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August 5, 2010

Alan Wake & the Signal, a dual review (Can you hear me now?)

Alan Wake is a psychological horror game for the Xbox 360, and The Signal is the first additional downloadable episode for it.

So what's my verdict?  I didn't find it as awesome as some people have, but I thought it was a very good game with a great story, and a couple of major problems that marred my enjoyment of the game a bit. The first DLC episode is fun too, but again with a problem.

First, the good news.  The story is as excellent as advertised, aided by Wake's narration of it.  You are author Alan Wake.  Suffering from writer's block, you and your wife Alice head to a sleepy forest town in Washington named Bright Falls, only to find an unspeakable darkness there.  Your wife disappears and you wake up in a car that's crashed on a mountain road.  With the help of your agent and the local sheriff, you must face off against an FBI agent who thinks you're the devil as well as darkness-possessed individuals who will stop at nothing to kill you.  What's the evil secret of Bright Falls?  The story is told like a TV story, with individual episodes that begin with a "last time on Alan Wake" introduction, which is actually kind of fun.

Yes, Wake is a whiny git at times, and I really got tired of Alice (and she doesn't really appear that much to begin with), but the narration has the effect of bringing the player into the story, something that can be difficult to do in a 3rd person game like this.  Not only is the story atmospheric (even playing in daylight, the darkness of this game can be scary at times), but the interesting concept of having to collect scattered manuscript pages from a novel that Wake doesn't remember writing just brings you deeper into it.  I won't go into spoilers, but these pages are important to the story, though thankfully collecting all of them isn't.  It's the *concept* of these pages that's important.  Even better is the fact that the timeline on the pages you find doesn't follow the game you're playing.  You may find a page that describes something you've already done, and then next find a page that describes something that hasn't happened yet.  Talk about adding to the tension!

The less said about collecting the thermoses, though, the better.  That must be one huge and heavy coat Wake's wearing by the end of the game.  100 thermoses???

Anyway, the graphics are lush and evocative, really bringing home the small town Washington setting, as well as the creepy woods in which you find yourself wandering around. The character models are great too (Alice wandering around in her underwear is a particular highlight *wink wink*).  Everything moves with a fluidity that is a joy to play around with.

You are under constant assault from the Taken, human beings who have been corrupted by the Darkness that is causing all of Wake's problems.  This is where the game gets a bit tedious, as the combat mechanics are cumbersome.  The Taken can only be harmed when a light is shone on them (good thing you almost always have a handy flashlight!). You can shine your light on them and then blow them away with one of the various guns that are available.  You can keep them at bay by lighting a flare, which can save your rear end sometimes if your health is getting too low.  Flare guns and flashbangs can take out groups of Taken at once, and can come in very handy.  However, the mechanics of shooting aren't very good.  You pull the Left Trigger to focus your light and then the right trigger to shoot.  Aiming can be difficult this way, and God forbid you just want to shoot without wasting your flashlight batteries.  If the Taken are illuminated by a flare, why would you want to focus your flashlight on them too?  Or maybe you want to shoot that explosive canister to really light them up? Aiming without using your flashlight, especially when you're in a hurry, is very difficult. One could say that this reflects the fact that Wake isn't that great with weapons.  But it's still not that fun to play.

Of course, you can also just run from safe spot to safe spot, where the light from street lamps and other light poles (some of them in *really* odd places) shine down, giving you safe haven. I can tell you that, when playing a video game, I've never broken a sweat out of nervousness and adrenaline like I did during Alan Wake and some of his forest encounters. I loved that exhilarated feeling I got when I just made it to a lamp post with a couple of Taken on my tail because I was out of bullets. The fact that a couple of times I had forgotten I had a flare gun is beside the point.

So the game is fun, except that the combat can be tedious.  What's the other major failure?  I hate to keep harping on it, but it's those damned thermoses.  I know, I know.  You can just ignore them the first time you play through the game.  But even if I wanted to do that (I generally don't replay games), just the fact that they're there and so prominent (without even trying that hard, I found 92 out of 100) just brings me out of the story.  A lot of the time, it's just when I was starting to lose myself in it again.  Those thermoses just yanked me out of it.  Pairing these with the manuscript pages that you find as well, pages that are actually part of the story and *add* to the immersion, those thermoses stick out like a sore thumb.

Still, I wouldn't let that detract you from getting this game.  It's an excellent game, an extremely well-told story, and a well-caffeinated hero.  How can you go wrong?

Now, how about the first DLC episode, the Signal?

Let me talk about the ending of the original game, because that actually feeds into this.  Don't worry, no spoilers here.

I really didn't like how the first game ended, but I could have lived with it.  It would be easy to chalk up the ending as one of those "ambiguous" ones that you can just go on and talk about for a while.  Something good happens, a sacrifice is made, and while the ending may leave things hanging a bit, you can just figure that the sacrifice was made and that's the end of it.

This episode, though, ends on a total cliffhanger, even going so far as to say "to be continued" at the end.  Thankfully, I got it for free because I bought Alan Wake new, but in a way it's almost as deceptive as a crack dealer who gives you that one free hit, knowing you're going to be hooked.  If you bought the game used and thus would have to pay the 560 MS points for The Signal, you might decide not to do it.  You'd have your ambiguous ending to the story, and that would be that.  But getting the episode free?  Now I have to get the second episode, or I'll never know what happened (ok, yes, I can read about it online, but still...).  Thankfully, it sounds like there are only going to be two DLC episodes for the game, so it's not *that* bad.  But it still miffed me a bit.  It doesn't help that The Signal does not answer a *single* question that was left hanging from the original game.

However, the episode is just as imaginative, if not more so, as the original game.  You are in a product of your own mind, and a concept that's introduced at the end of the original game is carried all the way through the episode, where just the concept of "guns" and "batteries" and "memory" are hazy figments, hovering on the borders of your comprehension, until you shed a light on them (is that ambiguous enough if you haven't finished the game yet, but still understandable to those who have?).  There's a large field where this is taken to the extreme, where you can potentially get through without facing any enemies, but if you have a wayward flashlight, you're screwed.  Other set pieces are equally imaginative, like a field of flickering lamp posts, with safe havens appearing and disappearing like crazy.

The one major problem (except for the ending, of course) is that the game is almost all combat.  While it's *interesting* combat, as mentioned above, the combat hasn't improved at all from the original game.  Thus, you find yourself dying in annoying fashion way too many times.

And don't get me started on why you're searching for alarm clocks.  This time, I didn't bother unless I just happened upon one.  The stand-up cardboard cut-outs were fun, though, and another interesting take on the mindscape that you're playing in.  What is it with Remedy forcing you to look for things, with half of them being an awesome idea and half of them being extremely cheesy?

Finally, the product placement in The Signal is even worse than in the original game.  Yeah, in the original game, you have your Verizon phone and Energizer batteries billboards, as well as a couple other shoutouts to Verizon, but I have to say I didn't really notice them too much other than the billboards.

However, in The Signal, your cell phone drops at your feet from out of the misty darkness, in perfect working order, landing with the Verizon logo facing straight up and the camera holding the shot for a moment.  Then, the guy behind the signal you're following actually says "Can you hear me?  Can you hear me now?"  I thought my brain would explode at that point.

Anyway, if you enjoyed the original game, The Signal is fun.  I'm not sure if I would have sprung for it if it hadn't been free, but having played it, I can say it was good.  It's pretty short, but not unbearably so.
On to episode 2!  Whenever they decide to put it out.


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