Alan Wake- The Writer
Alan Wake is without a doubt one of my Top 10 games of the year. It has one of the best stories ever written for a game, and innovative gameplay that helps it stand apart from other survival horror titles. The game’s rated T for Teen, which made me skeptical at first as I’m so used to horrific bloodbaths such as Dead Space and Resident Evil. Alan Wake doesn’t achieve the same level of pants-shitting terror that Dead Space does, but it does prove that gory violence doesn’t necessarily translate into big scares. It’s all about the interplay between light and dark, and uses darkness as a method for instilling fear. Titular Stephen King-esque novelist Alan Wake is unable to harm his zombie-like foes unless he blasts them with his flashlight first. Ammo is pretty plentiful in the game, so it’s not as much about conservation as the old-school Resident Evil games. The real concern is how many batteries you have, especially in the earlier chapters when you’re equipped with dinky flashlights that burn through AAs like coal in a freight train. Running out of bullets is unfortunate- your basically forced to drop a flare and book it in the opposite direction. But running out of batteries- that’s a serious problem. With no light Wake will quickly be overwhelmed.
The game soon becomes about surviving stretches between checkpoints, and the warm streetlights that allow you to heal and also save the game become a welcome sight. As you trek through the woods the darkness often starts to swirl and close in on you, heralding the arrival of more enemies as eerie ambient noise starts to dominate the creepy soundtrack. Some may argue that the gameplay isn’t quite as forward-thinking as the narrative, and while it’s not breaking waves like Gears of War’s cover system, it does give the player a tense feeling of helplessness that most survival horror titles don’t. Dead Space excels because of its terrific sound design and creatures, but it’s hard to feel all that powerless when you’re toting a “plasma cutter” while wearing a pressurized suit of armor. Alan Wake, despite its abundance of ammo, makes you feel like a man fighting against terrible odds, especially when you’re dodging axe-blows to the head while popping off shots at five-plus hillbillies hell-bent on tearing your face off.
But what the game should really be commended for, particularly its two downloadable bonus episodes, “The Signal” and “The Writer,” is its engrossing and multi-layered story. Taking cues from David Lynch and television shows such as Twin Peaks and The X-Files (the game is even presented as a television show, with eight episodes, each preceded by a “Previously on Alan Wake” intro), it tells the story of Alan Wake, a novelist searching for his missing wife in the fictional Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls, as a mysterious entity called the Dark Presence lays waste to everyone around him. Stylistically it was very similar to Twin Peaks, even having its own “show within the show,” a Twilight Zone parody called “Night Springs.” But the universe it creates and the story it tells are very unique, and probably the most intellectual tale you’re likely to find on a next-gen console.
The DLC episodes, meant to bridge the cliffhanger at the end of the game with the hopeful “Season Two,” are particularly cerebral- in fact, they’re literally cerebral. Without giving too much away, they follow Wake as he combats his own psyche and tries to escape a netherworld known as the Dark Place. These levels are very clever. Throughout the main game you’re assisted by your literary agent/best friend, Barry Wheeler, but in the DLC you’re followed around by your own manifestation of Barry, a troublesome figment of your imagination. As words literally have power in the Dark Place, you’ll often encounter glowing words that can be transformed into what they describe by shining your flashlight on them. For example, words like “fireworks” will cause bursts of light to explode, killing your foes instantly. My favorite was a sequence in “The Writer” where you’re on a hill and can turn the word “roll” into explosive barrels that will go careening down the hill into your unwitting attackers.
Like games such as Mass Effect 2 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Alan Wake proves that videogames are a viable art form. The story and characters are just as complex as those in any film, and unlike most games Wake actually makes you think. It’s a monument of the genre, and I hope sales for the DLC are good enough to warrant a sequel. It certainly deserves a second season.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Like Alan Wake, Amnesia, a downloadable Steam game for PCs and Macs, is all about the dichotomy between light and dark. Heavily influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, it’s a first person survival horror title but one that stands apart from its peers. Unlike more or less every game on the market, your character is completely unarmed. No gun, no crowbar, nothing, zilch, zip, nada. Your only consistent tool is an oil lantern used to light your way and prevent the darkness from consuming your mind. Being in the dark makes you slowly lose your sanity, but unlike a game such as Eternal Darkness, which had a “sanity meter,” there’s no tangible way to keep track of your mental well-being. When it’s dark you’ll start to hallucinate, but in much more subtle ways than in Silicon Knights’ 2002 thriller. The world will start to swirl and mix together in bizarre ways, the soundtrack will become more sinister, and occasionally you’ll see a floor overrun with cockroaches.
