Oh, Alan, you made it. I suppose you'd better come in. On reflection, it was probably best that you didn't turn up for the Vista housewarming. I mean you were supposed to be the guest of honour, all that DirectX 10 hoo-hah, but truth be told it was a shit party. Anyway, we've both moved on, and... Alan, you've been working out. Did it just get hot in here, or are you a 14GB download? Let's go upstairs.
Alan Wake is a writer of metaphors as weak and overwrought as that. It's a story Remedy wrote about a writer's writing. It's a survival horror game in which the writer's first words are a love letter to Stephen King, the guy most boys read before realising Clive Barker had muckier sex bits. And it's a game that includes potted episodes of Night Springs, a Twilight Zone show, on TVs left on around the world. Is Alan Wake a parody of its genre, a parody of Remedy's own Norse pomp, or a loving homage to everything? In a stroke of unexpected genius, it works perfectly well as all three.
Alan Wake is, to coin a cliché, a ripping yarn. Mystery, evil, and darkness, and a world whose shifting rules defy clear understanding, but still feel compellingly within reach. The excellent, tense combat is based on a simple author's premise – darkness versus light. This also drives the art direction, making the game feel more coherent and compelling than it may actually be.
The combat is based around your torch, and whatever other sources of light there may be, from a car's headlamps to a fireworks display. That's enough for the poltergeists, puddles and crows that'll attack you, but the humanoid enemies require bulleting to death, once you've burned away their protective shroud. Your torch can be boosted, dazzling your enemies and slowing them, but they're tricky buggers – the quicker, weaker tracksuit guys will try to flank you while you're dazzling their slower, knife-hurling brothers.
It's a back-tighteningly tense system, with atmospheric sound effects that chew on the nape of your neck. Managing multiple enemies, and monitoring your torch battery, can draw your attention away from ammo, and the one-at-a-time bullet reloading is another layer of authentic, fumbling horror. It's the combat equivalent of reaching the safe-house, and realising you don't know which key on the bunch opens the door. Your last line of defence is a well-timed dodge. Good luck with that, while you're soiling yourself.
Sometimes you have to run. Even this is stressful. The monsters can easily keep up with Alan, who has the Olympic abilities of a man who sits on his arse for a living. It's close to impossible to block attacks from behind. Maybe because the camera's too tight. Maybe because that's an inevitable side-effect of running away in blind panic. Thankfully, the checkpoints are generous, giving you a chance to try out different approaches without frustration.
It looks great, and the levels are designed cleverly to feel more explorable than they actually are, with secret corners full of manuscript pages (which are genuinely worth reading), ammo and pointlessly collectible coffee flasks. The oppressive, distorting mist lends a roiling air of hallucination to the fights. It's something, along with the shrouded creatures, that's difficult to do justice to with screenshots.
Remedy's influences are many, and explicitly made – King, Lynch, Hitchcock, Serling – and you'll doubtless spot more yourself. And the fact that Alan is a hack with writer's block gives the script an excuse for occasional triteness, cliché, and self-indulgence. But any complaints pale in the shadows of this TV-fuelled, nerve-shredding joyride. And contrary to what you may have gathered from the console release years ago – this is not a game that's made for a comfortable sofa. It's a game to be played hunched over a keyboard and desk, with a set of headphones blocking out the outside world. Because that's exactly what Alan Wake is about.