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Oct 31, 2023

Alan Wake 2 Review

Lights Off
5 Incredible
Retails for: $49.99
We Recommend: $49.99
  • Developer: Remedy Entertainment
  • Publisher: Epic Games
  • Genre: Action, Horror, Survival
  • Released: Oct 27, 2023
  • Platform: Windows, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5
  • Reviewed: Windows

One of my fondest memories of gaming was back in 2010, hosting weekly viewing parties in my apartment for the first season of The Walking Dead; for my friends who came early, they could join me on my play-through of the original Alan Wake. It was the perfect combination of spooky fall horror, and week after week, more people would show up early to watch Alan Wake‘s story unfold. It was Remedy’s long hyped, new experiment in interactive storytelling; a departure from typical gaming narratives backed by the might of Microsoft as a publishing partner as an exclusive release on the Xbox 360, and it was laden with some novel (and heavy-handed) product placements, a still nascent concept in games at the time. Originally planned as an open world title with huge player freedom, the game’s actual release was much more linear in scope, and while this came as a disappointment to many who had been following the game’s development for years, it still offered something unique. In spite of its various faults, Alan Wake became a cult classic for many, myself among them, for its ideas and aspirations and for the promise of what Remedy had been aiming for. Over the years it has gained in popularity, and with the at first subtle and eventually very direct tie-ins with Remedy’s incredible Control, it became clear that Alan Wake was indeed destined for return.

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The question on everyone’s mind: could Alan Wake II ever possibly live up to the lofty expectations set by Remedy itself, especially after so much build up? After all, the original Alan Wake set high expectations for itself, and Quantum Break was a game that most ended up skipping out on given its heavy reliance on live action sequences. Control was both a critical and commercial success, arguably the largest Remedy had seen since Max Payne 2, but was it the benchmark for what to expect from Remedy going forward, or a lucky break in all of the right elements falling into place? The truth is, Control was not so amazing by accident; it was the product of incredible creative talent, clarity of vision, and painstaking effort to make something incredible and, in true Remedy fashion, totally unlike anything we had played before. From the moment the official announcement for Alan Wake II dropped, it was clear that Remedy was taking everything they had learned from building Control, and was preparing to use it to show the world what Alan Wake was really meant to be, and damn did they deliver.

Alan Wake II kicks off in the sleepy town of Bright Falls, the home of Deerfest, just like the original. Set thirteen years after the events of Alan Wake, the opening chapters follow Saga Anderson, an FBI agent with a knack for cracking tough cases and her partner, the gruff and grizzled Alex Casey. The game very quickly points out that this Alex Casey is not the central character Wake’s best-selling detective novels of the same name, and any resemblance is merely coincidental (uh huh, sure). In fact, Casey (whose likeness is that of Remedy Creative Director Sam Lake’s, and is voiced by Max Payne’s voice actor, James McCaffrey), is explicitly not a fan of the crime novels and resents the apparent similarity. If this all sounds too convenient, or even too meta, rest assured that there’s plenty more to all of this as you progress through the story. Alan Wake II‘s narrative doesn’t pull any punches, and in fact delights in opportunities to explore metafiction and the ways in which the author of any work inevitably influences the nature of the work itself whether intentionally or otherwise.

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A criticism that has been levied at Remedy’s works in the past, and the original Alan Wake in particular, was that it felt more of an homage to Twin Peaks and its Lynchian inspirations than an effort to play in the same waters; that the game was afraid to push too far, or get too weird, and so would straddle the line between cute and strange, ending up in a place that felt mostly tongue-in-cheek without ever following through on its setups. Alan Wake II does not suffer from this problem; if anything, the game leans completely into its inspirations, and is self-aware enough to know that it has to push harder to succeed in its vision. All of this to say that narratively, tonally, and thematically, Alan Wake II is all kinds of weird and scary, and it comes to those places authentically rather than through imitation.

