Alan Wake's American Nightmare Review
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360
Alan Wake's American Nightmare is the second instalment of the original and genre-busting Alan Wake series, a welcome appearance on the XBLA marketplace that takes Remedy Entertainment's franchise in an interesting and generally positive direction. A second full game it is not but there’s enough here to keep fans happy - more than that, American Nightmare stands on its own two feet sufficiently to provide an accessible chunk of entertainment to anyone who didn’t play the first game.
To give some context it's worth recapping the story so far. If you haven't played Alan Wake and don't want any spoilers skip to the next paragraph...Alan Wake is a Stephen King-esque writer who’s lost his muse. The first game opens with Alan and his wife, Alice, arriving for a vacation in Bright Falls, a creepy town in the pine woods of Washington state. Soon, Alice has gone missing and Alan’s woken up a week later with no knowledge of what happened. Things start to get creepy - fast. Folk have been possessed by a shadowy evil called the darkness, turning them into taken, violent, zombie-like beings. The only way to destroy them is to clean away the darkness with light then plug the unprotected bad guy with a few well-placed rounds. The first game ends with Alan sacrificing himself to the darkness to save Alice, leaving him trapped in a shadowy netherworld with only his smarts and creativity to help him. American Nightmare picks up from here.
The first big change in American Nightmare is that this is a much more action-focused game. With barely any introduction you’ve got a 9mm pistol in your hand and are blasting taken into oblivion. Via collecting manuscript pages scattered throughout the levels you can unlock a variety of new weapons, from a quick-fire SMG to a brutal combat shotgun. The weapons have their own feel and given the need to respond to enemies before they get close the guns you choose are important: the fact you can only carry two at a time (plus a flare gun) makes your load out quite strategic. Do you go for slower shotguns that pack power at the expense of range - or do you plump for rifles to get the bad guys long before you can see the blacks of their soulless eyes? There’s only one flashlight in this game compared to the multiple sizes in the first, but the one in American Nightmare felt plenty powerful and capable of holding a charge for longer. All of this combined, seeing taken explode into a shower of light as you pop them off has never been more awesome.
The downside of the increase in your combat capability is that the game is quite a lot easier than its predecessor. To help you out there is at least one ammo locker in each level that refills all of your clips. Once you've found it (not hard - they’re marked on the map) the ammo boxes respawn every few minutes. This undermines one of the keystones of survival horror games, the need to make every shot count; running out of ammo and having to run away is half the fun and it is a little disappointing that this rarely needs to happen. The supply of batteries for your flashlight plus plentiful ammo means the most powerful weapon, the flare gun, is not needed that much. All of these small negatives considered, American Nightmare is still very fun to play. When you are fighting a big crowd of taken timing your moves and making the shots count - even if you’ve got five clips spare - is still heavily enjoyable.
Of the taken their AI is high-class making them more than two-dimensional cannon fodder. There are a range of different enemy types that exist, ranging from big lumberjack-like shamblers to small, scuttling, stabby, knife-wielders. In American Nightmare there's the addition of new types of taken including ones that split in two when you flashlight them, ones that can turn into birds to escape your sights and huge bench-saw-wielding hulks that take more than few headshots to put down. The taken's favoured tactic is the flank, where one will come at you head on and another will sneak around the side to do the nasty with a billhook. Some of the best combat moments arise from the tension of having to take on enemies that are coming from all angles. If you're out of flares things can get ugly.
It's worth briefly mentioning for the arachnophobes among the readership that there are some random spiders to fight in this game. There's not really much else to say about this apart from why? These really aren't necessary but at the same time don't harm the game either.
Apart from the changes to combat and enemies a big change in American Nightmare is that all of the levels are significantly more open, letting you take multiple routes to objectives in several cases. When you start there’s a temptation to make the most of the openness and explore. If you choose to do so the manuscript pages you find will flesh out the background to the story and as mentioned above are also used to unlock more guns. The downside of this partial sandbox approach is that the levels sometimes feel a bit empty and non-threatening. In the first game if you backtracked there would almost always be respawned enemies. In American Nightmare it felt like the taken only appeared when you are working towards an objective. More enemies would have been welcome and if every mission off the beaten track resulted in ambush no doubt it would have put more pressure on your ammo.
Aside from fighting there is a minor puzzle element in some parts - a couple of fetch quests to find items and a short electric maze to navigate. Unfortunately these felt tacked on and though some of them served to carry the plot forwards it was hard to see them as anything other than filler. Thankfully, these were not substantial parts of the title. Throughout the main campaign there is some ramp in difficulty via harder enemies and more of them but it should not present anything more than a light to middling challenge to gamers who are used to this sort of thing. The story mode can be completed in about 4.5 hours which includes collecting all of the manuscript pages and unlocking all of the weapons.
As well as the main campaign there's a new arcade mode where you've got to survive until dawn and kill as many taken as you can. High scores unlock other arcade levels and harder modes. This feels a very natural addition and is a laugh (or scream?) to play, featuring repeated nail-biting ohmygodi'mgoingtodie moments that the campaign, for the most, lacks. With online leaderboards this will easily extend the experience by a few more hours if this is your cup of chai. Co-op would have been a sweet addition to this, something Remedy might consider for the second full game.
