Sunday, June 13, 2010

Alan Wake - 1 of 4 - First Impressions

I picked up Alan Wake the other day, started playing this morning, so I think I should get the first impressions out of the way.

Praise first then:
The developers have done a good job, graphics wise. I'm not a fan of bleeding edge graphics tech, since it won't run on my ancient computer and the types of games that tend to use it aren't my cup of tea to begin with. They seem to have had a little trouble with the faces, they slip into the Uncanny Valley a little too often for my taste, but I won't begrudge them that.
The scenery is fantastic, but you can always tell when you're on the tracks. I realize they probably have to do this to avoid confusing players, but that little compass at the top should usually be a decent indicator of where you've got to go. And it is.

The interface is minimalistic, which is nice. I don't mind that at all. The health bar and magic objective compass are both in the same spot, which is handy.

I'll go right ahead and say that the controls are a little wonky. I don't like the sprint button, at all at the moment, mostly because there's not really an indicator, subtle or otherwise, as to when you can use it and when it's depleted. The fact that it occupies the same space as the dodge button can make clearing out of groups of enemies a little on the difficult side, since the game sometimes has difficulty interpreting between the two.

For a game that advertises as horror, I think they've gone the wrong way. The most tense parts of the games, the most frightening, are the ones where you've lost your gear and have to ration out things like flares and flash bangs to keep the enemy at bay. These can also be the most frustrating, since this ration cannot be replenished, and it's a little unclear as to whether or not you'll need them later on, or if you'll have them at all.

Maybe that's just the horror fan in me. Rationing the supply of something is the quickest way to make sure the player values it. And I've always liked the idea that the more you have of something in a horror game, be it life, health, ammunition or information, the shorter it's supply should be. The flashlight in games is a favourite example. Especially when they power it with a battery. I've always thought that if they wanted to keep the player tense, the battery should drain faster in areas where it isn't absolutely needed. Keep the player from using light as a safety blanket. Make them stumble around in the dark a little, and watch the shadows in corners. By playing with it just a little, I think you could have a much more enjoyable game.

How does this relate to Alan Wake? Alan is always equipped with some combination of three things: A flashlight, which requires batteries, a gun (several of these exist but you can only carry four) or some form of equipment (flares and flash bangs are what I've seen so far). During some parts of the game, they throw batteries and ammunition at you like they're candy, which doesn't cease to bother me. The game makes it quite clear that shooting at an enemy before you've used the light on them is a waste of bullets (equipment is an exception to this). You're also rewarded for looking a bit off the beaten path with glowing symbols. These symbols are revealed by the flashlight, and lead to caches of supplies marked by a torch. I think they could do away with half the ammunition in the game because I kept finding these on my playthrough and being unable to use all of the supplies there because I already had enough.

And it's not like you can waste bullets very easily. The game gives you semi-automatic weapons, not bullet hoses. An eight shot revolver, a double barrelled shotgun, a hunting rifle and a few others. They don't hold too many bullets, particularly the shotgun. My thankful cry of "pump action!" was completely heartfelt upon discovering that variation.

The flashlight is an odd duck. It has batteries, which you find almost everywhere. To use it on an enemy, you focus the beam, which drains the battery. If you don't empty it completely, the battery will eventually recharge. Something I'm a little at odds with. They seem to contradict each other. While the recharging aspect makes it easier to stretch out one battery if you're clever, the fact that you can carry quite a few seems to negate it's usefulness, at least from what I've been able to tell.

Combat is... interesting. Alan can easily triumph over small groups armed with nothing but his flashlight and a revolver, but when numbers start to turn against him, it can become much more difficult. The fact that enemies seem to have an infinite number of ranged weapons, axes, picks, tire irons and the like, is an annoyance of mine. And the control scheme which mixes the dodge button with the ability to run is also an irritant.

The camera stealing is just wretched. It's (and I'm borrowing heavily from Yahtzee here) almost as though they don't want to scare you. When some enemies have gotten behind you, as part of the game (they've spawned behind you), the game slows down, jerks the camera out of your hands as a way of yelling at the top of it's voice "Hello! Hello! Do you see these scary, scary men? They want to kill you! Maybe you should shoot them!" Now, there are a dozen other ways to have done this within the game itself, without breaking immersion. They could have made a noise. Alan could have narrated that he heard something, which wouldn't have bothered me half as much. They could have simply jumped you and started the fight. They give hints in the environment as to when the Taken (since that's what they're called) are going to show up. If everything seems to get a wee bit darker, if lights start going out spontaneously, if the fog/mist around you seems to be moving a bit faster? They're Here!

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