Amnesia is certainly one of the scariest games I’ve ever played. Not having a weapon makes any situation unsettling. The enemies could be goombas and shyguys and I’d still be shitting myself because I have nothing with which to fight them with. Encountering a foe in Amnesia, who are generally shambling humanoid nudes, their flesh flayed and sagging, is a harrowing experience. You immediately need to snuff your lantern, crouch behind a barrel and just pray they don’t see you. If they do, your only option is to book it in the opposite direction, find a room to hide in and barricade the door. I was really struck by a particular scene in the game: you’re searching a well-lit room for an item needed to solve a puzzle. Once you grab it you can hear the door opening and the faint groan of a monster in the adjacent room. Text appears on the screens saying, “You don’t have any weapons! You’d better hide!” Trying to keep control of my panic, I quickly scanned the room and decided on a classic hideout: a closet. I jumped in, closed the doors, and now in the dark, listened as the monster crept into the room, sniffing around. It was an incredible moment, and one I think developer Frictional Games should be commended for. Creating a game where the player is unarmed was an incredible risk, but this one scene proved just how awesome it could be. The tension they created was palpable- in the back of my head I knew that since I was in the closet, the A.I. wouldn’t find me. But I couldn’t stop wondering if maybe the doors would be flung open and I would be ripped apart. It’s moments like these, moments that make the player forget they’re in a game and not an actual world, that make games great. I love the AAA blockbusters like Halo and Call of Duty as much as the next guy, but I think developers should take a hint from Amnesia and challenge conventions more often.
Left 4 Dead 2
I played the demo for the original game when it was released in 2008, and while I found it to be an awesome concept- four player co-op, fast zombies a la 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake- its frenetic pace and hordes of enemies felt overwhelming. But something about the demo for the 2009 sequel changed my mind. Maybe it was the addition of melee weapons or the deep south setting. Whatever the reason, I finally picked it up a couple weeks ago and now I’m officially hooked. Valve, creators of Half-Life and Portal, have once again produced a true AAA title.
Left 4 Dead 2 is meant to be played online. While your computer-controlled companions are pretty impressive in single player, the game’s “Director” system, an invisible A.I. that changes things such as music, lighting and enemy type/number according to how the game is being played, seems to tone the difficulty down a bit when playing alone. Speaking of the “Director,” I’d love to talk about it but the truth is you never really notice it. Which is a good thing, because if you did it would obtrusive. As it is, it’s an amazing innovation not only for multiplayer, but for games in general. It reminds me of a similar mechanic in Red Dead Redemption, where the game can implement thousands of various music segments, combining them to create the appropriate score for whatever situation the player is thrust into.
The gameplay is incredibly frantic, but once you get the hang of it you can get into a sweet groove of zombie-killing bliss. It’s very well-balanced, with no one weapon being an ideal zombie killer (though sniper rifles seem less useful considering the scenario) and plenty of throwables and ammo types. The design of the zombies is great, and excluding the wacky zombies such as Boomers and Chargers and the Witch, they seem very similar to those found in Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. They make horrifying noises and it’s intense when you hear the horde approaching before they actually come into view. Their animations, particularly the kill animations, are incredible. Zombies are blown away by shotgun blasts in the way you would expect them to, and their deaths can be especially gory at times (which is why it was actually somewhat censored in the UK).
Speaking of the special zombies, conceptually I think they’re very silly- why has this plague turned some people into what could be classified as a monster while others are just normal zombies? But this is a videogame, and videogames thrive on variety. Facing the same brand of zombie over and over again would eventually become tiring. Left 4 Dead 2 also isn’t really going for the realism feel found in many of today’s games. If it were, players would probably crumple into a fetal position and weep due to the horror the game was putting them through. Having four distinct and likable characters, two of which are serious jokers, plus creatures that seem ripped from the pages of a comic book rather than a George Romero film, make the game fun, not depressing.
