The beard tech in Alan Wake 2 is borderline inconceivable. Chasing ever-increasing realism may be the great folly(icle) of the games industry, but by god is it captivating in the hands of a studio like Remedy. With Control and now Alan Wake 2, Remedy has made some stunning games. It was hard not to be entranced during the 30 minute demo of Alan Wake 2 I saw during Summer Game Fest, as newly introduced FBI agent Saga Anderson goes searching through storm-battered woods and finds Wake, who's been mysteriously missing—and apparently growing the perfect beard—for 13 years.
Remedy is always playing with new tech, and for Alan Wake 2 that meant refactoring its in-house engine to stream in data in an instant. It was a necessary change to let players enter Saga's "mind place" at the press of a button—a cabin players can walk around in and puzzle through the game's core mystery.
There's a wall where you can place clues with the classic red string threading them together, helping you visualize the case. Another button press and you're right back to the real world. Or, well, as real as anything in Alan Wake gets.
The mind place was one of a few pieces of Alan Wake 2's new investigation-focused design that underwhelmed me a bit during the half-hour demo. I'm sure a mystery is not easy to tease effectively in such a short period of time, but this chunk of Saga's investigation mostly consisted of exploring an abandoned shack, finding a single clue, and that clue pointing to the next abandoned shack a 30 second walk away.
Looking at and understanding evidence in the mind place may require a bit of deduction, but you can only put items in their one proper place on the red string board, which makes me worried there's not actually going to be much solving to be done here.
Remedy has said that Alan Wake 2 features a hub you'll return to throughout the game as Saga, and Wake has his own environments you'll explore in the "Dark Place" where he's been trapped. Perhaps this structure will allow for more open-ended investigation as Saga, or some puzzling out of how what we do in the Dark Place affects the real world.
There's still certainly potential for nuance missing in this linear demo, and I hope it's in there somewhere—we've seen some great mysteries in the last few years between Paradise Killer, Case of the Golden Idol, and the latest Sherlock Holmes.
Belonging in that company would go a long way towards separating Alan Wake 2 from modern Resident Evil, now that it's also being pitched as survival horror. Despite a booming sawn-off shotgun, the little bit of Alan Wake 2's combat shown in the demo was missing the claustrophobic dread I remember from Resident Evil 2 remake. Visually Alan Wake 2 is incredible—I've never played a mystery that drips with as much detail. Watching Saga wading through a swampy section of forest as hundreds of trees and ferns whipped around in the wind had me on edge, but combat was missing that crisis of choice survival horror hinges on.
Resident Evil 2 is like a domino setup of tense decisions with its tight ammo supply, choosing when to fight, and knowing that the next time you run down that one hallway the zombie you left behind will be waiting for you. In Alan Wake 2 the shooting looks and sounds just as punchy, but seeing Saga duck under a heavy axe swing from a monstrous lumberjack a couple times, then headshotting him and moving on smacked of more generic, less meaningful combat interludes.
Much as I loved the story in the first Alan Wake, I remember spending most of my time pointing my flashlight at dull enemies and crank-starting generators. The sequel's ambitions are clearly far higher, and Alan Wake looks every inch the part of survival horror with a Twin Peaksy mystery underneath the surface. What Remedy showed at Summer Game Fest just didn't quite convince it will be gripping to play.
I suspect we'll have a chance to play it for ourselves soon. After a decade-long wait, Alan Wake 2 is arriving in just a few months, on October 17. And if you missed it, make sure you catch up on what happened to Alan Wake's layers.