Monday 20 November 2023

Alan Wake II

2023, Bright Falls, Washington State. A spate of unexplained murders bring FBI agents Saga Anderson and Alex Casey to the remote, sleepy town. They find a town still uneasy over the memories of thirteen years before, when there was another spate of murders and the disappearance and presumed death of infamous author Alan Wake. Anderson and Casey's investigations confirm that the supernatural forces that Wake had to deal with have indeed returned, possibly thanks to a mysterious cult. Meanwhile, Wake himself remains trapped in the Dark Place, a dimension beyond our own, where he strives to find a way back to reality.

Alan Wake, originally released in 2010 and remastered in 2021, was an interesting but flawed game. It had a great story, characters and premise, but struggled to find the gameplay thread in its morass of noir and horror influences. The game degenerated into being a repetitive action-shooter, Wake throwing flashbang grenades and fending off enemies with shotguns and handguns. This wasn't awful, but it was something of a tonal mismatch. Alan Wake also ended on a cliffhanger (and, after two more DLCs, another cliffhanger) which people have been left pondering ever since.

Thanks to the surprise success of their 2019 supernatural action game, Control, Remedy have had the resources to finally deliver a sequel to Alan Wake. Even more remarkable is how they've accomplished this: a game with AAA production values delivered on a modest budget (reportedly only $50 million) in just three years. Much more remarkable than that is how incredibly good the game is. I'm not sure I've seen such a gulf in quality between one game in a series and its direct sequel, even given such a large gap in release dates.

Alan Wake II, on the surface, resembles its forebear. You're still trudging through the forests of the Pacific North-West, defending yourself with various guns and a flashlight. You're still fighting off "Taken," effectively zombies, dead humans motivated by the evil Dark Presence. You're still mixing combat, puzzle-solving and narrative beats. Your adventure is still being narrated over-earnestly by Alan Wake himself. But the sequel simply nails every single one of these facets far better than its forebear.

The first big change is the addition of a new viewpoint character, Saga Anderson. Saga stands in for new players, who've perhaps heard of Alan Wake but haven't played it ahead of this sequel. Saga's story takes her to the town of Bright Falls and the nearby Cauldron Lake, both key locations from the original game, as well as further afield to new areas, such as the town of Watery and a nearby amusement park (Coffee World!) and lighthouse. Saga's story is anchored in the "real world" and it's interesting to see her gradually bump into characters and locations that tie in with Wake's story from the original game. Saga has two major assets: her friend and FBI partner Alex Casey, who shares the same name as Wake's signature detective hero; and her "Mind Place," a mental technique which allows her to analyse clues and keep abreast of the game's sprawling narrative. At almost any point in the game, Saga can slip into her Mind Place and digest her latest discoveries.

The second big change is in structure. Alan Wake was a very linear game where Wake travelled from the start of one level to the next, occasionally facing larger arena areas which were more open (usually for combat or even a boss fight). Famously, the game was developed as an open-world title but that was changed late in the day to improve pacing. The sequel isn't a full open-world game but instead is more similar to a Metroidvania, being divided into several areas, with each being explorable at will but having various areas sealed off by environmental elements or by literal gates. As the game progresses you gain access to tools to allow you to access these areas later on.

There's also a change here in terms of collectibles. Alan Wake had thermoses lying around which you could collect and then do absolutely nothing with. Alan Wake II has three types of collectible: lunchboxes tying in with Wake's books; mysterious nursery rhymes attached to puzzles; and sealed containers belonging to the mysterious Cult of the Tree. These collectibles are each attached to their own storyline chain and unlock additional weapons, abilities and equipment for Saga. They are not essential, but they make her journey easier, and fill in additional backstory and worldbuilding details. Tracking down these things also allows you to explore more of each map, sometimes finding other equipment caches along the way.

Another big change is combat. It's now been under-emphasised compared to the first game. Combat is somewhat rarer, more lethal and more of a resource-managing challenge, more in line with the recent Resident Evil remakes. This is better than the original Alan Wake, where Wake was only somewhat less of a competent death-dealing gunsmith than Max Payne, with much more tension. Unfortunately, this makes the decision to base one key setpiece moment near the game's conclusion around waves of combat fairly inexplicable, resulting in the game's steepest difficulty spike.

