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This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Alan Wake.

Transcript Edit

I'll say one thing for Alan Wake straight away: you can never accuse it of being rushed out. Planning began in 2001. Fuck, the space program didn't last that long. Well, let's not look a gift whore in the poo pipe.

Alan Wake is a self-styled "psychological action" game that borrows somewhat heavily from Twin Peaks and arm-dislocatingly heavily from the works of Stephen King. It's about a writer with personal problems being tormented by an unknowable evil in small-town America. You know, the same plot as that one book Stephen King has been writing over and over again since 1975. I'm not a fan, personally, but someone at Remedy almost certainly is. He gets name-dropped like four times. In fact, Stephen King's name is the very first piece of spoken dialogue. So basically Alan Wake has its virgin bumhole offered squarely to Stephen King with a whipped cream arrow on its back pointing down.

The game opens with a nightmare, full of the usual sort of nightmare imagery: running through a dark forest, being chased by some indistinct evil force, a big voice in the sky giving you a combat tutorial, until Alan Wakes up - "oh, I see what you did there!" - to find a hideous, grinning mannequin creature leering over him. Oh wait, that's his wife. There's something very fucked up about the human faces in this game. She looks like she's been using Botox to treat her chronic face tumors. And I've seen better lip-synching in episodes of Captain Scarlet.

Anyway, Alan and his pet monster are on holiday in a small lakeside town when Alan throws a hissy fit because his wife expects him, a professional writer, to actually do some writing at some point. And then a hideous, unknowable evil kidnaps her so they can trade beauty tips. It's up to Alan to come to the rescue and uncover the dark secrets of the town, both of with he feels can best be achieved by running around in a dark forest for several hours gibbering to himself.

Throughout the game, Alan gives a running narration of events, which is almost always completely redundant at best. While most games would just put a smelly dog in a room, and maybe design the room so the player sees the smelly dog as soon as they come in, Alan Wake has a voiceover going "suddenly, I saw a smelly dog in the room" and wrestles the camera from you to show the smelly dog guiltily shitting in a hat.

In fact, this game has a generally low opinion of your attention span. It's presented episodically, and each episode begins with a recap of the story so far. You might think, O listener, that the intention is to give clear stopping points (although I've always felt games that out-and-out instruct you to stop playing them would be difficult to explain to the marketing department), but there's no opportunity to save and quit between the episode end and the next one. So its only function is to give a quick recap of the plot every few hours. And if you're being so distracted by your mother desperately belly-dancing for attention in the corner of the living room that you need one, then I think you have bigger problems.

And then there are the moments when monsters appear and the camera zooms into them, goes slow motion, and yells: "Hey, there are monsters here! Look! Look! Can you see them! Good, 'cause we wouldn't want this game to get scary, would we?" It's mystifying, because the environments do a good job of building atmosphere, with eldritch light illuminating the mist that coils around the trees, flickering shadows making an innocent mulberry bush momentarily look like a round-shouldered murderer with an axe and a massive erection. It's just that the game is fully aware that it does dark, spooky forests best but little else, so every half-hour it has to contrive a new reason for Alan to be lost in a spooky forest at night. It's like a crime drama about a detective who can only concentrate when he's around pastry, so every week the crime has to conveniently take place in a bakery or within walking distance of a pie shop.

The forest sections are the obligatory "action" part of the "psychological action" promise. So they mercilessly pad themselves out for hours of atmospheric but nonetheless samey scenery, until I'm going: "Fine! I'll put up with your Botox faced, hand puppet sausage people cutscenes! Just enough with the fucking haunted logging mills already."

As for the combat itself, the idea is you wear down the shadow creatures' defenses with your flashlight before gunning down their physical forms. Since this essentially means you can stun-lock your enemies by looking at them, I only ever needed to use the starting pistol and had bucketfuls of ammo and flash grenades handy for the occasionally hairier moment. As long as I could keep backing away and duck the odd scythe or hand axe flung Resident Evil 4 style, then the combat was as mechanical and predictable as a factory production line. Shine the light in their eyes, then two shots, bang, bang, like an indecisive hitman/optician.

I did like the bits where the darkness possess inanimate objects and starts flinging them at you like an angry spouse chucking tea cups (except the tea cups are lengths of three-foot thick industrial piping). It's actually quite hectic and unnerving, although spoiled somewhat when Alan blithely narrates, "Hey, inanimate objects coming to life! That's a theme that Stephen King likes to explore, isn't it? Have I mentioned that we like him?"

