A few weeks back I picked up one of the new slim Xbox 360s, and for those of you that know me, then you’ll know it’s probably my 9th or 10th Xbox360 that I’ve owned. It’s not because I’ve been plagued by RRODs, but because I usually play everything I want to play, feel guilty about not doing any work, and sell it on eBay.
In the week and a half between buying the Xbox360 and Halo : Reach coming out (the game I bought the console for), I had a cheap bundle copy of Alan Wake to tide me over. I thought it was a pretty good deal, considering the development period resembled a more condensed version of Duke Nukem : Forever’s, and was one of Microsoft’s flagship releases for the year. It had to be good, right?
One of the issues about being a self-proclaimed game designer/developer, is that you tend to over-analyse some of the design decisions developers made, or think about how it could have been ‘better’. ‘Good’ games (Half-Life 2, Portal) are designed so well that you never have to think about improvements, which allows you to enjoy the game. However, ‘bad’ games remove you from the experience and seem more like research rather than enjoyment. Alan Wake fell somewhere between the two categories, but mostly on the latter side.
Whenever designing a game, I always think that one of the most important things to consider is how you are rewarding the player for putting in the time to play your game. This is important regardless of the length of the overall experience, but very important with a game that goes beyond a couple of hours.
My main concern with the game, and the focus of this post is the distinct lack of player progression in terms of combat system and gameplay mechanics, it seriously doesn’t go anywhere from the first minute to the last.
The main combat mechanics revolves around a short cutscene showing some shadowy figures that amble towards you, you shine a light on them, their shield goes down, then you shoot them 3 times. When you kill the last of the ‘set’ of enemies, he falls in slow motion. This happens within the first 5 minutes, and then every 45 seconds until the end of the game, about 8 hours later, with no change to pace, abilities or reward.
If we look at Bioshock as an example and compare how the fighting mechanics work, they operate quite similar to Alan Wakes. Each has a dual wielding system that are designed to work in tandem with each other. Bioshock’s plasmids are primarily used to distract the enemy AI from their purpose of attacking the player, giving the player the opportunity to attack with their weapon, mostly with a gun of some sort. Instead of plasmids, Alan Wake has you use a flashlight to reduce the shield and stop them from approaching the player, the player then uses a gun weapon to kill the enemy. It’s fairly simple, just remember to shine the light on the enemy, walk backwards, shoot, move onto next target. It’s the equivalent of ‘challenging’ someone to say “would you consider upgrading your house insurance plan”…they’d do it pretty easily, now ask them to do it for 8 hours.
Bioshock rewards the player by giving them the use of a variety of plasmids that can completely change the proceedings of a batttle. For example, the player can choose to freeze an enemy, making them motionless and vulnerable to a one hit kill by shattering them with the wrench, whilst setting the enemy on fire has them running to find a source of water to put out the flames, giving the player a faster moving target, but one which isn’t able to deal damage whilst on fire. As the player progresses, more interesting plasmids are introduced, such as a Star Wars like force push, or a swarm of bees. The aim is to keep the combat fresh, exciting and fun whilst the player moves from story point A to story point B.
Alan Wake gains a flashlight at the beginning of the game, and later a more powerful flashlight, which makes it slightly quicker to remove the shields of the enemies, but only by about 5%, which isn’t very effective or entirely necessary. At the start of every chapter the previous set of weapons and flashlights are stripped away from the player, meaning they start with the bare basics once again. It’s incredibly frustrating to carefully conserve ammo and batteries throughout a chapter, only to have it all removed again. It’s the cheap tricks that games like Star Wars : The Force Unleashed and God of War 2 use to draw the player into the game, in the industry it’s called ”give the player all the super badass special moves at the start of the game and then remove them and use the prospect of using the awesome powers again as incentive to play the game”, or something like that.
The other area in which Alan Wake fails to impress is in the progression of the game play. Whilst being linked to the combat mechanic progression, game play progression is mostly the set pieces in which the player is involved with. Again, the main aim for successful gameplay progression is to give the player more interesting scenarios in which to use their newly acquired skills and weapons, whilst the same time providing new challenges and locations.
If we look at Half-Life 2, there are many areas that offer the player different experiences and gameplay environments in which to use new weapons. Weapons are also introduced in context with the current area. For example the crossbow in Half-Life 2 is a ranged weapon with a scope, and rather handily it is introduced into the game whilst you’re driving along the expansive coast sections, giving you the perfect opportunity to use your new toy. Similarly, the shotgun is introduced in Ravenholm, which has the player mostly moving through confined streets, alley ways and buildings, perfect for close-quarters shotgun blasts to the headcrab covered face.
Alan Wake fails in providing the player with any variety in it’s combat scenarios, it just recycles the A to B missions, but sets it in a slightly different location to the last. Occasionally the game has you drive from one location to another, but there is never any real content to these sections, and it basically boils down to running over some enemies, finding a secluded petrol station, getting a bigger torch, driving up to a fallen tree blocking the road and getting out of the car.
There is also a distinct lack of variety when it comes to the enemies in the game. Some have shovels, some have sharp knives their throw and some are taller than others. The taller enemies are normally ‘themed’ for the particular area that you are in, spouting out useless and frankly ridiculous catchphrases. Regardless of which enemy you fight, they are all defeated with exactly the same process, and they all resemble the bad guy from Men In Black with the cockroaches coming out of his sleeve.
So maybe comparing Alan Wake to 2 of the most critically acclaimed games of the last 10 years is a bit harsh, but what Bioshock and Half-Life 2 did so well is get the fundamentals of successful game design nailed, allowing the player to continually enjoy the experience throughout.
Overall it’s not a bad game, it’s just very frustrating when you think about the amount of hype, time and money that was spent during the development of this game. Questions could be raised over how much Remedy actually wanted to develop this game further, and how much Microsoft pushed/paid them to finish it. The time in which this game was ‘in development’ suggests that there was ample time to dedicate to designing the core content, but in the end it feels rushed, with a lot of copy/paste going on….
However, there are areas which should be applauded, I particularly think that the TV show presentation of the episodes is an interesting approach, taking what Alone in the Dark did with their ‘episodic’ content but wrapping it in a neater package. It’s also a very beautiful game in parts, with a great lighting system, it’s just a shame more time wasn’t dedicated to improving the gameplay experience, because it could have been a lot better.
If you don’t have an Xbox360, or don’t fancy purchasing Alan Wake, then just grab the DVD box set of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and play the original Resident Evil game whilst you watch it, it’s basically the same thing.