Design, atmosphere and narrative
It's clear from the title screen that American Nightmare is a different offering to the original: gone are the dark silhouettes and instead you're greeted by Alan, the paunchy Champion of Light, brandishing a nail gun in one hand and his trusty flashlight in the other, standing tall against a Monument Valley-style backdrop. It’s a bold statement reflecting the fact this game is more Left 4 Dead than Resident Evil.
On firing up the story mode the game kicks off with a signature Alan Wake FMV sequence, a mix of live action and digital effects, setting the mysterious tone for the game to come. Since the incredible facial motion capture of LA Noire it's hard to compete with standard computer models and Remedy's approach does them credit. The downside to this is that it makes the regular character models look a lot more artificial after seeing the actors. After the intro concludes Alan finds himself on a shore, a cabin half-submerged in the water nearby. With this tip of the hat to Cauldron Lake from the first game Alan's on his way.
In design terms the levels look good and the developers frequently make the most out of dark and light to create atmospheric locations. In the first level the neon signs for the motel, diner and garage stand out from the Arizona night very nicely, as does the beam of the huge projector in the drive-in cinema level. The middle level set on a mountain-top observatory is less characterful. The environments are, roughly, built around central locations and a little more thought could have gone into the periphery which often includes buildings you can't go into, something which can serve to disrupt the immersion of the experience. The way manuscript pages are hidden could have been done in a more interesting way as well since most of the time they were either scattered along the main objective routes or were placed in fairly obvious locations around levels' edges.
As well as looking pretty American Nightmare sounds good too, with notable up-beat electronica in the background of some levels. This reflects the general action vibe of the game. Rock music has a role to play as well, a Kasabian tune taking on an important narrative part throughout. You’ll be humming it for days afterwards. A bit of pumping guitar comes in at some key combat moments which was was excellent, so good in fact there should have been more. The problem is that the powerful weapons let you clean up the bad guys so quickly that the the music never gets a good chance to take hold. Finally there’s some thoughtful detail in the sound design with some locations or objects having well-chosen ambient effects when you come near to them, all adding to the atmosphere of an abandoned place where evil lurks around every corner.
The story is, as anyone who played the first game might expect, very strange in a good way. It explores Alan's continued battle to escape from the underworld he's trapped in, using his powers of creativity to alter reality and to overcome demons both external and internal. The collectible manuscript pages will fill new players in on the background but also serve to tell the story of this game and give a little detail on what some of the other characters from the first game are up to. The pages are all read out by Alan when you find them and his tone is just right, capturing the terse language and delivery of a popular thriller author; it would have been nice to be able to hear them read without pausing the game but it's a minor quibble.
Also there are radios and televisions to discover, giving you a link to the 'real world' (or is it?) beyond Alan's imprisonment in the darkness' alternate universe. The TVs are a mouthpiece for Mr Scratch, Alan's evil doppelgänger who seems to have found his way to the ‘real world’ (or has he?) to behave like American Psycho's Pat Bateman, partying and murdering just for the fun of it. His TV appearances are nasty and well acted and reminiscent of the twisted brothers in Myst. Anyway, all of this backdrop provides an impetus to fight, to survive and to try and find out what the heck is going on. The rest of the story is told through conversations with other characters, one in each level. The characters are fairly clichéd and come across as a bit wooden in both their personalities and animation. There is no need for you to talk to them outside of cutscenes but if you want more there are usually a couple of extra conversation options to deepen the narrative in each encounter.
A nice touch in the plot of this game is the exploration of the 'meta' theme, ‘meta’ referring to the overarching structure. A number of the radio shows and a conversation half way through the game touch on the idea of the self awareness of characters in created worlds and even hint at characters' awareness of a higher-level creator, which of course, this being a game, there is. Smart stuff, especially in a game about a writer, but American Nightmare is a bit too short either to go into detail or to drive this element through the main storyline. At the end the plot wraps up in a way that is satisfying and very cheesy (in a way entirely appropriate) and leaves as many questions as answers. Again, this is not a bad thing and for anyone who played the first game will not be a surprise.
Remedy have, to a substantial degree, come up with the goods. American Nightmare is a fundamentally decent game making use of a well-developed combat mechanic in a new way. The fun of this makes up for the problems in tension and ease of completion to an extent but there’s a lingering feeling that it was all a bit too straightforward. The game’s story is let down by mediocre secondary characters and an level layout whose potential is marred by the problems with pacing - even though the second and third acts of the game move along at a fair lick.
The game adds a lot to the Alan Wake universe although it is possible the numerous weirdnesses in plot will allow the developers to make this 'non canon' when they come to writing the next full game, as if it was all a holodeck episode of Star Trek.
In a way American Nightmare could be seen as a test bed for a new way to ‘do’ the Alan Wake world -i.e. more open levels combined with more aggressive combat - and I really hope that the learning from this helps in making Alan's next outing even better. This game will be a blast for current fans who want more, but think along the lines of a strawpedo'd alcopop rather a than long refreshing pint. I'm sure this will be enjoyed too by people who are less familiar with the series.
So, until next time: keep the lights on, keep the darkness out, and keep both barrels loaded.
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