Alan Wake 2 Is Tough, Dark and Compellingly Strange – CNET


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Alan Wake was heralded as a generational leap in character-driven video games when it launched in 2010, winning over fans and firmly cementing creator Remedy Entertainment as an innovator in gaming. After a couple well-lauded games, the studio is back for Alan Wake 2, and for a few hands-on hours, I got to dive back into the haunted world of a writer and the supernatural darkness he fights.

I’d prepared for the hands-on by playing through the original Alan Wake, the stand-alone game Alan Wake’s American Nightmare (2012) and Remedy’s last hit Control (2019). In mid-September, Remedy gathered a few dozen members of the press in a Los Angeles warehouse all decked out to fit the hard-boiled and haunted world of Alan Wake. I walked in the door to find a neon “Oh Deer Diner” sign above a wood-backed bar slinging coffee with sleeves branded like the restaurant from the first game. Over the next few hours, I played two segments of the upcoming Alan Wake 2, representing the split narrative between the titular Alan Wake and newcomer Saga Anderson. 

My first game session followed Anderson, an FBI agent looking into the Pacific Northwest town of Watery near the first game’s timeless haunted hometown setting of Bright Falls. A flood cuts off much of the town, but stranger things are afoot as the Taken — humans corrupted by the extra-dimensional Dark Presence that Wake had defeated in the first game — appear amid a growing conspiracy. The townsfolk aren’t what they seem.

To suss out the truth, I often paused to enter a dynamic new system: Anderson’s Mind Palace, a liminal zone where the agent can ruminate on people she meets and draw conclusions about their connections to nefarious goings-on. To help, there’s an actual cork board where I could pin up evidence as I collected it, connecting clues via literal string. It’s a neat mechanic to guide players into seeing the bigger picture as Anderson links seemingly unrelated things into a tapestry of narrative. And if players struggle figuring out where to go next or how to solve a puzzle while staring at the board, Anderson can hint at a solution.

The second game session focused on Alan Wake. Since selflessly condemning himself into the Dark Place dimension to save his wife, Alice, at the end of the first game, Wake has been wandering the liminal shadowland dimension for over a decade. In Alan Wake 2, players follow him using his writing powers to try to escape. 

Instead of a Mind Palace, Wake has a Writer’s Room, and rather than piece together a mystery he wrangles the shifting story with a Plot Board, organizing each game’s chapter into a narrative with beginning, middle and end. When Wake is in a location where a “scene” occurs, the you can switch it to a different time period to explore how it’s been changed — for instance, in my session, Wake enters a hotel that’s hosting an immersive theater troupe, and I switched one of the scenes from a production rehearsal to an opening night gone horrifyingly, violently wrong. To progress through areas in the dreamlike Dark Place, you have to tweak scenes to write a definitive version and escape.

After 13 years, Remedy hasn’t just picked up where Alan Wake left off but filled Alan Wake 2 with new and dynamic ways to engage with a story told by two wildly different perspectives. 

“Our thinking was, how can you go further? You have this writer character you are playing, how can we make the gameplay in which you are actively taking part in the creation of the story?” said Alan Wake 2 director Sam Lake, who sat down with me for an interview after the game preview. 

Fans of the original game will enjoy returning mechanics like the manuscript pages scattered around the game to find, which you hear read aloud in Wake’s voice as he foretells events you will soon experience. But in Alan Wake 2, the pages are covered in edits, with notes added and parts scribbled out, adding intrigue. “Who did the edits, and what’s the mystery that’s uncovered?” Lake said.

While other elements remain from the first game to ease you in to the sequel — to save their game, players drink a cup of coffee from a familiar blue thermos — Alan Wake 2 is an evolution of its predecessor, fitting today’s tastes for more challenging action and pushing forward Remedy’s bold mix of full-motion video, gameplay and text logs to tell a story that transcends mediums. 

As with Remedy’s previous media-blending games, it’s a question of whether new gamers will embrace such non-traditional storytelling. And it also might come down to how fans of the original Alan Wake will like the tougher, stranger sequel.

Looking over a man's shoulder as he points a flashlight and a gun at an approaching shadow.

Combat is tougher in Alan Wake 2 than its predecessor.

Remedy Entertainment

Harder Than Before

To prepare us for our Alan Wake 2 game sessions, Remedy developers described it as more of a survival horror game than the action-packed original, and they’re right. Enemies hit harder and take more rounds of your ammunition before they go down. While the third-person camera still hovers over your shoulder, Wake and Saga both move slower, making encounters tougher to run away from. Ammo isn’t too scarce, but it’s not bountiful, either. 

You’ll still have to train your flashlight on Taken enemies until they’re corporeal enough to shoot, and during climactic moments in the segments I played, half a dozen enemies rushed me at once — far too many to make vulnerable with my flashlight. I died and reloaded multiple times to get the timing of a fight down and frantically tossed flares and flashbangs to force enemies back and give myself breathing room. The sequel is by no means the breezy action game that its predecessor was.

