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Friday, 26 July 2013

Wake Up Alan, Someone's Reviewing Your Game

I like movies, so I review them from time to time (yes, I just hyperlinked my own blog on my blog. Blogception!). So, in a rather dangerously creative train of thought I told myself, "Ben, you also like video games. Why don't you review them?". But surely a blog entirely about reviewing stuff is boring, Ben, is there not another way to talk about my hobbies? "No!" I replied, before slapping myself in the face and throwing myself into a glass table, classic Durden-style.

Internal Sudoku disputes can get decidedly heated.
Reviewing it is then! But I'm lazy and playing a whole video game before talking about it requires a mind-boggling amount of effort on par with what it must feel like to revise for things, so instead I shall play a game until something funny and/or interesting to say about it dribbles out of my mouth and I can collect it from my spittle cup.

A rare photo of Salvador Dali creating The Persistence of Memory.
As is the long-standing tradition here on my blog, the thing I am reviewing is, shock-horror, horror. Hmm, when you have two of the same word together in a sentence it never sounds quite right, right? Ah well, but yes, horror, that's where I was. Survival horror to be exact.

Thanks to the wonderfully enticing Steam summer sale, I have ended up with a lot of new games to play and very little money. One of said games is Alan Wake, the Stephen King novel-cum-Twin Peaks episode of a game that came out back in good old 2010. I started playing it this very evening of writing and it has somewhat piqued my interest, so lets put on our gaming socks and give it a wee gander, eh?

Pictured: No gamer, ever. Where does that position even come from? A zoo keeper dodging monkey shit?
Firstly, I need to get this off my chest: the fuck, Alan?! You are shamelessly ripping off pretty much every aspect of one of the best TV shows ever and passing it off as your own work. Whereas Deadly Premonition is constantly hailed as the spiritual equivalent of a Twin Peaks video game due to its crazy story line (because if you don't understand it, it's apparently Lynch-esque) and obsession with coffee, Alan Wake is like the guy who steals your lunch and convinces everyone it was always his in the first place.

If you have no lunch, he takes your wife and children instead.
If there were some kind of nod to Twin Peaks at any point in the game, even if it were just in the form of one of the clever little QR codes the developers have slipped in at a couple of points, I might forgive them. Actually, no, I wouldn't. I love that show too much and it hurts me to see such blatant plagiarism.

Ready for the list? Cause I've made a list. We've got a remote American logging town (we'll let them off, that's quite King-y too), strange supernatural disturbances, a crazy character with an eye-patch, the small-town doctor whom we first meet in the police station conference room, the squeaky-voiced police station receptionist, a creepy bespectacled woman completely aware of the town's dark secrets, always desperately clutching an inanimate object, and a trademark vehicle used as a repeating image throughout the game/show; hell, there's even a creepy cabin that doesn't exist in the real world. That's so many parallels that, by law, these two shouldn't be allowed to meet lest the universe fold into itself and implode.

Thank god for backwards-talking midgets and red curtains to help tell the two apart.
You know how I mentioned Deadly Premonition's coffee addiction? That's actually in this too, in the form of 100 coffee thermos' scattered around the game for you to hunt down. And, granted, after a quick Google I have found one reference in-game to Twin Peaks, in the form of the name of the achievement you get after collecting every last one of said flasks of liquid hyper. That's it. That's like stealing you research partner's notes on how to give animals superpowers, taking all the credit, then naming your grandkid's laser-spewing goldfish after him. A reference so obscure and difficult to notice that it's actually more insulting with it being there.

It would have been kinder just to kill him with it.
Now that we've swiftly got that out of the way, shall we have a look at the game itself?

The core mechanics of the game are very simple; light is good, dark is bad. The titular Alan must fight off evil monster thingys that have possessed the townsfolk by shining his torch at them then nailing them down with a couple of nice heavy bullets. Light also has the added advantage of stunning enemies, so combat usually entails juggling between keeping each baddie a safe distance away using a quick blast of the torch and filling those who's defensive darkness shield thingys have been broken down with a healthy dose of lead. But seeing as this is a survival horror game, it's not quite that easy: your torch runs out of juice faster than your sexually frustrated grandmother's vibrator so you're tasked with constantly hoarding shitty batteries, a fact which leads to the most hilariously misguided use of product placement ever in a video game.

