Next up on the catchup pile is the critically acclaimed psychological thriller Alan Wake.
You play the titular Alan Wake, a schlocky mystery writer from New York City suffering from creative withdrawals. Your wife sets up a getaway to the Pacific Northwest to recharge your batteries in the idyllic small town of Bright Falls. Shortly after arriving all hell breaks loose as Alan's wife mysteriously disappears, and he wakes up in a car crash after losing a week of his life that he can't remember. The rest of the game is spent investigating what has happened to Alan and trying to piece together the events of the previous week. I refuse to say anymore about the plot points as it would ruin the fun of uncovering the mystery for yourself.
The gameplay is an interesting mish mash of elements: shooter, survival horror, open world exploration. As the folks over at G4 discussed, the game's slight genre schizophrenia is probably a result of it's extended development (5+ years!) and changing it's direction several times during that period. The main mechanic is the use of light. Light is your friend, and when the sun goes down in Bright Falls, the freaks literally come out. The forests surrounding the town are infested with people possessed by a dark spirit - called the Taken - and they are protected by a shroud of dark energy. Using a trusty flashlight, you whittle away your enemies protective layer in order to expose the fleshy humans underneath, then you are able to take them down with your weapon of choice. People aren't the only thing possessed by the dark spirit, objects come to life and fling themselves at Alan to impede his progress, and from time to time you get demonic vehicles chasing you down as fervently as Christine. The survival mechanic comes into play as your weapons get taken from you at the start of each chapter, so you not only have to scrounge for ammo, but you must also first find weapons. These range from your average pistols and rifles to flare guns and flash grenades. Sometimes you'll find it's better to make a run for it and get to the next safe house rather than holding your ground and duking it out.
While the world is open to explore, there is not much to find out there outside of the occasional weapon stockpile. You also find coffee thermoses, but they serve absolutely no purpose except to satisfy the collector instinct in some of us. It would have been interesting if it gave you a caffeine boost or something beneficial, but this clearly seems to have been an artifact left over from the development phase when they were considering making the world more expansive.
There have been some complaints about Alan being a bit clunky and not being able to sprint for very long, but let me pose this: the dude is a writer from NYC (not a bald space marine) and he's tromping around the forests of the Pacific Northwest...in loafers. Now I can tell you as an Eagle Scout from Northern California, that it's hard to run around the forest even in comfortable sneakers, let alone a nice pair of slacks and casual dress shoes. And the air is thinner up there too - it would take me a few days just to acclimatize to the altitude when we would go to our annual summer camp. So to those folks that are poo-pooing some of the mobility: get over it.
The implementation of the light mechanic in combat is brilliant. (see what I did there?) It's a really ingenious twist on the regular shooting mechanic found in most games. The incredible graphics help to heighten the effect with amazing lens flare and lighting effects. Did I mention the graphics are incredible? They are. Some of the character models were not as well detailed as others, but the characters you spend the most time with are really well done. Where this game really excels is the environmental design. The landscape looks exactly like the mountains I camped in as a youth. I was having all sorts of nostalgia playing this game.
The other thing this game has in spades is atmosphere. And I'm differentiating this from the environmental design as more of the 'feel' of the game. You really get a sense of a well designed universe populated with believable characters. There has been a lot of comparison to Twin Peaks, and while I see how people can make that connection, I just didn't feel like Bright Falls was as weird as your typical Lynchian fare. I would compare it more closely to Northern Exposure - quirky rather than bizarre. But that's not to say that bizarre shit isn't happening, because the whole story is about some far-out supernatural bizarro shit.
Since I've brought up two TV shows in comparison, it's now time to talk about the presentation. IT ROCKS!! It's set up exactly like a thrilling TV series, with each 'chapter' being called an episode. Each episode ends on a cliff hanger, and begins with the classic "previously on Alan Wake.." line. It's really a nice touch as sometimes you get caught up in the gameplay, or you leave a game and come back to it after a break and you kind of forgot what exactly it was you were doing. So having that little summary at the start of each episode really helps to keep you immersed in the experience. They even went so far to have a song play at the end of each episode, and the subject matter of each song ties into what you had been doing for that episode. In fact, the only thing missing from the whole video-game-as-a-TV-show presentation was rolling credits at the end of each episode. This was a great choice, as it kept me wanting more. "Oh man, what happens next?"
The only complaint in the presentation is the ostentatious product placement. The batteries that power your flashlight are Energizers, and there are blatant Verizon ads all over the place. The opening chapter has Alan and his wife conveniently in a Ford Focus and their patented OnStar service isn't getting a signal way up there in the mountains. There is even an achievement tied to watching a Verizon ad in the middle of an intense escape sequence.
This is definitely a must play for everyone. The game does have it's flaws - some of the episodes drag on a bit too long, some lip-synching issues with some of the characters, some of the narration is a bit goofy - but it's really an excellent game that is fairly unique: it's all about the story. Seriously. The story in Alan Wake is as good as any grade A novel or movie, and it's refreshing to see something outside of the usual 'bald-space-marine-fights-alien-horde' or 'Allied-military-forces-against-Axis-of-terrorists' tropes that most games fall into. When I finished the game and got to the finale of the story I just thought to myself "I'll bet I could play this multiple times and see something new each time." It's that dense with foreshadowing and clues that you would miss the first time around. It's also great because the ending is so ambiguous that everyone I chatted with about it had slightly different interpretations, but because it was so open-ended, they were all possible. You ever come out of a movie furiously debating what really happened with your friends? That's what Alan Wake is to video games.
I would highly recommend this to everyone. If you want the full experience, go to www.brightfalls.com and check out the prequel mini-series that slides right into the beginning of the game. If you want to go big you can get the limited edition which contains a slew of goodies which expand on the backstory of Alan Wake and fleshes out some of the lesser developed characters in the game. You also get a code to download the first DLC add-on for free when you purchase the game new. The only drawback for budget gamers is that you may only play it once and be done with it, but this is really a game you could pick up every year or so and replay because it's that good.
P.S. - One little suggestion I forgot to mention, as there is a heavy survival horror vibe to this game, I highly recommend playing this with the lights off. Unless your lily livered of cou