Through playing as Saga, you are re-introduced to Bright Falls and Cauldron Lake, giving you a chance to settle back into the familiar locales and catching you up on foundational backstory. This is a game that’s difficult to discuss or review without going into spoiler territory, but I will say that its opening is one of the strongest introductions I’ve seen to a game in years, and it primes you for engaging in some proper detective work. Where most games uncover their mysteries through exposition, Alan Wake II invites you to be an active participant in collecting and connecting clues via Saga’s Mind Place, a physical representation of her mental catalogue of everything to do with the cases she’s working. You can swap over to the Mind Place at any time with the press of a button to view the case board, where you get to enjoy the most satisfying representation of connecting clues and ideas with red string and pins that’s ever been created. There are “right” ways to connect information to fill out your understanding of cases, so it is primarily just a device for solidifying connections, but it’s very effective at making you feel like you’re connecting dots yourself and it feels meaningful when you advance the plot by actively linking clues. It’s a great trick and Remedy’s execution of it is spot on.

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Saga also has an ability called “profiling,” via which she can intuit clues or information about people she’s investigating based on conversations she’s had with them or information she’s learned. Her ability to suddenly “know” things she shouldn’t borders on uncanny, but it’s believable enough especially considering some of the central conceits of the world in which the game operates. Through combining the Case Board, Profiling, and pages of Alan’s manuscript she discovers (yes, they’re back, but they’re more consequential than before), through Saga you begin to unravel the mysteries of Cauldron Lake and the surrounding area, and what’s going on with the ritualistic murders that have been taking place there. And yes, the classic Alan Wake gameplay is still there, with Saga relying on a flashlight, a pistol, and a sawed off shotgun to deal with the supernatural forces of The Taken who do start to show up as she pushes further along in her investigation.

You also play as Alan for good chunks of the game, and when you finally take control of him in The Dark Place, it feels like a homecoming in the best way possible. Alan’s sections of the game are much tenser and lean more into the “horror” aspect, which is appropriate considering his predicament and the forces he’s working against. It’s the familiar Alan Wake gameplay of making your way through dimly lit, very hostile areas cloaked in the Dark Presence, but with some exciting new twists. Alan has his own mind place, his Writer’s Room, set in the attic of Bird’s Leg Cabin, where he discovers scenes and ideas by wandering through the Dark Place. Visiting the writer’s room to combine ideas with scenes will rewrite the world around Alan, offering new versions of his environment to explore and opening pathways forward, and the effect of changing the combinations (along with the seamless swaps in the environment) is really impactful.

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In terms of gameplay, Alan Wake II is both true to its roots and a significant improvement upon them. Controlling Saga and Alan feels great, and while they still move at a slower clip than most video game heroes, it’s a more realistic one, and importantly they are responsive to your inputs. Controls in the original felt sluggish at times, and you had to get used to Alan’s plodding movements; he’s a writer, after all, not an action hero. However, some refinements and adjustments to both how the characters move in reaction to your whims, and the design of combat encounters make for a drastically improved feeling overall. Exploration is the primary mode you’ll engage with, and moving through forests, deserted theme parks, dimly lit subway tunnels or dark alleys alike all instill you with a sense of foreboding. Tension mounts as hostile whispers swirl around you, lights flicker on and off, and shadows twist and shift in all kinds of unnatural ways. Every time I have sat down to play more, I am awed by the incredible balance Remedy has struck between building tension and releasing it, and the quality of the game’s pacing overall. In many cases, fights feel like well-timed releases of pent up unease, a definitive (and well-placed) outlet for the constantly mounting stress of exploring a hostile space.