If you’ve played other survival horror games, the difficulty won’t be too grating, and the new inventory system will be familiar with its Resident Evil-style grid. You can also set up to eight items as shortcuts (two for each cardinal direction on a d-pad) for quick access, which is handy in a fight. 

And then there are the puzzles. While Alan Wake had its own gameplay tests and the most recent Remedy game Control had in-game puzzles, the early Alan Wake 2 gameplay had at least one brain teaser that had to be solved by logic. In this case, I had to match a character’s job title with their archetype description, which proved challenging. While I didn’t see nearly enough to guess whether Remedy has upped the puzzle difficulty alongside gameplay, it seems like the studio wants players to think through difficult situations.

A man stares at a video projected on the wall that depicts himself.

Remedy Entertainment continues to blend gameplay and live-action footage in intriguing ways.

Remedy Entertainment

Alan Wake, Control and the Remedy games multiverse

The original Alan Wake ends with the titular character trapped in a limbo dimension called the Dark Place, and the follow-up game Alan Wake’s American Nightmare expounds on his efforts to escape as a malevolent doppelgänger, Mr. Scratch, who impersonates Wake with violent results. Alan Wake 2 straightforwardly carries on the title character’s story from where it left off and includes parts from other Remedy games besides.

Astute Remedy fans may have noticed some references to Alan Wake in the time-traveling Quantum Break, and its next game Control featured references aplenty (and an entire DLC) adding more story to the world around Alan Wake. Remedy long ago confirmed that Control and Alan Wake are in the same universe, so it shouldn’t surprise players that bits of Control will leak into Alan Wake 2.

(Heck, Wake’s in-universe character that he writes about in his series of books, Alex Casey, bears a striking resemblance to another death-wishing former cop from a Remedy game series — Max Payne.)

While I have personally enjoyed all of Remedy’s games and respect how the company has tackled new storytelling strategies and genres in all of its games, I thought the studio hit jackpot with Control. The Federal Bureau of Control contains so many storytelling possibilities as players tackled side stories that felt like supernatural mystery, science weirdness, zombie alienation, psychological horror and more. But as Lake described it, returning to the smaller scope of Alan Wake doesn’t mean they’re abandoning Control or its world; the studio is doing both.

“We are keeping the lens [on Alan Wake] given that we are working on a sequel to Control,” Lake said. Remedy confirmed last November that Control 2 was in the works, and Lake’s affirmation suggests it’s progressing. “Remedy has grown quite a bit and we have multiple projects and multiple opportunities as well,” Lake said.

Ultimately, each Remedy game carefully lays groundwork for the next. These breadcrumbs are intentional, part of the decades-long story the studio is telling. While it seems like Remedy is masterfully gesturing at the next game before it comes out — Alan Wake 2 was teased at the end of the “Altered World Event” DLC for Control — there are plenty more story hooks sprinkled throughout its games. 

“I think of all of them as potential future games,” Lake said, noting that the team rarely throws things into their games as simple jokes and always stop and think about if they could be something bigger, whether that’s elaborating on an FBC case file or introducing a character’s backstory, which could all be games or transmedia pieces of their own if Remedy had more bandwidth. “We need to pick and choose pretty harshly. There are only so many of these [projects] that fit into one’s career.”

And yet, the studio seems like it laid just the right amount of breadcrumbs leading to its newest game: the AWE expansion in Control built up more Alan Wake lore (and teased how much Wake’s writerly powers actually manifested the Federal Bureau of Control itself) and ended with a prediction of another event happening in the near future around Bright Falls, where it already had an Agent Estevez stationed. After our Alan Wake 2 play sessions, myself and other media sat in on a panel with Lake, Wake’s own actors (Matthew Porretta for voice, Ilkka Villi for video), Saga Anderson’s voice and video actor (Melanie Liburd), and two other characters: a local cop and FBC Agent Estevez (Janina Gavankar). 

A man talks to a police officer, who is played by actor Shawn Ashmore -- who played a different character in the Remedy game Quantum Break.

Alan Wake 2 includes cameos from characters of other Remedy Entertainment games — and actors like Shawn Ashmore, who played the lead in Quantum Break.

Remedy Entertainment

From the looks of it, Estevez will be playing a sizeble role later in the game (she didn’t appear in either of my game sessions) that ties the Federal Bureau of Control tighter into the net of Alan Wake’s world. And fans of Remedy’s entire catalog will be pleased too — that “local cop” is played by Shawn Ashmore, the same actor who portrayed Quantum Break’s lead Jack Joyce. While Ashmore’s character in Alan Wake 2 has an entirely different name (which makes sense, given Microsoft retains the rights to Quantum Break), it would suit Remedy to evoke similarities, however vague, to tie its games universe even more tightly together.

Lake and his colleagues at Remedy Entertainment have weaved a rich and complex story among their games, but it all started with Alan Wake and how fans loved that character’s world. Which came as a surprise to Lake, who assumed that players would easily leave older games behind. But on the contrary, they’ve loved older games enough to canonize them as classics that stick around because of how they make players feel, even all these years later.

“I would like to think and hope that people like Alan Wake because of the experience, because of the emotion, because of the atmosphere, and because maybe the unanswered mysteries,” Lake said.

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