It’s also cool how the game creates a story without the use of cutscenes or anything that would impede the action. A CG cutscene when the disc loads sets up the characters and situation, and snippets of dialogue tell you more about the plague and the survivors. I do have some minor complaints. It isn’t bereft of glitches, matchmaking can be annoying, and unless you have four friends who have Xbox Live, which I don’t, you have to play with strangers who vary in skill and douchebaggery. I’ve only been playing this game for a couple weeks and I feel like I’m considerably better than a large portion of the player base. People don’t seem to understand that the game is all about sticking together, and many a time I’ve been left to die by my teammates, which always results in the whole team getting overwhelmed. Still, Left 4 Dead 2 is just too fun to criticize all that harshly.
This one might be a bit of a stretch, but I think you could argue that this year’s XBLA hit was heavily influenced by horror. For one thing, the protagonist, a cute and unnamed tween boy, can be killed in dozens of horrific ways, including decapitation and impalement. This potential for danger keeps the player feeling constantly uneasy, and the awesome black and white look adds to the overall sense that you are in a world that isn’t quite right. It also has great sound design, a persistent droning ambience, sometimes intensified by a swarm of buzzing flies. Occasionally you’ll stumble onto the hanged corpses of other unfortunate boys, or get hunted down by them a la The Lord of the Flies. There’s a particularly horror movie moment in the first half of the game, where you’re being stalked by a massive spider. The environments are just as creepy as everything else, and range from spooky forests to film noir cityscapes complete with deadly neon signs.
It’s a great puzzle platformer, and has one of the most unique atmospheres I’ve ever seen in a game. It’s like something out of Raymond Chandler’s nightmares. Probably one of the year’s best games, it’s definitely worth checking out.
Red Dead Redemption- Undead Nightmare
Red Dead Redemption is both one of the year’s best games, and one of the greatest games of all time, so it’s no surprise that its first single player DLC pack, entitled “Undead Nightmare,” is a resounding success. Zombies are all the rage in games these days. There’s the Resident Evil, Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising series, and it could b argued that Dead Space is essentially mutant zombies in space. Dozens of other games that aren’t zombie-centric still feature zombie modes or spinoffs, such as Call of Duty and Borderlands. Like Nazis, stormtroopers and terrorists, zombies make great enemies because they’re practically impossible to empathize with. But not all games nail the zombie experience. Thankfully, Undead Nightmare gets it right, and also introduces the first successful wild west zombie story ever made.
Having played both expansions to GTA IV, I knew Rockstar were sticklers for quality. Undead Nightmare is more than just a bunch of new missions and weapons. The entire style and feel of the game have been drastically changed, as well as how it’s played. Rain and darkness are much more prevalent in the apocalyptic version of New Ausitn. Stores are no longer open for business, so collecting provisions has been rendered moot. The name of the game is now ammo, which like in any good zombie game, needs to be hoarded and conserved.
Nowhere is safe. Zombies roam freely, and towns aren’t safe havens until you assist the survivors and cleanse their undead presences. Galloping on your horse isn’t recommended, as it’s very likely you’ll turn a corner and find your path blocked by a zombie horde. In one particularly terrifying instance, I was forced to plow through a swarm of zombies in a tight canyon pass. Stopping even briefly runs the risk of being ripped from your steed by a hungry zombie. Fortunately, I was riding the Horse of War, one of the four horses of the Apocalypse, who can be found throughout the world and broken like any wild horse. They all have different special abilities; in War’s case, he’s on fire, and alights enemies as well. There’s also an awesome subplot involving sasquatches, that has a more depressing conclusion than you would expect.
Though there are considerable changes, it’s still Red Dead. What’s neat is how aspects of the original game have merely been tweaked to fit the new horror-serial style. Instead of bounty missions, there’s missing persons rescue tasks. There’s still random happenings, like rescuing damsels in distress, only it’s from zombies, not bandits. And in addition to the hefty slew of “Survivor missions,” there’s also a bevy of stranger missions, bringing back many of the original game’s memorable characters. And not all of them make it out alive.
I’m about five or so hours into the expansion and I’ve only just reached Mexico. At $9.99, Undead Nightmare, like GTA IV’s The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, is an excellent deal. It’s also got changes to multiplayer, which gives me incentive to explore that aspect of the game, one I’ve barely touched. This is a truer zombie experience than most zombie expansions, as well as the entirety of Resident Evil 5, and I highly recommend it.