Ask any fan why they like Alan Wake, and you'll hear different stories. Some will talk about how they enjoyed the Stephen King, Twin Peaks, and Lost inspired storyline and setting. Others will laud the tense experience on the Hard and Nightmare difficulties, or the use of music. None of them will try to convince you that Alan Wake was by any means a perfect game but, more than anything, they will all tell you how much they want another title.
Enter Alan Wake's American Nightmare, Remedy's continuation of the beleaguered writer's story and an effort to capture a wider audience through its Xbox Live Arcade release.
Alan Wake's American Nightmare (Xbox Live Arcade)
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Released: February 22, 2012
MSRP: 1200 Microsoft Points ($15)
Following the events of Alan Wake's finale and the novelist's subsequent dark adventures in The Signal and The Writer, Alan has made his way back to yet another piece of Americana: desert-ridden Arizona. During his absense, Alan's dark half Mr. Scratch has been running amok in the "real world" and continues to grow ever more powerful.
Tonight, it's time to put an end to his rule of malice. Tonight, evil lurks in Night Springs.
American Nightmare follows the structure of an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, inspired by the supernatural and science fiction pulp action genre, as Alan tries to piece together a final solution to rid the world of Mr. Scratch. From a roadside diner and motel, to a mountain observatory and a drive-in, Remedy has once again tried to portray an easily identifiable world within a world and succeeded. Environments are somewhat more open than the largely confined areas seen in Alan Wake, and finding manuscript pages, which now also unlock better weapons, encourages exploration.
Before long, you start to notice that there are far more missing manuscript pages than you can find in a level, even when sweeping it extensively. There's a simple reason for this, and it's not one that everyone is going to like: American Nightmare's story mode makes you retread the same levels multiple times before its conclusion.
Each time, enemy encounters become more challenging, new types of enemies are introduced, and new collectibles can be found. Different and new paths through the levels also present themselves, although this difference can be marginal at best. There's a story-related reason for returning to this familiar ground and the characters who inhabit these levels add to the intrigue somewhat. Even though you won't just be doing the same thing multiple times in a row, it can become a bit too familiar before the journey is over.
Thankfully, this repeated journey is an enjoyable one. I seem to be one of the few people who didn't have any problems with the controls and combat in Alan Wake, but combat is definitely a bit tighter this time around. Largely due to the new weapons and the faster regeneration speed of the flashlight -- which also renders the use of batteries mostly obsolete -- you'll find yourself lighting up and blasting Taken without too much trouble.
A few new insectoid and raven classes of Taken may prove to be troublesome if you have existing phobias; hell, you might even develop a few new ones along the way. Some other new enemies include a Taken that launches darkness grenades at you, the Splitter who splits into two smaller versions if you focus your beam on him, and a The Hills Have Eyes type of mutated hillbilly giant who wields a buzz saw. Some of these new enemies don't exactly fit in the darkness-infested altered reality of the original Alan Wake, but Alan is trapped in a Night Springs story (the fictional Twilight Zone-style show in the Wake universe), so it's easy enough to overlook in favor of improvements on the gameplay.
Although American Nightmare is billed to be accessible to new players, it's still largely tailored to fans of the original game. Manuscript pages fill gaps for those new to the Alan Wake universe, but this self-contained spin-off story still picks up some time after the last "special feature" piece of downloadable content, The Writer, and many allusions to the original can be found in radio shows, cutscenes, and TV viewings. You don't need to be an Alan Wake veteran to enjoy it, but it most definitely helps.
Since Alan is supposed to be trapped inside an episode of Night Springs (or is he?), TV sets will no longer show you the little Night Springs episodes when you turn them on. Instead, you'll find Mr. Scratch talking to you through the magic of live action video. Mr. Scratch is brilliant as a Alan's psychopathic alter ego made flesh, and serves as one of the more believable and memorable examples of a purely evil videogame antagonist in recent history. He is Wake's version of George Stark in Stephen King's The Dark Half, a tale alluded to often in American Nightmare. These little videos also add a lot of character to create a more tangible opponent -- something Alan Wake was missing -- and what Mr. Scratch is lacking in mystery compared to the Dark Presence in the original game, he more than makes up for with sheer evil.
