It's almost as if the Xbox 360 is showing off. Winking its little ring of light at you. Exploding some particle effect fireworks right in your face just because it can. Almost. We're talking about dynamic lighting and ambiance, and it would be nothing more than visual showboating if it weren't for developers like Starbreeze, who see the huge possibilities in real-time changeable atmospheres and have utilised it in The Darkness, a title that would have been largely impossible on the previous generations' consoles.
Alan Wake has a lot in common with that game, but deserves to be placed at the opposite end of the spectrum because where in The Darkness light is your deadly enemy, in Alan Wake it's your only hope. Wake's chilling prophecy of a world ruled by evil minions of darkness has leapt off the pages of his novel and into his life - and it's refreshing to play a game where your hopes aren't loaded into a gun (Wake is no Max Payne, notes Alan Wake's poetically-named writer Sam Lake, ruefully...) but rather down the barrel of a common garage torch.
But even the appearance of light can be unsettling. Remedy have clearly been rifling through their horror catalogue to see how all the classics use their mise-en-scene (yeah, we went to art school - it means all that's framed within the camera) to their advantage. Alan Wake is no different. The day/night cycles can make the exact same landscape look like a completely different scenario depending on the hour, and with the player worn down and really ragged from constant harassment, even the most romantic sunset will have you frantically scrabbling in your inventory pocket in case those sinister leaves fluttering around your feet 'start something'. Your 360 is once again engaging in psychological warfare with you - but on a whole new level. It's a step beyond the 'boo' mentality of Doom, and it's more advanced even than F.E.A.R.'s jarring peaks and endless troughs. In Alan Wake, the Xbox 360, under Remedy's orders, is letting you - here's the good bit - scare yourself.
As you'll know full well if you read our big ol' preview last issue, we're quietly excited about Alan Wake here at Xbox World, even if it's a game that - probably because of its terrible name - hasn't gathered a great deal of interest in and of itself. Just like you should never listen to the hype, here you shouldn't pay heed to Alan Wake's lack of hype - this is yet another integral foundation in Microsoft's domineering fortress of exclusives.