Part of my job as a reviewer is to point out aspects of a game that may diminish the gameplaying experience for you.Alan Wake (Xbox 360) is certainly not immune from such minor irritants, but my single greatest problem with the game is that I’ll only get to play it for the first time once. The mystery of Bright Falls will only stay a mystery for so long, because eventually the game will end and the truth will be revealed. Rarely is a game’s story told as well as it is in Alan Wake, and like all great tales, you can’t help but be a little heartbroken when you’ve heard all there is to hear. The fact that there’s a game mixed in with it – and a darn good one, at that – is kind of just a bonus.

Novelist Alan Wake and his wife Alice have come to the picturesque town of Bright Falls for a quiet getaway, but they’ve barely had time to unpack before Alice disappears and Alan is attacked by strange shadow creatures. Still trying to make sense of what’s happening, Alan begins finding pages of a manuscript with his name on it – but that he doesn’t remember writing – whose story seems to be mimicking real life. He’s alone, his wife is missing, the police are after him, and the only lead he has to go on may be a figment of his tortured imagination. Make no mistake: Alan Wake is out to mess with your head, and it will more than likely succeed.

It doesn’t look like it at first, but Alan Wake is an incredibly scary game, setting its stage with familiar, ordinary locations like a cabin in the woods or the local diner and twisting them into something malicious. The dark presence is also possessing the townspeople, turning them into Taken. The darkness is alive, angry, and everywhere, but fortunately, so is the best weapon to fight it: light. Alan can’t really hurt the Taken while they’re possessed, but he can use anything that produces light – flashlights, flares, headlights, flash bang grenades – to drive the dark presence out of them and make them vulnerable to damage. After you’ve shown the Taken the light, you can open fire with one of the few guns Alan picks up during his travels, or attack indirectly by using the environment to your advantage.

Although virtually all of the fights in Alan Wake follow the same burn with light/shoot/repeat pattern, then never feel old or repetitious, thanks to the game’s knack for balancing threat with offensive ability. You’ll find more powerful flashlights and guns as you progress, but even when you’re well stocked with plenty of light sources and ammo, you never feel safe, because you’re one dead battery away from being overwhelmed by the Taken. Even rudimentary searches of your surroundings should provide more than enough equipment to make it to your next destination, but it’ll almost always be a close call, no matter what. The game also finds ways to separate you from your gear, usually starting you out in each new Episode with nothing but the clothes on your back. At first it feels blatantly unfair, but it almost always makes sense in context and reminds you of just how vulnerable you are out there in the woods by yourself. The game just wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t reset the balance of power every so often.

Alan Wake nails its story perfectly, but stumbles when it tries to shoehorn traditional game mechanics into the experience. Your flashlight and guns control so perfectly and intuitively that the combat blends seamlessly into the story, never detracting from the atmosphere or interrupting the tension. Rapidly hitting the A button to unlock a door or playing a quick minigame to fire up a generator, on the other hand, does nothing but remind that you’re playing a game, not actually fighting for your life. For a story-heavy game like Alan Wake to really work, it has to suck you in and keep you entranced, which is nigh impossible when you’re having controller buttons flashed in your face. There are other game-y elements, too, such as collecting thermoses and tuning into radio and TV programs, but these are optional and easy enough to avoid if you favor immersion over achievements.

With its gorgeous mountain scenery, quirky characters and unsettling vibe, Alan Wake feels more than a little like an episode of Twin Peaks, which is not an accident. The entire game is presented like a TV series, with chapters broken into Episodes that end in cliffhangers and begin with “previously on Alan Wake” recaps of the action to date. Sure, it’s a gimmick, but it’s one that actually helps the game stay potent. Maintaining the kind of horrific atmosphere that Wake is aiming for is incredibly difficult over a sustained period of time; imitating the emotional peaks and valleys that TV episodes create lets Wake control the tension, cranking it up or down as needed to keep you on edge. Wake‘s TV stylings have more practical benefits, too: The Episode recaps serve as excellent reminders, and Alan’s moody voiceovers not only provide clues as to how to proceed, but also remind you what your current goal is.

Alan Wake suffers from a few odd pacing issues, but for the most part its story unfolds perfectly as the game progresses, driving you further and further into the darkness. By the time you find out the truth of what happened in that cabin, you’ll be so far in that you’ll have no choice but to push on through to the other side. And you won’t mind one bit.

Bottom Line: A brilliantly told story, excellent voice acting, and an atmosphere so unnerving you’ll sleep with the lights on for a month. If only it came with a bottle of instant amnesia so that you could play it for the first time more than once.

Recommendation: Unless you’re allergic to excellent storytelling or have an unnatural fear of pine trees, play this immediately.

Score: [rating=5]

Susan Arendt’s dog was scared by Alan Wake but she stuck around to protect her mommy, anyway.

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