But let's conclude by returning to the all-important story. One of the sidequests involves gathering manuscript pages, which all unfailingly spoil upcoming plot events, which is kind of in keeping with the theme, so I'll let it slide. But it's a shame Alan never uses his foreknowledge to prevent any if the phenomenally bad decisions he's destined to make. For example, accepting the hospitality of a character who despite her previously cheerful demeanor is now speaking in a strange, emotionless monotone, with cold dead eyes and wearing a t-shirt reading "I Am Possessed", without even entertaining the notion of her being possessed until after having some of her homemade lemon-and-sleeping pill tea. Or, when the comic relief character - in a sense that it's a huge relief when he shuts his fat fucking mouth - suggests getting shitfaced while trapped in a house surrounded by evil shadow murderers, agreeing to do so instead of punching him in the head (and, indeed, missing all the other opportunities throughout the game to punch him in the head).

But I suppose there are lots of horror stories that wouldn't exist at all if people never made bad decisions in them. And Alan Wake is certainly all about bad decisions: bad combat, bad narration, good atmosphere. Picture an elegantly decorated house through which soft classical music plays and occasionally an obese man in a Halloween mask charges through it swinging a football rattle and screaming at the top of his voice. He's weirdly fascinating for the first few laps, but then he pulls down your curtains and shits on a doily.

AddendaEdit

Hiding behind you right now: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw

Hey here's some incisive wit for you: Alan Wake is an anagram of 'Anal Leak' if you swap the W for another L

Yahtzee Croshaw's journey through shit will continue


PostscriptEdit

Have I mentioned that I wrote a novel and you can preorder it from Amazon and Amazon.co.uk? Well, I wrote a novel and you can preorder it from Amazon and Amazon.co.uk!

ScreenshotsEdit

Alan Wake 1

It's about a writer with personal problems being tormented by an unknowable evil in small-town America

Alan Wake 2

A big voice in the sky giving you a combat tutorial

Alan Wake 3

Picture an elegantly decorated house through which soft classical music plays and occasionally an obese man in a Halloween mask charges through it swinging a football rattle and screaming at the top of his voice

