Review: Alan Wake’s American Nightmare

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By now I think everyone knows about Alan Wake’s long and winding development cycle. Remedy Entertainment, the acclaimed Finnish studio behind Max Payne, had the game in development for half a decade before it finally shipped as an Xbox 360 exclusive in 2010. Then, when it finally did ship, it wasn’t initially met with the rousing retail reception it deserved despite mass critical praise, becoming one of many games to be swallowed up by the hyped launch of Red Read Redemption.

This month, the name Alan Wake has vaulted back into the picture once again, this time without a bunch of other games to hog away the limelight. Remedy launched the long-awaited PC port on Steam just last week, where it has maintained a high spot on the “Top Sellers” list. (Our review is in the works, so stay tuned.) And now this week, as the second act in the Xbox Live Arcade “House Party” promotion, Xbox 360 owners are treated to a standalone spin-off successor to Mr. Wake’s Bright Falls thriller.

Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is not a direct sequel, and thus newcomers to Remedy’s twisted universe can approach without any previous knowledge. Returning fans are in for a treat, though, as the game does pick up on plot threads from the original game while simultaneously shifting the narrative style to more of a pulp action experience with a B slasher movie attitude, opposed to the oppressively dark atmosphere, episodic TV show structure, and psychological thriller storytelling style of its predecessor. The bold new approach works out incredibly well; surprisingly it doesn’t clash with the original’s style as I feared it might.

This time, the story unfolds as an episode Alan wrote for the fictional TV show Night Springs, in which Mr. Scratch, a boogeyman serial killer straight out of urban legend, is on a supernatural killing spree across the arid canyons of Arizona, Alan’s wife, Alice, targeted as his prize kill. Mr. Scratch is Alan Wake’s evil twin, a herald of darkness to Wake’s persona as the “Champion of Light,” so Alan is the only one capable of unraveling this twisted reality and putting an end to Mr. Scratch so he can reunite with his dear wife.

Despite the attitude adjustment, symbolism and strong themes of light versus darkness remain at the heart of the story. However, narration and foreshadowing no longer play a prominent role. The Night Springs TV host narrates in spots, mostly during cutscene transitions between levels, but his performance isn’t as prevalent or engaging as Alan’s from the first game, and I did miss that. Alan does read aloud manuscript pages you happen to collect, though, and like before the voice acting performances and soundtrack are superb. Actor Ilkka Villi deserves special recognition for his live action portrayal of Mr. Scratch. Villi puts on the perfect villain’s performance, marrying a sadistic humor and camp with the creepiness and calculated rage of a ruthless serial killer. Although the game is rated ‘Teen’ and thus refrains from displaying obscene violence, I couldn’t help but think of Christian Bale’s character in American Psycho as I watched Mr. Scratch casually laugh and dance around, taunting his prey before the kill.

My issue with the campaign is how unabashedly padded out it is. Seemingly in effort to combat potential criticism of the game being “too short,” Remedy decided to build the story around a time loop plot device that sees the player reliving and replaying the events of the three main acts a total of three times apiece. The three stages—a motel and diner rest stop, a mountain observatory, and a drive-in movie theater–are spread thin across nine acts, and each time through the loop you are tasked with rewriting reality in order to put an end to the cycle and stop Mr. Scratch. I didn’t mind going back through the same levels a second time, as events play out somewhat differently and tougher enemies present themselves. But having to do so for a third time felt unnecessary and anticlimactic. The time looping structure makes perfect sense within the context of the story, but Remedy’s storytelling and design approach around the concept could have been a little tighter. Of course, I’m sure developing for Xbox Live Arcade limited their options.

Anyone who has played Alan Wake will feel right at home behind the controller of American Nightmare, and new players should be able to grasp the approachable third-person shooting controls without issue. The health system has been simplified to a more clearly defined three-block health bar, with each block capable of recharging as long as the bar doesn’t drop down to the next tier. But other than that small change, the light-versus-dark combat mechanic has you shining Alan’s flashlight and waving flares to penetrate the Taken’s shroud of darkness same as before, softening them up for subsequent pistol, shotgun and assault rifle bullets, crossbow bolts, and nailgun spikes.

