Sunday 5 November 2023

Alan Wake Remastered

Alan Wake is a successful novelist suffering from writer's block. He and his wife, Alice, take a holiday to Bright Falls, Washington, and rent a cabin on an island in the middle of a volcanic lake. When Alice surprises Alan with a typewriter, hoping he'll feel inspired to start writing again, Alan becomes angry and storms out. He hears his wife screaming, only to find the cabin and the island have disappeared. Apparently the island was destroyed in a volcanic eruption in 1970. Wake discovers he has somehow lost a week, and keeps finding pages from a new novel he's been writing called Departure in which he himself is the protagonist. As shadowy creatures attack him and TV shows seem to reflect his state of mind, Wake must discover whether he has gone insane and attempt to track down his missing wife.

Alan Wake was originally released in 2010 by Finnish developers Remedy. At the time they were best-known for their Max Payne series of shooters with interesting time-slowing capabilities. Since Alan Wake's release they have worked on Quantum Break and Control, and more recently Alan Wake II. Alan Wake Remastered was released in 2021 as a way of improving the original game and also releasing it on PlayStation consoles (the original was only available on Xbox 360 and, after a significant delay, PC), and getting people into the story ahead of the release of the sequel.

Alan Wake Remastered is a surprisingly restrained revision of the original game. The main focus is on the graphics, with revised and updated textures, a new and more impressive lighting system and it now being possible to boost the resolution up to 4K. This is all splendid and results in very impressive visuals, although unfortunately the process has not been optimised well; the game occasionally chugged even with an nVidia 4090 under the hood. More annoying were visual glitches and problems, which could be briefly fixed with a reload but soon returned. Oddly, these problems are mostly focused in the fourth and fifth episodes of the game and were not present before or after. However, the problem is widespread (going by the game's forums and subreddit) and has not been fixed after two years, which is disconcerting.

Otherwise the game runs exactly the same as it did back in 2010, complete with somewhat clunky movement and occasionally iffy dodging mechanics. This is an action thriller where you control the titular Alan Wake, a novelist suffering from writers' block after killing off his most iconic character. He takes a holiday with his wife, but gets angry when he realises that she has tricked him into a retreat to focus on his writing, with a hospital nearby specialising in the mental health problems of artists. When Alan storms out, his wife abruptly vanishes. Alan loses a week of his life, waking up to experience strange visions. However, when he receives at telephone call from a man claiming to have his wife hostage, it appears that the situation is understandable, if frightening. But Alan then encounters the "Taken," possessed individuals clad in shadows who seem to be obsessed with destroying him, and it becomes clear something much more supernatural is at work.

The game is divided into daytime sequences where Alan wanders around and interacts with characters, maybe solves the odd puzzle, and uncovers more about the story, and night sequences where Alan has to achieve some objective whilst fighting off the Taken. The Taken have to be illuminated with a flashlight and, once their "darkness" has been burned off, can be dispatched with conventional weapons. As the game unfolds across its relatively well-paced 12-13 hours or so, both the types and tactics of Taken evolve, as does Alan's arsenal and his skills for dealing with them in combat.

The sheer volume of combat remains quite surprising: those who've heard that Alan Wake is the closest thing to Twin Peaks in videogame form may be taken aback by the amount of time Wake spends blowing people away with shotguns.  The game also feels like it sometimes doesn't like doing this (combat within a section of the game can get quite repetitive), but has to fall back on shooting things as the default game style rather than run the risk of the dialogue and cutscenes putting off too many people. The game does have missed opportunities though: as is well-known, the game was originally an open world game, which can still be discerned in some areas (areas from one mission are clearly visible bordering another later on, with some artificial barrier preventing you from free-travelling over there) but was taken out due to pacing issues. The game allows you to drive vehicles in some limited sequences, and there's some interesting puzzles to solve, which could have been expanded on to make for more interesting and varied gameplay outside of combat. It's notable that the two bonus DLC episodes (included here, weirdly, as optional extras buried in the level select screen, but definitely don't miss them) have better pacing, puzzle-solving, traversal mechanics and combat than the main game itself, suggesting that Remedy only figured out how to get the best out of the game quite late in the day.

The story is interesting and well-thought out, with writer Sam Lake's trademark humour, enjoyably overwrought (and sometimes deliberately purple) prose and an internal logic that hangs together even as things get quite surreal and out there. Dividing the game into six TV-like episodes (complete with a recap and their own credit sequence and theme song), each about an hour and a half to two hours long, is also a masterstroke of pacing, ensuring the game's combat and story beats don't get too repetitive and it never feels like you're too far from a natural break point in the flow of events. The game also does do a good job of changing things up whenever it feels like you're maybe spending a bit too much time in the woods aiming flashlights at trees, with some mid and late-game setpieces being genuinely impressive. Again, some of the best stuff is actually in the two DLC episodes.

In the thirteen years since release, gaming has moved on a fair bit and Alan Wake can't help but feel clunky, with sometimes-sluggish controls and occasionally iffy animations, with an overreliance on combat. This remaster also feels like it may not be entirely necessary, given that the gameplay has not been overhauled to the same standards as the graphics. But there's a very solid story at work here, the mixture of CG and live-action cut scenes is a nice foreshadowing of Remedy's subsequent work, and the game is well-paced and doesn't outstay its welcome. The game's biggest weakness it is technical issues which make the middle third or so of the game a bit of a game of Russian Roulette as you wait for it to work out if it's going to crash or not. This should really have been fixed years ago. Also, and a fairly big annoyance on PC, is that it's only available on the Epic Game Store. As the PC version is actually published by Epic, there's little likelihood of it appearing on Steam in the future.

Another minor complaint: the stand-alone expansion Alan Wake's American Nightmare is not included in this package. American Nightmare is a bit of a weird game (being almost entirely combat-focused) and tonally didn't entirely gel with the original game, so I can understand why Remedy decided to ignore it this time around, but completionists may feel short-changed at its absence.

Alan Wake Remastered (***½) is an enjoyably solid game, especially at the very reasonable price it can be had for these days. It hasn't aged entirely well and some might be surprised at its overreliance on combat, which is a little at odds with its supernatural mystery genre. It's also very much The Hobbit to Alan Wake II's considerably bigger, more ambitious Lord of the Rings, and like that isn't strictly necessary to understand the sequel, but it certainly helps. The game is available now on PC (via the Epic Game Store), Xbox and PlayStation.

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