External LinksEdit

Episodes
2007 - 2010
2007
Q3 The Darkness Demo · Fable: The Lost Chapters · Zero Punctuation (Episode) · Heavenly Sword and Other Stuff · Psychonauts · Console Rundown · BioShock · Tomb Raider: Anniversary · Manhunt · Peggle
Q4 Halo 3 · Tabula Rasa · The Orange Box · Super Paper Mario · Medal of Honor: Airborne · The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass · Clive Barker's Jericho · F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate · Assassin's Creed · Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock · Mass Effect
2008
Q1 Super Mario Galaxy · Silent Hill: Origins · Crysis · The Witcher · Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles · Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare · SimCity Societies · Yahtzee Goes to GDC · Uncharted: Drake's Fortune · Devil May Cry 4 · Burnout: Paradise · Turok · Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure
Q2 Army of Two · No More Heroes · Condemned 2: Bloodshot · Super Smash Bros. Brawl · God of War: Chains of Olympus · Mailbag Showdown · Grand Theft Auto IV · Painkiller · The World Ends With You · The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion · Haze · Metal Gear Solid 4
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2009
Q1 Awards for 2008 · Tomb Raider: Underworld · Far Cry 2 · Gears of War 2 · LittleBigPlanet · Thief: The Dark Project · Skate 2 · F.E.A.R. 2 · Spider-Man: Web of Shadows · The House of the Dead: Overkill · 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand · Resident Evil 5
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2010
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Q2 April Fools 2010 · God of War III · Red Steel 2 · Just Cause 2 · Silent Hill: Shattered Memories · Splinter Cell: Conviction · Nier · Dead to Rights: Retribution · Monster Hunter Tri · Alan Wake · Red Dead Redemption · Alpha Protocol · Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands · E3 2010
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Q4 Halo: Reach · Dead Rising 2 · Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow · Enslaved: Odyssey to the West · Fallout: New Vegas · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II · Call of Duty: Black Ops · IPhone Games · Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood · Splatterhouse · Epic Mickey · Holiday 2010
2011 - 2014
2011
Q1 Top 5 of 2010 · World of Warcraft: Cataclysm · Fable III · Minecraft · A Shadow's Tale · Dead Space 2 · DC Universe Online · MindJack · Two Worlds II · Bulletstorm · Killzone 3 · Kirby's Epic Yarn · Dragon Age II
Q2 Pokémon White · Yakuza 4 · Crysis 2 · Nintendo 3DS · Portal 2 · Castlevania: Symphony of the Night · Mortal Kombat · Brink · L.A. Noire · The Witcher 2 · Hunted: The Demon's Forge · Duke Nukem Forever (for real this time) · InFamous 2
Q3 Alice: Madness Returns · Shadows of the Damned · F.E.A.R. 3 · The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D · Call of Juarez: The Cartel · Bastion and From Dust · Catherine · Red Faction: Armageddon · Deus Ex · Deus Ex: Human Revolution · Driver: San Francisco · Dead Island · Resistance 3
Q4 Gears of War 3 · Hard Reset · Rage · Kinect · Batman: Arkham City · Battlefield 3 · Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 · The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim · Saints Row: The Third · Assassin's Creed: Revelations · The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
2012
Q1 Serious Sam 3: BFE · Top 5 of 2011 · Super Mario 3D Land & Rayman Origins · Sonic Generations · Star Wars: The Old Republic · Amy · Resident Evil: Revelations · Darkness 2 · Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning · NeverDead · Syndicate · Mass Effect 3 · Twisted Metal
Q2 Yakuza: Dead Souls · Ninja Gaiden 3 · Silent Hill: Downpour · Kid Icarus: Uprising · Fez and I Am Alive · Prototype 2 · Risen 2: Dark Waters · Sniper Elite V2 · Diablo 3 · Max Payne 3 · Dragon's Dogma · E3 2012 · Lollipop Chainsaw
Q3 Quantum Conundrum · Spec Ops: The Line · Walking Dead · Inversion · The Amazing Spider-Man · Half-Life · Wreckateer and Deadlight · Steam Roundup · Sleeping Dogs · Darksiders 2 · DayZ · Guild Wars 2
Q4 Borderlands 2 · FIFA 13 · Resident Evil 6 · Dishonored · XCOM: Enemy Unknown · Medal of Honor: Warfighter & Doom 3: BFG Edition · Assassin's Creed 3 · Halo 4 · Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 · Hitman: Absolution · Far Cry 3 · ZombiU
2013
Q1 Top 5 of 2012 · Paper Mario: Sticker Star · Black Knight Sword & Hotline Miami · Anarchy Reigns · DMC: Devil May Cry · The Cave · Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch · Dead Space 3 · Aliens: Colonial Marines · Crysis 3 · Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance · Tomb Raider · SimCity
Q2 The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct · BioShock Infinite · Lego City Undercover · Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon · Injustice: Gods Among Us · Star Trek · Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon · System Shock 2 · Metro: Last Light · Next Gen Buyer's Guide · Fuse · Remember Me · E3 2013
Q3 The Last of Us · Deadpool · Animal Crossing: New Leaf · Ride to Hell: Retribution · Dark · Mario & Luigi: Dream Team · Rise of the Triad · Papers, Please & Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons · Pikmin 3 · The Bureau: XCOM Declassified · Saints Row 4 · Killer is Dead · Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