While Remedy have touted the game as “survival horror,” I find their take on the genre to be refreshing. Alan Wake II engages in common tropes like limited resources, a reliance on safe spaces for manual saves, and even the use of jump scares, it doesn’t engage in these things cheaply. In fact, I have noticed that no matter how dire things might start to feel as I get low on batteries or bullets, a cache is almost always just around the corner, and I conveniently always have enough of everything to get me through each fight. It is more an illusion of scarcity than actual scarcity, something which I suspect Remedy is accomplishing both via very deliberate design, but also potentially via some dynamic systems for doling out items based on need and what the game knows is coming up. I love this approach as it still provides the thrill of just barely eking by some situations, while never actually putting you in a position of being screwed due to poor management of resources. They also provide some nice affordances like not letting enemies bash you if you’re about to complete a healing action, and conveniently giving you just enough time to open a door without being hit, things that most survival horror games are all too happy to punish you for. The effect though is it feels more like how things work in TV and film; always riding the line, but never crossing it without good reason.

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I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without mentioning Alan Wake II‘s presentation, which is truly one of the best things it has going for it and a big part of why it all works. If you played Control, you’re familiar with the immersive mixed media approach that game used to advance the story or provide exposition; live action footage overlaid on top of the game world, videos playing on in-world screens for you to watch, etc. All of that is back in Alan Wake II and it works phenomenally well for a story about a writer, in a game that is meant to take inspiration from other media. It takes all of the best elements of Control‘s presentation, combines that with Alan Wake‘s rich lore and moody atmosphere, and the resulting product is brilliant. In this game, you can see what Remedy wanted to do with the original, where their aspirations were thirteen years ago, what they have been striving to create for so long. Every element of the way this game is presented is so well polished, so thoughtfully considered, and every plot development draws you in further. The moment to moment experience of playing Alan Wake II is rich with discovery and detail; nothing is throwaway, nothing exists without purpose, and it’s nothing short of a triumph in artistic vision applied to the medium.

Remedy’s in-house technology engine powering the game, Northlight, continues to evolve and to show how capable it is. Remedy has invested heavily into pushing what its engine can do in terms of lighting effects, pushing cutting edge rendering techniques like path tracing, and striving for strong, consistent performance. Also, Remedy has clearly put a ton of time into their facial animation systems because most of the time when characters speak, their mouths move incredibly convincingly and accurately, which is no small feat and something a lot of games still struggle to do well. Graphically speaking, Alan Wake II scales incredibly well with different hardware configurations, and while machines with graphics cards that are more than two generations old might not be able to play ball, I was floored by how great the game looked and how well it ran on my computer without any of the advanced ray tracing or path tracing features enabled. Turning those features on adds another layer of realism to scenes (and good grief does this game look amazing with ray tracing, path tracing, and real time reflections enabled), but you can still get an amazing visual experience without them. In most scenes I was seeing an average of 120FPS on the “High” quality preset rendering at 2560×1440, which is damn impressive for a brand new game that’s pushing the technology envelope.

My PC Specs:

– Microsoft Windows 11 Pro
– Intel Core i9 12900K @ 4.6GHz
– Corsair Vengeance 3200MHZ 32GB (16×2) DDR4 RAM
– MSI GeForce RTX 3080 Ti 10GB GDDR6
– WD_BLACK SN850X M.2 (4 TB)

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In a year that’s been packed full of incredible games, Alan Wake II is yet another strong contender for Game of the Year and is an experience that’s not to be missed, whether you’ve played the original game or not. It fully delivers on the promise of what Remedy has been building towards for decades, and sets a new high bar for what games can and should be. If horror isn’t necessarily your thing, turn the difficulty down to “Story” mode and get in there anyway; it’s an amazing game that will take you on a ride you will never forget, and I’m willing to bet it’ll make a Remedy fan out of nearly anybody who plays it. This is a truly special, genre defining, studio defining game that only comes along once in a very long while. I cannot overstate just how good this game is; whether you are a longtime fan, or if this is your initiation into the universe of Alan Wake, this is an absolute must play game that will leave you thinking about it long after you reach the ending credits. Alan Wake II is Remedy’s masterpiece, and it is glorious to behold.

An Epic Games Store code was provided in advance by the publisher for review purposes