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Alan Wake Remastered review: a handsome lick of paint on a decade-old classic

But you should probably just play the original Steam release

Long before Jesse Faden and the denizens of Control were losing their minds over sentient fridges and rubber ducks, Alan Wake was doing unholy battle with possessed logging tractors and combine harvesters. In hindsight, it seems obvious that these two worlds would eventually collide in Remedy's newly established Wake-iverse - such is their shared love of shadowy, flying objects - but back in the dark days of 2010, little did we know that Remedy's tortured horror writer would be making such a big comeback eleven years later.

Well, at least he is over on consoles. While the original Alan Wake had a brief, year-long holiday from Steam in 2017 due to the expiration of its music licences, PC folks have been able to play Remedy's cult classic shooter more or less uninterrupted since its release in 2012. Alan Wake Remastered, however, marks the first time it's ever come to PlayStation (it having been an Xbox console exclusive all these years), and its spruced up character models, higher frame rates and 4K texture packs feel very much intended to get PS4 and PS5 players up to speed on this old-but-new figure in Jesse's life than us on PC. Indeed, when there's still a perfectly good version of Alan Wake sitting right there on Steam for less than half the cost of this new remaster, you're probably better off playing the original than stumping up the cash for this latest nip and polygon tuck.

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Or perhaps the question should be, is it really worth going back to Alan Wake at all, in the cold light of 2021? Back in the day, our Alec (RPS in peace) was less than impressed with its third person shooting and torch-based combat, and found its string of collectible coffee flasks just another incoherent distraction in its overwritten and mildly nonsensical plot. I have much fonder memories of Alan Wake, and yes, while the coffee flasks still serve no purpose other than being a glinting, shiny collectible to seek out in the all-consuming darkness, I view them more as little tiny nods to its Twin Peaksian setting than anything else.

That being said, as much as I enjoyed revisiting this handsome remaster of Alan Wake, the intervening decade has done little for its overall subtlety. The game's script and heavy use of voiceover narration to help feed its central idea of one of Wake's books come to life are full knuckle-biting clangers that really make you feel every one of those eleven years since its original release on the Xbox 360. Instead of letting its melting pot of horror tropes and inspirations breathe and simmer beneath the surface, Alan Wake repeatedly whacks you over the head with them, almost like it's scared you won't get the reference unless it explicitly spells it out for you.

Alan aims a torch at a possessed man on a bridge from Alan Wake Remastered
Much like Control's Hiss enemies, The Taken in Alan Wake are murky, ethereal beings that evaporate in a puff of smoke once defeated.

Early on in Alan Wake, for example, there's a moment where a possessed madman hurls an axe through a wooden door just like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The camera angle and Alan's terrified gob are an exact mirror of the scene in the film, but rather than let the moment sit cleverly in silence, giving the player room to perhaps ponder the game's own relationship between fiction and reality, Alan's motormouth narration just can't help itself. Without missing a beat, there he is jabbering away about how he better call for help before old Stucky comes and gets him "like Nicholson in The Shining". These clumsy bits of storytelling are perhaps more forgivable now we're approaching Alan Wake more as a museum piece than modern day release, but it can still be a little jarring all the same.

Thankfully, the game's tense romps through its misty Washington pine forests remain just as nerve-wracking as they did all those years ago. This is a remaster that looks every bit as stunning as I remember, and while it's a shame Alan Wake Remastered hasn't utilised HDR or ray tracing for Alan's trusty torchlight, Remedy's talent for saturating their play spaces with a deep sense of swirling dread is right up there with the horror greats, negating the need for fancy lighting effects to do the heavy lifting. Its dense treeline sways and creaks in the darkness, while the combination of its thick, billowing fog and ominous sound design signal pockets of danger where the game's possessed foes, known as The Taken, lurk in the undergrowth. Day-time scenes look a little ropier under the harsh light of the sun, but they're still welcome moments of relief where you can breathe easy again.

