Alan Wake is an odd game, and will probably benefit from being reexamined in a few years. It's not so much a shooter as it is a five-part episode of "Twin Peaks." People who like it call it surreal and dreamlike, and people who don't call it incomprehensible. Both sides are probably on to something.
The word I keep wanting to use is "experimental." Alan Wake is caught awkwardly between survival horror and horror-ish action, but it tries to have it both ways and it really doesn't work out. I don't actually feel like I wasted my time by playing it, but this could've been either a great horror game or an occasionally freaky action game. Instead it has chunks of both floating around in it, and you wind up with something that's just surprisingly bland.
The title character is a famous author who's published a number of best-selling crime novels. After not being able to write anything at all for two years, Alan and his wife Alice travel across the country to Bright Falls, Washington, a small town in the middle of the forest. Alan thinks it's just a vacation, but Alice has other plans, including a visit to a therapist.
After their first night in Bright Falls, Alan wakes up at the wheel of his crashed rental car one week later. He's alone, his wife's nowhere to be found, he can't remember anything about the last seven days, there's an alcoholic FBI agent out to arrest him, and hostile spirits of darkness are turning the locals into homicidal maniacs.
You spend most of the game running from those homicidal maniacs, which apparently make up about seventy-five percent of the population of this sleepy little town. On their own, they're more or less invincible, but hitting them with a strong enough light source destroys the power that's protecting them.
On normal difficulty, that really isn't an issue. There are tricky bits here and there, but Alan Wake on normal is set in an alternate universe where flashlight batteries, ammunition, and well-maintained firearms constantly and spontaneously appear out of nowhere, like how medieval peasants thought flies were born. You may die now and again, but it'll be because of your own stupidity more than anything else.
Once you start playing on Hard, it's suddenly a horror game again, but it's not quite there yet. There are a lot of little problems with Alan Wake that crop up repeatedly over the course of the game, many of which feel like they were put in by a well-meaning but basically clueless editor.
For one thing, Alan spends a lot of the game tracking down the scattered pages of a manuscript he doesn't remember writing, which appears to exactly mirror the situation he's in. This isn't much of a spoiler, since you find your first manuscript page right near the start of the game. Initially, the manuscript pages are an interesting idea, as they tell parts of the story that you wouldn't ordinarily be able to see, the way that a novel will occasionally switch over to a secondary character's perspective. Some of them are actually quite well-written, such as one page that turns a very minor character into a slightly tragic figure; he goes from a one-scene wonder to a more rounded, real person just on the strength of that page.
Later, though, the manuscript gimmick overplays its hand. You start getting massive amounts of the story laid down for you in unchallenging black and white. One page actually details part of the antagonist's evil plan for you, removing all ambiguity and mystery; another reduces the vast, Lovecraftian force you've been fighting so far to the level of a Saturday morning cartoon villain, shaking its disembodied fist at that blasted Alan Wake.
This wouldn't be a problem, except that Alan Wake lives or dies on the strength of its atmosphere. The environments are more varied than a lot of people give the game credit for, but the whole game is still basically set in a pine forest at night. The combat is frequently repetitive, although there are a couple of undeniably awesome set pieces. To be an enjoyable experience, Alan Wake is depending on the player to buy into its setting, to suspend all disbelief and take an active role in figuring out what the hell is going on in Bright Falls.
It doesn't trust you to be able to do that, though. Alan Wake is trying to be a horror game, and one of the big rules of horror is that once you see the monster, it isn't as scary as it used to be. The best horror games - Silent Hill 2, the first couple of Fatal Frames, Eternal Darkness - worked on an atmosphere of dread, where you could win the occasional fight if you really wanted to, but you got the feeling that those fights didn't matter in the long run. You were still trapped in the mansion; the town still wanted you dead. You could stack up hellbeast corpses like cordwood and it would not change the fact that you were still in Silent Hill.
By comparison, Alan Wake practically spoils itself. Alan figures out what's going on about four episodes into the game and promptly explains it all to you, the player, in ridiculous detail. The individual fights are heavily telegraphed, with a slow-motion sequence that plays every single time you get attacked, and the ominous combat music dies down the moment you take out the last enemy. There's no sense of apprehension or dread in Alan Wake; instead, you're just getting from point A to point B, and wading through an army of shadow monsters to do it.
It's probably worth checking out overall, just because there's nothing quite like it on store shelves at the moment. Alan Wake is ambitious, occasionally funny, and distinctly memorable; like I said before, I don't regret playing it at all. My abiding impression of the game, though, is of wasted potential. We've been waiting for the next great horror game since Silent Hill 2, and this could've been it.