Alan Wake 2 Review - A Mind Bending Masterpiece
Generally, when reviewing games, I am more than happy to play that game in a vacuum, to play in total isolation. That is, after all, how these things happen. I get the game before the general public, I play through it, formulate my thoughts, put them on the virtual page and publish them. I then move on, happy to have my words out there in the world to share with others. But sometimes there is a game that playing before release is almost a tragedy. You see, some games scream for the player to be a part of the conversation, part of the zeitgeist. You need to talk about them with others and work through your experience in a shared environment. These games are better because they invite conversation, invite community involvement. Without the ability to talk about this sort of game while I am going through it, I feel like I am missing out on an important part of the experience. Alan Wake 2 is just such a game and frankly, I want to scream from the rooftops just how good it is, so this review is my chance to do just that.
Alan Wake 2 picks up 13 years after the events of the first game. If you need a refresher, the end of that game saw Alan trapped in the Dark Place (a purgatory-like realm that feeds on your own weaknesses and insecurities) trying to use his ability to alter reality with his writing to escape. It was an ambiguous ending that is finally answered here. Strange murders are occurring in Bright Falls, the setting from the original game and two FBI agents, Saga Anderson and Alex Casey are sent to investigate. Saga soon catches on that it is tied to what happened to Alan back in 2010 and that Alan, presumed dead, is actually stuck in the Dark Place trying to get out. From here the story goes in wild, surprising and downright upsetting directions, twisting everything in a way that will have players thinking up is down and dark is light. This is a story that needs to be experienced, enjoyed and discovered without spoilers so I will go no further, suffice to say I feel Remedy nailed the narrative in a way that will leave a lasting impression on me for years to come.
This however leads me to my one worry about the game and it is a worry that doesn’t even affect me. You see this game is the first game to really take the idea of the Remedy shared universe to a higher level. There have been teases and forays previously with Control, but Alan Wake 2 dives into this concept with no hesitation. As such, if you haven’t played Alan Wake and Control, you may find that you are missing key information, inside jokes and interesting easter eggs. That isn’t to say you won’t enjoy Alan Wake 2 if you haven’t played these previous titles, but I am confident in saying that to get the most out of it, you need to be up on Remedy lore. Luckily I am and boy it felt like I was excited at every turn, discovering links to Control and the original game around every corner. I found myself talking with my wife (who watched me play the first game way back when) explaining what was happening in an excited, almost giddy tone. I had to tell someone, to talk about what I had seen and explain why it was so exciting.
The narrative uses a number of things that Remedy has been playing with over their past few games, all of which have been refined for Alan Wake 2. Most notable is the use of FMV to tell the story. It isn’t the full-on episodes of TV we saw in Quantum Break but it isn’t the slight touches we saw in Control, it sits somewhere in between and it perfectly melds with gameplay in a way I didn’t think was possible. The acting is great and the way it transitions through the weird areas of the Dark Place and the creepy atmosphere of Bright Falls is something truly special. I have never seen FMV used in conjunction with a traditional video game this well and I hope it is an area that is explored further by both Remedy and other developers in the future.
On the gameplay side of things, I controlled Saga Anderson and Alan Wake for a roughly equal amount of time. Saga is in the real world, exploring Bright Falls and its surroundings, trying to work out what is happening with the murders and increasingly strange occurrences. Saga has the ability to use what is called her “Mind Place” a mental technique that allows her to put clues together and use those clues to get information out of key people. It is a fascinating way to approach both puzzle-solving and narrative, allowing me to piece together everything that had occurred on a pinboard, examine the threads and guide my next steps. When playing as Alan, he has a similar space to examine things, called the “Writer’s Room” but it works a little differently. Here Alan can use his writing to change the reality of the Dark Place, taking clues from the world and inserting them into locations, completely altering their appearance. This becomes a wonderful way to create and solve puzzles in the game, altering the current setting and seeing what changes are made to the environment all the while progressing Alan’s desire to escape.
As you can tell, puzzles and detective work make up a huge part of the game. In fact, I don’t think I fired a gun for the first 45 minutes. That said, the gunplay is there and while it shares some similarities to the first game, it is quite different as well. This game is definitely going for a much more horror vibe than the first and the action suits that motif. To kill enemies, I still had to burn off the darkness before shooting them, but everything is much slower and creepier, impacts are harder and when things go bad, they go bad quickly. The gunplay feels like it has a real weight to it and the same holds true for when an enemy hits back. Both Saga and Alan move like real people, not action stars, so things take time, dodging is not a feat of gymnastics and sprinting at the pace of an Olympic runner is not possible. This only adds to the tension present in each encounter, enhancing the levels of fear in the process. The boss battles are all perfect slices of this formula, taking everything that works so well and containing it in a memorable set piece.
Now there has been some internet chinwagging about the rather hefty system requirements that Alan Wake 2 needs to get things going. I was playing on a PC with an i9 and a 3080ti card and couldn’t max things out. I ended up playing at an upscaled 2K resolution with some low levels of ray tracing turned on. These settings allowed for a consistent 30fps, which the game was designed for. Honestly, I am not sure how much better the game could have looked because frankly, it was stunning. I feel like with this generation we have been waiting for a game to show us what “next-gen” truly means and for me, Alan Wake 2 is it. The detail in the characters is second to none, the lighting is astounding and the world they have created is so fleshed out, so alive that there are instances where I took a few moments to tell if it was in engine footage or FMV. This is a technical treat that has me lusting after a video card upgrade to see just how good it can get.
Further to this, the game ran smoothly without any hiccups at all. I was initially worried about getting this game on PC, after all, 2023 hasn’t exactly been great for PC versions of games, but those worries were unfounded. In the 16ish hours it took me to complete the game I came across one instance where my character wouldn’t move, which was simply resolved by pausing then returning to the game. It feels somewhat disappointing to be so excited about a game that seems to be bug and glitch-free, but sadly that seems to be the world we live in. I can’t speak for the console versions but know if you have the rig to run it, Alan Wake 2 will give you no hassles on your PC.
There is no denying that with the arrival of Alan Wake 2, gamers are in for something special. It is part detective mystery, part survival horror and part supernatural action experience, an experience that could only have been made by Remedy games. It is a truly unique title that goes so far above and beyond what I thought I wanted from an Alan Wake sequel that is underselling it to say this is an astounding achievement. The only issue is that the game demands a lot of assumed knowledge from the original game and Control, so you may be lost if you don’t have that. If you are a fan though you will squeal with joy at the universe building that both the MCU and DC could learn a few lessons from. This is topped off by an amazingly gripping narrative and pitch-perfect gameplay elements. Simply put, not only is Alan Wake 2 my favourite game of the year, but it is possibly a new entry in my personal top five games of all time. Alan Wake 2, in my mind at least, is simply that good.
Alan Wake II was reviewed on PC with code kindly supplied by Remedy Games.