Alan Wake drives a truck through a forest in Alan Wake Remastered
Day-time is a relief, but the driving sections still feel as floaty and empty as ever.

If anything, it's now the game's cutscenes that let this remaster down, with their locked 30fps frame rate and lower resolution doing a disservice to the smooth, pin-sharp clarity of its moment to moment 60fps gameplay. Remedy and fellow collaborators D3T have clearly put a lot of effort into the remastered cutscenes, swapping out old character models for the new ones and fixing some of the lip syncing issues that plagued the original, but it's a shame they didn't go one step further and bring them up to the same standard as everything else. Admittedly, there were still a couple of moments when my PC groaned under the weight of it all at 4K - and that's with an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 under its belt - but thankfully these moments of slowdown were few and far between, not to mention non-existent when I switched on DLSS or knocked the resolution down to 2560x1440.

Performance niggles aside, I'm still impressed by how much mileage Remedy manage to squeeze from their simple torch 'n' gun loop. Alec may not have been particularly enamoured with it at the time, but for me, the way Remedy naturally make players build up their toolsets from scratch in each of its six chapters (and sometimes multiple times within those chapters) means there's just enough uncertainty to help keep players on their toes.

For the uninitiated, Alan's shadowy enemies can't be harmed unless they're first burned into existence by the power of his torch. Once the spell is broken, it's time to lay into them with your ever-changing arsenal of guns, whether that's a simple revolver, pump action shotgun or powerful hunting rifle. Occasionally, you'll only have a flare gun or a clutch of flash bang grenades to hand, but these are equally deadly in their own way. Other times, you'll have nothing but a torch, forcing you to leg it to the next health-restoring overhead lamppost where The Taken can't reach you, occasionally indulging in Remedy's love of slow-mo with a few well-timed dodges. Sure, it may not bring as much variety to the table as your Resident Evil Villages or Evil Withins, but I felt suitably challenged at all times on Normal difficulty, and the balance of ammo and torch battery pick-ups was well-judged throughout.

The only thing that started to wear a bit thin during my playthrough was how enemies always had a rather predictable propensity to stalk Alan from behind when out in the woods. Playing on gamepad, this meant each encounter was accompanied by a rather laborious about-face before the action could kick in, but thankfully its point and shoot mouse controls are a lot more responsive. Indeed, I was surprised by how similar the kick of Alan's guns felt to Control's morphing service weapon, giving the gunplay a pleasing sense of continuity despite the decade standing between the two releases.

Alan stares up at a sky full of birds in Alan Wake Remastered
Birds... I wonder what the birds could be referring to...

It's not all forests and gloomy shadow fights, either. Alan Wake whisks players to new locations with satisfying alacrity, swapping its thickets and twisting mountain paths for dripping mines, possessed cliffside cabin retreats, maze gardens, dams and a particularly memorable sequence involving a farm and a Viking-themed pyrotechnics display. While the first half of the game may be a little overly serious in paying its respects to its Stephen King and Twin Peaks source material, making us visit its smalltown retro diner, police station and local trailer park all in turn before letting us loose on the good stuff, the second half really lets its hair down, ramping up the silliness in order to let its unique blend of action and survival horror make its mark.

So yes, in light of Alan Wake's newly established relevance in Remedy's Connected Universe, I'd say it's well worth making the trip back to Bright Falls to reacquaint yourself with this important piece of gaming history. Whether you do that through this shiny new remaster or the original Steam release is up to you. Personally, I'm not sure this remaster warrants paying twice as much for the same adventure. It would be a different story if ray tracing or HDR was involved or the original was capped at 30fps like its Xbox 360 counterpart, but outside of its newly reworked character models, Alan Wake Remastered looks and feels much like the original PC release. While it makes sense to have a fresh, clean version of the game that everyone can enjoy in the run-up to whatever's next in the RCU, Alan Wake Remastered is a much more essential purchase for those playing on console than it is for us on PC.

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