Q4 Grand Theft Auto V · Lost Planet 3 · Beyond: Two Souls · The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD · Batman: Arkham Origins · Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag · Call of Duty: Ghosts · Exclusives Showdown · Ryse: Son of Rome · Dead Rising 3 · Super Mario 3D World
2014
Q1 Top 5 of 2013 · Knack · Killzone: Shadow Fall · Survival Special · Broken Age · Might & Magic X: Legacy · The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds · Dark Souls · Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII · Strider · Thief · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 · Dark Souls II
Q2 Titanfall · InFamous: Second Son · Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes · The Elder Scrolls Online · South Park: The Stick of Truth · FTL: Faster Than Light · Child of Day-Light · The Amazing Spider-Man 2 · Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure · Wolfenstein: The New Order · WATCH DOGS · E3 2014 · Murdered: Soul Suspect
Q3 Tomodachi Life · Enemy Front & Valiant Hearts: The Great War · Shovel Knight · EarthBound · Transistor · E.T. · Firefall · Sacred 3 · Risen 3: Titan Lords · Daikatana · Lichdom: Battlemage · The Sims 4 · Destiny
Q4 D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die · Hyrule Warriors · Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor · Alien Isolation · The Evil Within · Bayonetta 2 · Sunset Overdrive · Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare · Assassin's Creed: Unity · Far Cry 4 · Dragon Age: Inquisition · Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric · Top 5 Games of 2014
2015 - 2017
2015
Q1 The Talos Principle · Elite: Dangerous · Five Nights at Freddy's and This War of Mine · Lords of the Fallen · Saints Row: Gat out of Hell · Dying Light · Grim Fandango · Evolve · The Order: 1886 · The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D · Resident Evil Revelations 2 · Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number & Ori and the Blind Forest
Q2 Battlefield: Hardline · Bloodborne · Half-Life 2 Update · Axiom Verge & Stealth Inc 2 · Mortal Kombat X · Grand Theft Auto Online · Broken Age: Act 2 · Wolfenstein: The Old Blood · Cyberpunk Double · The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt · Splatoon · Hatred · E3 2015
Q3 Alone in the Dark: Illumination · Batman: Arkham Knight · Yoshi's Woolly World · Cave Story · Godzilla · Rocket League & Tembo the Badass Elephant · King's Quest: A Knight to Remember · Nom Nom Galaxy & Freedom Planet · Everybody's Gone To The Rapture · Volume · Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain · Mad Max · Gears of War Ultimate Edition · Until Dawn
Q4 Super Mario Maker · SOMA · Rock Band 4 · Assassin's Creed Syndicate · Halo 5: Guardians · Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 · Rise of the Tomb Raider · Fallout 4 · Star Wars: Battlefront · Just Cause 3 · Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water
2016
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2015 · Devil's Third · Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam · Assassin's Creed Chronicles · Xenoblade Chronicles X · The Witness & Bombshell · Gravity Rush · XCOM 2 · Firewatch & Layers of Fear · Far Cry Primal · Stardew Valley & SUPERHOT · The Division · Salt and Sanctuary
Q2 Republique · Shadow Warrior · Quantum Break · Dark Souls III · Ratchet & Clank · Star Fox Zero · Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door · Uncharted 4: A Thief's End · Doom · Homefront: The Revolution · Overwatch & Battleborn · Mirror's Edge: Catalyst · E3 2016
Q3 Mighty No. 9 · Inside & Shadow of the Beast · The Technomancer · Furi & Song of the Deep · I Am Setsuna · Headlander & Quadrilateral Cowboy · Quake · No Man's Sky · Grow Up · Deus Ex: Mankind Divided · Metroid Prime: Federation Force · The Curious Expedition & Mother Russia Bleeds · ReCore
Q4 Capcom Five · Clustertruck & Lichtspeer · Paper Mario: Color Splash · Mafia III · Gears of War 4 · PlayStation VR · Battlefield 1 · Titanfall 2 vs Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare · Dishonored 2 · WATCH DOGS 2 · Final Fantasy XV · The Last Guardian
2017
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2016 · Let It Die · Dead Rising 4 · Hitman · Gravity Rush 2 · Resident Evil 7 · Yakuza 0 · Nioh · For Honor · Nintendo Switch & Breath of the Wild · Horizon Zero Dawn · Nier Automata · Ghost Recon Wildlands
Q2 Mass Effect Andromeda · Yooka-Laylee · Persona 5 · Remastered Editions · Outlast 2 · Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 · Prey · Wilson's Heart · The Surge · Injustice 2 · Vanquish · E3 2017 · Strafe
Q3 Get Even · Hollow Knight / Dead Cells · Fifth Console Generation · The End is Nigh, and Yonder: Cloud Catcher Chronicles · Pyre · Splatoon 2 · Hellblade · Agents of Mayhem · Sonic Mania · Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle · Destiny 2 · Metroid: Samus Returns
Q4 Knack 2 and SteamWorld Dig 2 · Cuphead · Hob and A Hat in Time · Middle-earth: Shadow of War · The Evil Within 2 · Super Mario Odyssey · Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus · Assassin's Creed Origins · Sonic Forces · Star Wars Battlefront II

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