Energizer: It keeps going and going...for ten seconds. Then it doesn't.
I'll give credit where credit is due, this light/dark thing is used very well in pretty much every aspects of the game. Standing under a street light restores Alan's health faster than normal, like some weird man/plant; enemy health is shown on screen as the lens glare from your torch; and the flicker of a light in the darkness often acts as the only real guide to the player's next destination, other than a thankfully minimalist mini-map in the top corner, as you stumble through the forest. The distance between these "safe havens" can be pretty large at points, meaning you feel real relief on stumbling across a lit cabin with some supplies in it, making venturing back out into the abyss all the more unsettling.

"It's fine, I'll just stay here and watch terribad Twilight Zone episodes until morning."
Although this definitely isn't one of the scariest games I've ever played, it does have its moments. As I said above, you start to form quite an attachment to your veritable smorgasbord of light sources, and when that generator runs out or you realise you have no batteries left and only one bullet in your revolver (you have to repeatedly tap the reload button to reload, a nice touch) with three axe-wielding monsters charging you, it is one of the few occasions in video gaming where you feel genuinely vulnerable and alone. Plus, unlike some games which insist on forcing jumpy bits on you, often accompanied by a tell-tale titbit of creepy music, Alan Wake just throws them in and hopes you'll spot them. 

There was a moment early on in the game where I went to check out a cabin off the beaten path and, upon finding the light switch and some ammo, thought I'd take a moment to listen to the radio. While doing so I started pissing about, shining my torch at stuff and jumping on the bed, when I happened to turn towards the window and OH MY HOLY SHIT A GUY JUST WALKED PAST.

After voiding myself and having a little cry, I restarted the checkpoint to take a screenshot.
So it's pretty creepy and there's a nice gimmick. But the same could be said of some portions of the 2008 version of Alone in the Dark. And this is the worrying thing, if you've ever played that interactive bleach-enema of a game you will start to notice a couple of similarities between the two. Both had a nice idea as their central concept (light and fire as weapons, respectively), sure, and some relatively pretty graphics.

Both were also marred by terrible cameras, however. In Alone in the Dark, trying to solve one of the many cumbersome puzzles was like trying to remove a kidney stone with nothing but your bare hands and a car jack, unnecessarily difficult and uncomfortable due to a terrible choice of equipment. In Alan Wake, your own body is always in the way and you spend half your time wiggling all over the place; I don't know how it manages it, but no matter what you're doing, whatever you want to point at is always undoubtedly hiding behind one of your bloody elbow patches. This is most obvious when fighting, there have been numerous occasions where I've started attacking one enemy and all of a sudden I've got some other guy who's used my own meat sack for cover getting all up in my grill, messing up my shit.

So not rad, dude.
And that's not all. Although I agree with the choice to remove any crosshairs to aid immersion and such, the developer has opted to use the torch instead. For those of you unaware with how light works, it spreads over distance. If you're using a laser pointer, no biggie; with a torch, it spreads quite a bit, and when you're trying to use an area the size of a dinner plate to pinpoint a head shot, it's ruddy annoying. It's just lucky then that the common survival horror trope of painfully scarce ammo is rarely an issue here, and it's more than acceptable to take the safe route and unload into a torso for the sake of safe, swift deadification. 

"It looks like my bullets have taken a shine to you." Zing.
So should you play it? Yes, why not. It's fun, scary, has plenty of character, even if half of it is stolen, and the awkward camera and aiming system are by no means game-breaking; if anything you could argue that it adds to the atmosphere, your character inexperienced with firearms and ever wary of someone sneaking up behind him. And although I can't say anything about the overarching story, I'm only halfway through as of writing this post, I imagine the finale will be the expected horror fare at worst. And that's a compliment.

What You Could Do Instead

Drink 100 Cups of Coffee and Wander Around Town at Night -
The coffee will take care of the erratic movement, hallucinations and bad aim, and being in a public place gives you plenty of people to terrify while you pee in the middle street, screaming the lyrics to Sugar, Sugar by the Archies.

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