Hands-on: Alan Wake

During last week's X10 event in San Francisco, I previewed the latest build of Remedy's third-person supernatural action-thriller, Alan Wake. The scene I played takes place later in the game (as opposed to the beginning), so any chance of getting wrapped up in the mystery of the over-arching storyline was not happening; not to mention the demo was relatively short and, oh, the fact that I was preoccupied by the axe-wielding maniac chasing me.

A representative gave me a brief recap of the preceding circumstances (I won't spoil it for you) that had landed protagonist Alan Wake in the specific location of the demo level, where the scene kicked off with a "Previously on Alan Wake ... " montage -- like we'd seen before at E3 2009 -- but most of it made little sense out of context. The only thing I was sure of was that I needed to escape from the car I'd just crashed after swerving to avoid someone in the road (who, of course, vanished when Wake looked in his rear-view). After I climbed out, Wake's voice-over cued me to head through the woods to reach a gas station for help. That's when things started to get really weird.
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As I began to jog down a path through the trees (Wake's animation has improved considerably since last I demoed the game), two pieces of paper floated in from off-screen, landing on the wet dirt in front of me. Picking them up, I learned that they were just a few pages of many from a manuscript Wake doesn't remember writing (and which seems to be coming to life). A voice-over of Wake reading the pages described a scene where the protagonist is being hunted by an axe-carrying madman. My stomach sank. The game helpfully indicated that I could press the "Back" button to look at all of the manuscript pages collected up to that point, suggesting that eventually the player could find the whole thing (and I'd guess, a predictable Achievement to boot). Anyway -- the axe guy!

Where the real-life me would have turned and ran back at that point, Wake forcefully soldiered on through the trees. The lighting here was very impressive, and I had to navigate solely under moonlight (I wouldn't get a flashlight or gun for a bit still).

The creepy, lumbering lumberjacks really didn't like it when I shined my flashlight at them.

As I rounded a bend, I saw Wake's car, still burning, finally teeter off of the cliff I'd left it on, crashing into a nearby ravine and illuminating the woods. A little further along (after crossing along some fallen trees that bridged a river), and still by moonlight, I came to an intense white light emanating from the forest. So, of course Wake ran toward it.

Enter scary axe man: chasing me through the woods beyond the light and seemingly teleporting anywhere he pleased. Unarmed, I could do nothing but run, eventually spotting a lumber operation that had working lights -- and, hopefully, some help. I ran through a maze of stacked-up logs, the axe man leaping across them and yelling in unintelligible scary talk, finally reaching a trailer parked on the site. Inside I found a flashlight and batteries (yes!) and a gun (whew!) -- and it was just in time for the creep outside to start up a tractor and ram it into the trailer, splitting it in two and forcing me outside.

He wasn't alone -- there were several more creepy, lumbering lumberjacks, also armed, who really didn't like it when I shined my flashlight at them. Pulling down the Left Trigger increased the brightness of my light, eventually "killing" these nightmares. They could also be shot at, and, just like replacing the clip in my gun, I had to pop fresh batteries into my flashlight when it was totally drained.

All told, this scene was very much on the action-oriented side of the spectrum. I did encounter a "lite" puzzle scenario, after running out of ammo and batteries, in which I had to find a generator, start it up (via a timing game) and move some logs using a mechanical lift to create an escape path.

I thought the "light-attack" mechanic was neat, and the game definitely looked better than the last time I saw it. I'll say that developer Remedy seems to have gotten the creepy atmosphere down pat -- now it's just a matter of executing a compelling storyline and intelligent gameplay design. Will Alan Wake continue to engage us in its unraveling mystery until the illuminating end?

We'll find out this May.
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This article was originally published on Joystiq.