« First Impressions - Metroid: Other M | Main | Alan Wake Review: A Beautiful Nightmare »

Alan Wake - The Signal DLC Review

When I heard that Alan Wake was planning to extend its story via downloadable episodes I was skeptical. I’m normally quite receptive to the idea of post-release content, paid or otherwise, but I have found that such content is often lackluster when appended to a story-heavy game.

Mass Effect 2, for instance, is a game I truly adored, but I haven’t bought a single one of its downloadable missions yet because they seem to miss the point somewhat. The grand story and character development are Mass Effect’s strong suit, but the post-release content has been weapon packs, self-contained missions with no lasting impact on the story, and halfhearted character additions to an already too-full roster. 

Fallout 3 had mixed success. Its post-release plans were terrific, trickling content out every so often to keep players coming back to their delightful post-apocalyptic world, but the actual content was hit or miss. Broken Steel and Point Lookout were tremendous additions; The Pitt was above average and fun, but not perfect; and Operation Anchorage was entirely forgettable. I haven’t even played Mothership Zeta because it looks too much like Operation Anchorage in space. 

It’s tough to take a story-driven experience, one that presumably shipped with a satisfying story arc meant to stand on its own, and add to that in any meaningful way with downloadable content. It’s not impossible, but even the best implementations, such as Point Lookout, tend to feel more like tacked-on side stories than legitimate additions to the game universe. This is often fine from a value standpoint. After all, there’s nothing wrong with paying a few bucks to get a little more mileage out of a beloved game. I’ve done it far too many times. It’s just disappointing that no one has figured out a smoother way to handle post-release content and story integration.

That said, there has never been a game in a more perfect position to do things right than Alan Wake. Its haunting story comes to a satisfying conclusion in the game proper but in a way that only a psychological thriller could. Like the best horror stories, it ties up the important arcs of its current story while leaving plenty of mystery open for future exploration. Take into account that the game is already split into convenient “episodes” and you have a tailor-made recipe for post-release content with a meaningful impact. 

It’s almost like they planned it that way or something.

So does it deliver on its promise? Well, there’s good news and bad news.

I’ve been talking a lot lately about how first impressions are important. Case in point? I almost put down The Signal in frustration only a few minutes after picking it up. I know the Verizon ads in Alan Wake are almost a running joke by now, but The Signal takes things way too far, actually including a reference to a Verizon ad campaign in the dialog. The eye rolling that produced from me was simply epic and it so thoroughly yanked me out of the experience that I almost gave up then and there. I thought the stuff in the retail game was insidious, but this is far, far worse. I somehow managed to slog through the mental anguish and continue. 

The good news is that, should you make it past the horrible ads, The Signal delivers meaningful story progression in a way that no other downloadable content I’m aware of has managed. Its story, while brief and raising as many questions as it answers, feels like a perfect extension of the end of the game. The real test will come with the second episode when we see whether this post-release story is going to deliver any significant revelations or if it’s one big tease to set up the sequel we’ll have to wait years for. 

Still, The Signal succeeds in its mission to continue Wake’s otherworldly journey and never feels like an unnecessary side mission or as if the developers simply tacked on some story to move move some digital dollars. 

The unfortunate part is that The Signal falls prey to other common problems with post-release content. Namely, it places a heavy focus on what was not a key strength of the game, the combat, and severely ramps up the difficulty. Maybe the difficulty spike was meant to extend the length of a short package or maybe it was to continue the ramp up in difficulty as if the episode actually did take place after the final chapter in the retail game, but either way you’re going to have to put on your determined face and slog through some decidedly frustrating sections to get at the good story bits this episode is hiding.

I’m not averse to a good challenge when it’s handled correctly, but the difficulties thrown my way in The Signal were usually the wrong type of hard. I died countless times due to enemies that I couldn’t possibly have seen coming appearing behind me and stabbing me in the back. I died countless more times to the sluggish, fickle dodge maneuver not working correctly. And, yes, I died even more times simply because I wasn’t playing well enough, but by and large I felt that The Signal asked a little more of the player than its sluggish combat system could deliver. 

One of the things I loved most about Alan Wake was the balance of difficulty. It kept you on your toes without ever feeling punishing. You constantly felt threatened, but rarely overwhelmed. It allowed for the perfect sense of tension without frequent pesky deaths getting in the way and ruining the immersion that was so key to the experience. 

The Signal without question crosses that magical imaginary line that the retail game so carefully walked and with it throws out much of the sense of immersion that the rest of the story achieved so well in favor of feeling far more like “just a game”. Frequent deaths, difficult combat sections, and slow progression turn The Signal into more of a straight action game than a psychological thriller. This transition is made even more evident by the fact that combat is not only more difficult, but more frequent as well. The Signal throws one difficult fight after another at you with little to break up the action. A little variety to allow players to cool down would have gone a long way toward relieving some of the frustration. Instead, the game usually just mercilessly tosses you into another hard battle. 

Or at least it does until its brief run has been completed, which will be a sitting or two for most gamers. This isn’t necessarily bad, as the episode avoids dragging on unnecessarily (through, say, more needless combat sections, another common DLC trick) and concisely tells its tale in a manner perfectly fitting with the episodes in the game proper. It fits right in. The fact that it’s free if you bought the game new certainly doesn’t hurt. 

The Signal is a satisfying little chunk of Alan Wake goodness. It fits right in with the existing episodes and brings some great new ideas to the Alan Wake table, both in terms of gameplay and story. It may not be long, but it’s of far greater quality than most post-release content pumped out these days. It’s just a shame that, for many players at least, the good stuff is going to come burdened with a higher than ideal level of frustration. I almost gave up on it at one point, but I’m ultimately glad I stuck with it. Those who finished the retail game will be pleased to hear that the final encounter in The Signal is far cooler than the somewhat anti-climactic “final boss” of Episode 6. 

I would strongly encourage any Alan Wake fan to give The Signal a try, just go in prepared for a tough road ahead. I anxiously await the second episode Remedy has in store for us, I just hope that it smoothes out the needless difficulty spike and adds a little more substance to its chunk of Wake’s tale because, you know, I’ll actually have to pay for that one. 

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>