take a look at Alan Wake first-off.

Alan Wake is all about location. For everything that is wrong with it (and I will get to that), Remedy absolutely have nailed the character of Bright Falls itself. The forests had me frequently spinning the camera around, to pan the rivers and forests that surrounded me. In so much as it isn’t set in a deserted, busted, post-apocalyptic world, it feels like as much of a welcome getaway from the world for the player, from recent titles, as it is for Alan himself. On the other side of the equation, Alice: Madness Returns strikes me, at this early stage, as being located in her mind. It’s too early to tell, but I’m holding out for a series of levels that spiral further into the warped mind of this young girl, rather than being nothing more than whimsical backdrops to her jumping and fighting. I guess all will become clear as I see it progress.

I’m not one to dabble in over-negativity as much as can be avoided, but Alan Wake demands criticism, unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons. My primary irk with Alan Wake is that it demands far too many button presses from players, and fails to pick up on these presses all too often. Instead of approaching cabinets and hitting B to open them, I quickly developed the habit of rapidly mashing the button in order to expedite my opening of the container, and acquisition of whatever items therein. This is poor game design, and I haven’t come across it in almost as long as I can remember, particularly with a game in the high-caliber range of which Alan Wake should be part.

A classic moment in bad level design.
The level design is tedious. As mentioned, Remedy execute the spooky atmosphere of the woods in the Pacific Northwest beautifully. It is genuinely eerie and scary when you are wandering through the nightscapes of the forest. Despite that, it consistently undercuts itself by scattering collectables and items all too often, and ‘hiding’ them in painfully obvious places, breaking the immersion of the experience. Frequently, such as in the Lover’s Peak section of the game, you will reach a fork in the path. Not a path and a subtle trail, but two separately paved options, one of which is actually sign-posted as ‘Lover’s Peak’. I feel as if they might as well have put a second ‘Secret Item’ sign pointing in the other direction. It’s lazy design, and it looks to me as if the developers lacked the will or energy to put any real work into aspects like that. Given that the game was announced in the early 2000s, one would think they’d have had plenty of time to think of more interesting alternatives. I do not wager that if I wandered into the forests here, I would run into ammunition, flares, batteries, scattered pages or thermos flasks every ten paces.

In spite of my criticisms for it, I am still enjoying playing the game. It can be refreshingly difficult at times, if simultaneously being patronising and little meat-headed at other conjectures. The constant narration of your experiences throughout the game seems to want to leave very little for the player to deduce themselves, but it’s still an idea that I haven’t experienced before, and it’s enjoyable for that reason. The episode structure of the game, complete with closing title, music and then pre-episode story recap, is oddly refreshing. As Yahtzee states in his review, it’s rather bizarre for a game to actively suggest that you stop playing, but I feel that it works to break up what is, to be honest, quite a repetitive title. Secondly, alongside the narration, it is a refreshing approach to plot execution in terms of video games, and I think it deserves applause for that. It’s either innovative, since I can’t think of a game that has done it before, or else it’s lazy, since I can think of a whole range of television shows that work on the same by-numbers approach. Decide for yourself.

This wraps up my initial impressions of Alan Wake for the moment. Once I’ve completed it, I’ll be able to round this off, and offer comparisons to the other current A-game of the moment, Alice: Madness Returns.

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