Pine forests, a dramatic coastline, picturesque villages, peace and quiet. The Pacific North-West of the USA isn't a setting usually connected with mystery, intrigue and outright horror. But into this beautiful and evocative location Remedy are about to introduce just that, because action-adventure Alan Wake is nearly here, a long, long awaited Xbox 360 exclusive that promises to blend an open-world with the cinematic like never before.
Remedy's pedigree does of course lead us to high expectations, the Scandinavian aces having cut their teeth on the first two hugely influential Max Payne releases before leaping into bed with Microsoft for Alan Wake. The game has been in the works for years, but this no Duke Nukem Forever; the adventure is nearly complete and we've seen it running in the flesh.
While it would be tempting to kick-off waxing lyrical on the obviously high production values, ever-present in the game's lush, vast environments, the stunning lighting effects, the immersive cut-scenes and camera work, I'm not going to. Rather, in the spirit of the narrative trick Remedy are trying to pull, I'll simply introduce the premise. The titular Alan Wake is a famous American horror writer, who of late has been suffering from writer's block. In a desperate bid to regain his creativity, Wake and wife set off for the restorative peace of Bright Falls, a tiny town in Washington State.
Alan Wake is billed as a psychological thriller however, so it isn't long before things start taking a turn for the bizarre and then the strange. All is not as it seems in Bright Falls, and when Wake's wife goes missing Remedy's 'nightmare coming true' plot starts to get underway in earnest. As the world crumbles around him, the idyllic setting haunted by something terrifying that lurks the shadows and the night, Wake must uncover the truth by retrieving the pages of a manuscript he doesn't remember writing - and thereby uncover what has become of his missing beloved.
Remedy's Oskari Hakkinen and Matias Myllrinne are taking us through a few segments from the game, which is running smooth-as-silk on the 360 console before us. Before we enter the gameplay itself, we notice that progress appears to be divided up in the fashion of a popular television show. Each segment has a title, and a story arc that will round-up in some small way by the episode's end, while also contributing to the overarching narrative. So, we get a 'previously on Alan Wake' style flashback - Remedy cunningly reminding us of previous events that will prove important to understanding what will happen in the sequence just beginning.
Other games have borrowed elements of this US television-led approach, but this could well be the best example we've seen of it working as part of a plot that promises genuine twists and convolutions. A number of seemingly well-developed characters will prove vital to the plot (we witness a very naturalistic conversation with 'Rusty' at one point), while the real star of the show could be the world itself - seemingly solid scenery, including large, complicated structures, crumbling during action set-pieces that brim with tension.
Light and dark will prove key to the gameplay, your torch a more faithful weapon than your pistol as you battle a dark presence that has mastery of the shadows but is destroyed by light. 'Illumination' will be at the heart of both the gameplay and plot, then, Wake battling inanimate objects and even people (zombie-like local victims of Wake's strange beast, which it seems he himself may have somehow dreamt into being) controlled by this sinister ethereal presence, while moving around the town, piecing together the manuscript and uncovering more of what has happened, and crucially, what might happen in the future. The realistic day-night cycle will prove pivotal to the gameplay, then, nightfall more dangerous than the daytime as Wake's nightmare threatens to rob him of his sanity as well as his wife. As Hakkinen tells us enigmatically: "light shows things as they really are".
Some of the violent action scenes we were shown saw Wake doing battle with increasingly large beasts, comprised of everything from oil drums through to bits of shack, Myllrinne telling us that some times it will be better for the protagonist to avoid confrontations and just run-away towards the safety of a light source (such as a gas lamp or a generator-powered light). Puzzles will also evolve around light, and the acquiring of it, Wake required to turn on a generator and thereby a light in order to escape his malevolent pursuer at one point, while the fact that light sources will not always last indefinitely will add further tension to the proceedings.
The visuals and the audio do a wonderful job of further adding to this sense of tension, occasionally genuine fear, foggy forests brought to life in vivid detail, while the open-world itself is quite a technical feat - even if during the areas we were shown progress was fairly tightly directed for the most part. Flares and other light-based effects are as pretty as you'd expect, while Remedy add a little trademark slow-motion in places to further heighten the impact of key scenes. Television shows like Lost, Heroes and even Battlestar Galactica spring to mind.
During one particularly impressive sequence we're shown Wake takes shelter in a small house as he's chased along the edge of a ravine by this evil something, a few moments respite seeing our hero suddenly leaping from a bulldozer that crashes through the building in spectacular fashion, sending debris flying, and ably demonstrating the interactivity of the game world. Wake then escapes in a Jeep, which sees him racing off along the open-world coastline in the direction of the Bright Falls Lighthouse.
While the plot is fairly tightly controlled, what impresses at this stage is still how this combines with a sense of freedom, even if the story may compel the player to take the obvious path on occasion. Good voice acting comes as a relief, while interaction with NPCs will help progress the plot and gain assistance as the player meets the obstacles and confusions of the main gameplay. The combat, meanwhile, is seemingly sufficiently varied, while the whole production oozes cinematic quality out of every pore. Indeed, this long awaited mystery could be one of the Xbox 360's most compelling adventures when it finally slithers out of the darkness in 2010.