The looooong-awaited Xbox 360 horror game Alan Wake just came out in the U.S. yesterday, and more than one of the early reviews posits that Alan Wake channels the original magic of more established horror franchises better than their own sequels. (What are we up to? Resident Evil 5? Silent Hill 6-ish?) Here's the launch trailer:

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We just finished Alan Wake—like we literally just finished it because it's sunny outside and we've been mostly playing when it's sunny outside because it's much less scary that way. The game affects a Twin Peaks, serial-TV vibe (actually broken up into six "episodes," complete with "Last time on Alan Wake..." intros), and the narrative borrows heavily from Stephen King tropes (the game even opens with a quote from him), as you play a tortured author struggling with writer's block, amnesia, and—bum bum BUM—his own dark side. (Yes, that does sound like The Dark Half.)

The game has several clever schticks which add up to a hell of fun gestalt—like a twin-trigger, gun-and-flashlight combat system (basically, you have to use light to burn off dark "shields" before switching to guns, which makes flare guns absurdly cool) and the constant discovery of scattered manuscript pages from a prophetic story within the story, which relates off-camera events, fills in backstory, and provides (usually grim, sometimes chainsaw-related) foreshadowing. Having brains, we were annoyed at first by the derivative, airport-bookstore-thriller writing in these, but then—duh—it may be that these are smartly meta-derivative, given that the character Alan Wake is That Kind of Writer. (Take that, brains!)

Of special note to Slog-reading locals: the game is set here (in the fictional town of Bright Falls, WA), with terrain modeling based on tons of photos and video from North Cascades National Park. If you've spent much time camping or wandering around in the Cascades, Alan Wake pretty much has the passcodes to your amygdala in the game's nighttime scenes. It's uncanny how precisely the game evokes so many little details, from wood-plank trails to fire lookouts to even the vegetation, and there are even some set pieces that you'll recognize instantly:

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Much of Alan Wake is just standard video-game fare (in the Max Payne school, also from Remedy)—you walk around, you shoot stuff, you pick shit up, you climb ladders, you flip switches, and there's a good bit of handholding. But the game's cool combat system, well-written and voiced characters, smart (and sometimes funny) story, and ability to consistently generate cannabinoid anxiety make it one of the coolest and most distinctive games yet on the 360. Definitely a must if you're into horror games. We'll bring a copy to the next Slog Happy.

The Stranger Testing Department is Rob Lightner and Paul Hughes.

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