Mr. Wake’s arsenal has expanded greatly this time around, as has the variety of his foes. The Dark Presence manifests itself in many new forms, including creepy-crawler spiders, giant hillbillies armed with circular saws, Taken that can shapeshift back and forth between physical form and a flock of crows or divide into two separate beings when light shines on them, and fountains of darkness that constantly spew forth enemies. Action has clearly taken over in American Nightmare, and Remedy has tailored the weapons, enemies and level designs to compliment the refocused gameplay (no more driving sections, thank God!).

All told, the story mode can probably be completed in a single sitting if you decide to power through, avoiding the collectible manuscript pages, radio shows and disturbing TV messages left behind by Mr. Scratch. Hunt for and view all of these collectibles–which do add meaningful narrative value, by the way–and you’re looking at a campaign comprised of a good five to six hours of material. I’d say that’s pretty substantial for a $15 downloadable–and amazingly the story mode is only half of what this game has to offer.

By collecting manuscript pages, weapon crates containing more powerful firearms can be opened, both within the campaign’s missions and in the separate arcade mode. Fight till Dawn is the other key component to the American Nightmare package, a single-player survival mode challenging players to survive escalating waves of the Taken until the break of dawn—in game terms that means keeping Mr. Wake upright for 10 straight minutes while building up a high score to be proud of in the process.

With successive kills and successful dodges, a point multiplier rises. However, between kills the multiplier gradually lowers, and if at any point you should sustain damage the multiplier resets completely. So posting a good score requires a deft balance of attack and escape tactics, as well as ammo conservation and a constant awareness of your surroundings when it comes to identifying the locations of weapon crates, ammo stations, health recharging spotlights, explosive barrels and potential choke points and dead ends.

The Taken are sneaky-good at flanking and creeping up from behind when least expected, which makes surviving all the tougher. While an option for a radar display of enemy positions would have been a friendly way of broadening accessibility, I appreciated Remedy’s approach to emphasizing player skill and awareness. The only way to keep from being blindsided is to remain in motion at all times, constantly pan the camera around, and watch for Alan’s subtle head movements which indicate when and from where danger is approaching.

Five maps make up Fight till Dawn’s 10 challenging missions of self-preservation, a cemetery, ghost town, oil field, cave and trailer park serving as backdrops while players fend for their lives against a never-ending onslaught of dark beings. Up to three gold stars can be achieved on each map–stars are needed to unlock subsequent stages—and online leaderboards provide an outlet for bragging rights against those on your friends list or other survivalists around the world.

When I stopped playing last night, I was actually ranked #2 on the overall score leaderboard. Of course, that was only out of 145 total players—now that the game is publicly available, I’m sure my ranking has already plummeted. Still, once you reach the ‘Nightmare’ challenges the difficulty ramps up considerably, so I’m proud being able to say I’ve not only successfully survived all 10 missions, but also earned the maximum star count on all but two stages. Now it’s time to improve those high scores!

I’m still holding out hope for a true Alan Wake sequel someday—and wouldn’t expect anything less than another mercurial, 5-year development cycle—but, for the time being, American Nightmare more than capably fills the void in its place. In many ways, American Nightmare feels like a full retail gaming experience. While the story may not be as strongly emphasized or as well paced as the first game, the delivery is just as memorable and the action runs full throttle all the way through. Existing fans will no doubt love how boldly this game stretches the narrative established by the first game, but whether you’re versed in Alan Wake or not, American Nightmare’s pulp sci-fi mentality and action-heavy gameplay is sure to please.

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Pros:
+ Intense and tightly focused action
+ Compelling pulp horror storyline
+ Challenging survival mode and collectibles aplenty
+ Mr. Scratch is an awesome villain

Cons:
– Time loop plot structure has you replaying the same areas multiple times
– The first game’s narration-based storytelling is missed

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Release Date: 2/22/2012
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!