All of this applies to Saga. It's not a major spoiler to say at a key moment in the game, we rejoin Alan in the Dark Place and have to help him try to escape. The Dark Place in this game resembles a twisted, shadowy version of New York City, complete with subways, theatres, a creepy hotel and Alan's apartment. Traversing the Dark Place is more complex than the real world. Alan doesn't have Saga's Mind Place, but he does have his Writer's Room. At any point Alan can switch to this room and use it to analyse the plot, like Saga, but unlike her he can also change the plot. In a mechanic that recalls the superb Dishonored 2 mission "A Crack in the Slab," Alan can flash back to earlier points in the story and thus in time, when an area may look completely different. Alan can take advantage of this to get past sealed-off areas or discover fresh clues about what's going on and how he can escape.

You can soon choose to switch between the two characters at will, choosing whether to mainline all of Saga's story first and then all of Alan's, or maybe alternate at the end of every chapter. Despite being trapped in different universes, Alan and Saga develop a link that allows them to work together to help defeat the Dark Presence. This works all rather splendidly. Alan and Saga's stories have different feels and tones, so the ability to switch between them whenever Alan's over-earnest monologues or Saga's family concerns get a bit too much is appreciated.

Alan Wake II is also surprisingly funny. The first game had some laughs, but the sequel takes things up a notch with comedic zero-budget adverts from a pair of Finnish brothers and, as is now well-known, a full-blown musical number that makes up an entire chapter of the game. Quite a few characters are also now pretty over the whole "shocked by supernatural stuff" thing and whose only reaction to some fresh eruption of inexplicable weirdness is a world-weary sigh. This is especially noticeable when characters from the Federal Bureau of Control show up and are utterly unphased by the Dark Presence doing its thing; they've seen this stuff before in Control.

Ah yes, the Remedy Connected Universe. As is well-know now, Alan Wake and its sequel both take place in the same universe as Control, which the game is quite upfront about (you'll meet an FBC agent probably around an hour into the game, maybe less). Some Control characters show up, and Saga gets to read a bunch of reports from the FBC on the Cauldron Lake phenomenon. Alan Wake II could have maybe been a bit more low-key on this, as a few times I felt almost penalised for not having finished Control (I started it when it came out, but got sidetracked by other games), but it's not too bad. More amusing are the very deep cuts to Remedy's other games, Quantum Break and the first two Max Payne titles; Remedy doesn't own those IPs any more, so they have to rename characters (Martin Hatch becomes Warlin Door; Max Payne becomes the fictional Alex Casey) but the general ideas come across well. Players less well-versed in Remedy lore might miss out on the meaning of some Easter Eggs, but the game mostly tells you what you need to know within the game itself.

Alan Wake II also looks utterly stupendous, easily the best-looking video game in the world right now. Character animations are impressive (though some characters - like Casey - seem a lot stiffer than others), but it's the lighting effects and environmental graphics in the forests or on the not-New York subway which are completely mindblowing. This does come at the cost of hefty systems requirements on PC, with even my new 4090 graphics card occasionally chugging unless DLSS was switched on. Consoles are broadly fine, but it's going to be a good few years before most PC players will be able to experience this game at maximum settings.

Alan Wake II (****½) comes very close to being an outright masterpiece. It is very well-paced, it has a ton of content - Wake and Saga's stories are each individually as long as Alan Wake in its entirety, meaning this game is twice the size and length of its forebear - the horror elements are far more effective, the atmosphere is superb and the writing is easily Remedy's best to date. There are very nice links to all of Remedy's previous games (bar possibly Death Rally), but playing those titles is not strictly necessary to enjoy this game (the Control references do push the limit on that, though), and for a horror game, it has a brilliant sense of humour. It has some fantastic gameplay mechanics and several setpiece events which are clear challengers for the best gaming moments of the year (especially the horrific murder investigation in the hotel, the ludicrous rock opera and a 15-minute Finnish arthouse film completely contained within the game). It is a fantastic-looking game, and the soundtrack is outrageously good. It has earned its Game of the Year nominations, being a worth competitor to the likes of Baldur's Gate III and Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty.

Complaints are few. The game is let down a little by its combat, especially the decision to base an entire key moment around an absolute ton of combat despite it not being the game's forte. The story and lore is pretty dense at times, requiring you to pay close attention or miss out on key plot points. The game's ending is great, with some excellent twists, but also somewhat ambiguous, left afloat for the two forthcoming DLC episodes which will continue the storyline. The game's steep system requirements and Epic-exclusive status (to be fair, Epic also paid for the game's development and are its publishers, so the game wouldn't even exist without them) will also put off many PC gamers.

Overall these complaints are slight. Alan Wake II is Remedy's best game to date, a rich horror narrative with compelling gameplay which improves over its predecessor on every single front.

Alan Wake II is available now on PC, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

No comments: