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Monday, August 28, 2023

‘Alan Wake 2’ Gamescom Report – We Watched Nearly an Hour of Gameplay from the Survival Horror Sequel

“You left us on quite the cliffhanger,” teases insipid light-night talk show host Mr. Door, as he playfully admonishes his guest for the glacial pace of their output.

Said interviewee happens to be none other than pulpy crime novelist (turned unwitting adversary of evil) Alan Wake, who is more than a little perplexed by the rhetoric of the man sitting across from him.

Befuddlement, of course, is one of Alan’s defining traits and right now he is unable to figure out: A) how he got here in the first place; B) whether he’s already been through this pantomimic ordeal once before; or C) if the studio audience currently snickering away hyena-like in the darkness even exists. More importantly, though, he has no recollection whatsoever of penning another book.

You see, he’s been suffering from crippling writer’s block for the past few years and, as far as he can tell, hasn’t been able to jot down so much as a preface in that entire time. And yet, Mr. Door insists that Alan has come on the show tonight specifically to promote his latest work: a long-gestating sequel to a cult favourite of his named Departure.

That book was all about a frustrated author (an obvious self-insert character) who discovered that the line between the real world and his own fictions was starting to blur. With horrific consequences.

If that sounds at all familiar, it’s probably because you played the first Alan Wake back in 2010. Indeed, the narrative of Departure and that game are so interchangeable that they are — for all intents and purposes — one and the same.

They’re both focused on the titular writer, as he takes an impromptu vacation to a secluded town in the hopes of finally getting his creative juices flowing again. It’s there that the humble wordsmith’s life is turned upside down, after his wife is taken hostage by one of the supernatural villains from his own stories and he becomes the prime suspect in her disappearance. What follows is a head-spinning tale of eldritch nightmares, light versus dark, prophetic texts, sinister doppelgangers and Asgardian-themed rock bands.

I’d say it all makes sense if you’ve played Remedy’s twisty-turny classic, but that’s honestly a bit of a stretch. The point is that Alan Wake is screamingly meta, with Departure serving as a kind of epistolary retelling of it in-universe. And just like that original game, it left a lot of questions unanswered.

Referring to the ambiguous ending of Wake’s novel, Mr. Door continues: “We’ve all been dying to know what: ‘It’s not a lake, it’s an ocean’ really means.”

This winking line of dialogue, which is actually about the cryptic conclusion of Alan Wake itself, gets a belly-laugh from the crowd. Not just the fictional one that Mr. Door is addressing within the diegesis mind you, but also from the roomful of journalists who are watching this scene unfold over at Gamescom 2023.

We’re all in on the self-aware, 4th wall-breaking joke: Remedy knows that it’s been an eternity since Alan last signed off with that ominous portent, and their sequel (just like the author’s new book) has a lot to live up to.

An Overdue Comeback

Believe it or not, Alan Wake was released an alarming 13 years ago. People like myself — who were literal kids when it came out — are now fully-grown adults and a lot of younger gamers weren’t even born at the time.

Suffice it to say, the whole landscape of entertainment has changed so much in the intervening years and they simply don’t make AAA titles like this anymore. As such, you’d think the prospect of making a sequel now — accounting for the various shifts in audience taste and the weight of expectation that comes with producing such a belated follow-up — would be overwhelming.

However, if that’s the case then Remedy isn’t showing any signs of the pressure getting to them. On the contrary, their media of Alan Wake 2 exuded pure confidence, in a way that was very reassuring for a long-term fan like myself. It was the kind of presentation that lets you know everything is in good hands, and that the developers are truly happy with their passion product.

In a small movie theatre (cunningly disguised as a book signing for Wake’s hardbacks), the presentation actually took place a few blocks away from the main Koelnmesse venue where the rest of Gamescom was taking place. Here, we were treated to 41 minutes of uninterrupted gameplay, some live-action footage that will be integrated into the experience, a breakdown of new mechanics, and a Q&A with both Creative Director, Sam Lake, and Game Director, Kyle Rowley.

We unfortunately didn’t get any hands-on time, but the capture we saw was all from the latest build. Among other things, it convincingly demonstrated how slick the refined combat will be in the hands of a veteran player (the QA Tester was especially proficient at nailing those headshots), as well as the title’s spectacular visuals and engrossing atmosphere.

Welcome to The Dark Place

As you’ll probably already know, AW2’s campaign is divided into two parts. One half focuses on the original protagonist — now stranded in the mysterious netherworld of The Dark Place — while the other centres on franchise newbie: Agent Saga Anderson.

Still in the “real world,” the latter will get to explore more familiar locales, like Bright Falls and Cauldron Lake, as she carries out an investigation into a string of ritualistic murders occurring there. Conversely, Alan finds himself trapped in a nightmare very much of his own making, with The Dark Place taking the form of a surrealistic purgatory where everything is drawn from his subconscious and then made physical.

It’s this portion of the game that we get to see in our vertical slice, as Alan traverses a distorted simulacrum of New York that’s been cobbled together from his hazy memories & tortured imaginations. Indeed, this version of the Big Apple doesn’t bear much resemblance to the genuine article whatsoever, with it feeling more like a heightened, film noir cliché of that city: drenched equally in torrential rain and infernal neon.

It’s essentially a more fantastical take on the seedy world that Max Payne used to inhabit. So, it’s only fitting that we keep bumping into that iconic vigilante here. Or, more accurately, we bump into Alex Casey; the hardboiled protagonist from Alan’s own series of blockbuster novels, who just so happens to look, dress, act and narrate his life in exactly the same way that Max did. To put it another way: he is Payne in all but name.

It’s a fun cameo that gets a huge reaction from the audience and suggests that Alan Wake 2 is going to lean even harder into that connected-universe stuff that Remedy was exploring in 2019’s Control. When asked about this, Creative Director Sam Lake confirms that there will certainly be plenty more easter eggs where that came from (as yet another example, we later encounter NPC that has the uncanny likeness of Shawn Ashmore from Quantum Break), as well as some explicit ties to the studio’s back catalogue.

However, he is also quick to point out that AW2 will still be a fundamentally standalone affair, and that newcomers aren’t expected to do “tons of homework” in order to piece together what the hell’s going on. This isn’t like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where there are certain pieces of required viewing that you need to experience to make sense of the wider saga. Instead, it’s much closer to something like Tarantino’s oeuvre, where there are cool intertextual links for fans to spot, but you’re not missing out on anything important if these go over your head.

Returning to the aforementioned exchange with Max (sorry, “Alex Casey!”), it’s not the joyous meeting between creator and creation that you might expect. On the contrary, the detective is frenzied, jumpy and instantly hostile with Alan, going so far as to threaten him at gunpoint.

You can’t fault him for being a little on edge though, given his present circumstances. The Dark Place is hardly a relaxing environment to find oneself occupying, characterised as it is by inconsistent geography, trippy dream logic and confusing scenarios that would flummox even David Lynch.

A Darkly Beautiful Feast For The Eyes

On the plus side, that does also make it the near-perfect setting for a horror game.

Dripping in atmosphere, our bizarro interpretation of New York manages to make that overused cityscape feel somehow fresh again. We’ve all played countless games set in the Five Boroughs (ranging from superhero adventures to chaotic sandboxes and zombie apocalypse simulators), but this one has a moody aesthetic that’s completely its own.

The expressive lighting, cast from all of the gaudy neon signs in the area, renders each scene almost monochromatic. Echoing the visual stylings of Control, it’s as if somebody has applied an overpowering colour filter to everything; immersing us in sickly green shopping districts and demonic red alleyways.

Elsewhere, the deserted streets are populated only by menacing shadows, whispering away in your periphery and threatening to ambush Alan at a moment’s notice. Some of them will follow through on these warnings, while others are content to just ominously watch from the sidelines. The problem being that you can’t tell which is which until it’s already too late, creating a sense of paranoia that hangs over every single minute of our vertical slice.

The city’s infrastructure is all wrong too, with road networks that don’t quite add up, stairs that ostensibly lead nowhere and bridges that can’t be accessed by any conventional means. Think of it a bit like the fake version of Paris from Inception and you’re in the right ballpark.

Speaking of which, as was the case in Christopher Nolan’s iconic film, the environment here also feeds on elements of the dreamer’s subconscious. In this case, The Dark Place is quite literally plastered with Alan’s psychological hang-ups. Buildings are covered top to bottom in graffiti that taunts him with his worst fears, subway signs artfully conceal hidden insights into his current thinking, and you’ll find various posters that refer to plot beat from the original Alan Wake (such as an advert for Night Springs or a poster that mentions Cynthia Weaver).

Expanding on some of the best ideas from the first game’s DLC episodes, you are quite literally touring Alan’s mind here and it makes for a truly fascinating setting. Of course, it helps that the whole thing looks so bloody gorgeous as well, boasting some of the most high-fidelity, tactile graphics we’ve ever outside of racing titles.

You can tell that an incredible amount of care and attention-to-detail went into creating each and every asset, because they all hold up to the intense scrutiny of the massive cinema screen we’re watching on. The reflective surfaces behave in a highly believable way, there’s subtle cavitation on metal pipes, you can see where paint has been visibly chipped off the walls, and it looks like each of Alan’s individual hair follicles has been animated separately.

The end result is astonishing; to the point where you can barely distinguish between the game’s computer-generated sequences and those live-action bits that the team at Remedy are so fond of. In fact, when you transition between the two— as we did in that aforementioned talk show scene — it’s honestly seamless.

Leaning Into Horror

Describing his vision for The Dark Place, Sam Lake cites an eclectic bunch of inspirations.

There are the blatant neo-noir reference points like Taxi Driver and Se7en— which informed the oppressive look of the city itself— but then there are also some formative horror influences at play. According to Lake, these include Hereditary, Midsommar, Silence of the Lambs, Blue Velvet and the assorted works of Stephen King.

Ari Aster’s filmography getting namechecked was of particular interest to us because, while the first Alan Wake was a relatively tame affair, the fact that those movies are now in the mix would seem to indicate that the developers are aiming for a more intense vibe this go around. Sure enough, that theory is backed up by the gameplay we see, as it quickly becomes apparent that Remedy has been taking notes from the last 13 years of survival horror.

For a start, the combat has been reconfigured so that it’s far scrappier and more intimate. When it comes to dealing with The Taken (Alan Wake 2’s returning enemy type), the same rules that applied back in 2010 are still in effect here. As before, your shadowy foes are totally invulnerable until their darkness-infused shields have been burned away with a torch or another environmental light source, at which point you can fill them with lead. But what has changed for the follow-up is how great of a threat even a single Taken can pose. Whereas before you could easily contend with waves upon waves of these baddies, they’re no longer mere cannon-fodder and the prospect of going up against just a couple of them is enough to get you on the defensive.

As such, the encounters have been scaled back somewhat and it’s less about withstanding endless hordes of them it’s basically the inverse of that typical Alien to Aliens progression that we’re accustomed to with horror sequels.

In fact, the Taken’s newfound durability reminded us most strongly of how Capcom gave their zombies a significant upgrade in the Resident Evil 2 remake. As was the case there, we’ve gone from perceiving of our opponents as disposable grunts to now seeing them as legitimate threats. The tables have turned and it’s completely upended the feel of combat in a way that’s revelatory to the experience.

Elsewhere, there are few other places where Alan Wake 2 has taken its cues from the horror genre’s heavy-hitters. Among other things, there’s now a greater emphasis on resource management, you can visit quasi-safe rooms to stock up on supplies, and the environments have a vaguely metroidvania quality to them. Get ready for lots of backtracking and key hunts!

Not to mention, the general tone of proceedings is several shades darker. For example, at one point Alan hallucinates the aftermath of a grisly subway fire (set by deranged cultists) and imagines that he is crawling over the charred bodies of the deceased while also listening to the echoes of their desperate screams. It’s a deeply unsettling moment that goes a lot harder than anything in the first game.

Likewise, there’s a queasy bit later on wherein we stumble across the scene of a gruesome ritual sacrifice and are presented with a stark-naked corpse that’s had its chest cavity ripped open. From that image alone, it’s clear that Remedy has decided to crank things up a notch for this sequel and that they aren’t taking prisoners. Gone are the days of those bloodless axe murders and quirky rock concert set pieces.

Finally, we have to briefly mention the “Angel Lamp.” A new tool that’s been added to your inventory, this device will allow you to drain light from one place, store it for posterity, and then later distribute it somewhere else. In some instances, this will be so that you can create your own little safe havens in combat scenarios, but it’s also going to be necessary for solving a few of the game’s puzzles.

We get to see the mechanic in action during one particularly nerve-wracking set-piece. Here, Alan has to make his way through an underground labyrinth by activating and deactivating certain lanterns, which in turn unblock parts of his escape route.

It’s not an especially taxing conundrum by any means, but the idea of forcing you to deliberately turn off lights (and therefore put yourself in mortal danger) so that you can progress is an ingenious one. If Remedy can continue to find similarly clever ways of using the Angel Lamp like this, then it could be one of the sequel’s best additions.

All in all, our preview of Alan Wake 2 was pretty much everything that we wanted. Like its predecessor, this game is shaping up to be a potent combination of creepy, mysterious, ambitious, and at times even darkly comedic. 13 years may have been a long time to wait, yet if this is any indication then it will all have been worth it.

Alan Wake 2 will be released on Wednesday the 27th of October on PS5, Xbox Series X/S and PC.

The post ‘Alan Wake 2’ Gamescom Report – We Watched Nearly an Hour of Gameplay from the Survival Horror Sequel appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!

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