Besides the new story and updated combat, a conceptually brilliant mechanic sees the light of day in American Nightmare. Alan can now reshape reality by recreating a setting to match his manuscript pages, which triggers an event that was not supposed to happen according to Mr. Scratch's plans. For the first time since you were able to turn words into objects by shining your flashlight onto them in Alan Wake and its DLC, you finally get to put your often hinted-at powers to work and really play as the creative artist who can wield the power of creation to combat the Dark Presence's influences. As innovative and ambitious as the mechanic sounds, however, it's sadly underused and underdeveloped.
Instead of being able to actually be creative with this weapon of creativity, altering reality through the process of exerting free will and breaking the chain of predetermination, you end up following a streamlined design. The act of reshaping reality is as simple as walking to markers on your map to press a button, until a setting is deemed complete enough to allow you to progress. It's a shame, since the first time you see the results of your reality-reshaping actions alongside a booming soundtrack, your mind is overwhelmed with the sheer possibilities of such a mechanic within the Alan Wake universe. The second time you do it, it's a case of déjà vu. The third time, it's Groundhog Day. Since American Nightmare acts as both a continuation of the story and a self-contained spin-off experiment, this is definitely one of the key aspects we'll want to see further explored in the future of the franchise. Given the limitations of a downloadable title, it's understandable that Remedy didn't take this all the way, but it fits the Wake universe so perfectly that just a taste of it is simply not enough.
Through your repeated journey, you'll meet characters with whom you can interact a bit more than before. The voice acting of the second character you'll meet is cringeworthy, as is her mindboggling insistance on holding her arms in creepily peculiar position that is as robotic as her voice. While you are talking to these characters, you're free to walk around a bit as you go through the motions of a conversation, leading to a lot of cases of jumping around and aiming your gun at their faces while you're telling them not to be afraid. Still, American Nightmare manages to make a hipster girl sexy against all odds, so it deserves credit for that.
What criticisms one can raise against American Nightmare's story mode tend to vanish while playing the game's third act, as increasingly tense combat encounters are accompanied by rock music and ramp up the pacing to the finale. It's during this last act that all the elements of gameplay, visuals, and music start to fully work together, and it's only then that you finally reach a state of perfect flow while playing it. Even the matter of going through the same levels is eventually forgiven as everything falls into place -- it's almost the complete opposite of the third act in any Stephen King storyline. Moreover, the title looks and feels like a full-fledged title. While it's not quite as long as Alan Wake was, it's equally as satisfying most console shooters' campaigns. By the time you finish it, you have to remind yourself that it's "only" an XBLA title.
The story mode is worth the price of admission alone and it's a no-brainer for Wake fans to pick it up just to see more of their favorite hero, but American Nightmare also offers a new "Arcade Action" mode called Fight Till Dawn. More like Mercenaries and less like a Horde mode, this is where you'll improve on the combat skills you may have honed while beating the harder difficulties of the original game. Five levels give you ten minutes to blast through as many waves as possible for the highest score. Every time you shoot or dodge an enemy, your multiplier bar increases. Get hit, and you lose all your multiplier progress.
It's a frantic mode that forces you to never get hit if you want to compete on the leaderboards, and one that you'll quickly find yourself playing for an hour here and there. Even though the new weapons feel like overkill for Wake veterans in the story mode, their relative strengths and weaknesses come to fruition in this Arcade mode. It also highlights the occasional dysfunction of your dodge move, unfortunately. This dodge move is key to maintaining and increasing your multiplier during large group encounters, but can also be a bit fickle about working as advertised. Occasionally it will let you down like a childhood friend during times of crisis when you thought you could count on it. After putting a couple of days into Arcade mode, you will learn to work around it, turning the dodge move into a somewhat flaccid extension of your virtual persona, like a numb arm you flail around as a last resort against an oppresive foe of darkness.
Once you've performed well enough in the standard five levels, you can unlock their Nightmare difficulty versions that start you out at a different location on the map, and mixes up weapon and ammo locations. Any player who doesn't get enough of a challenge from the story mode will get his ass kicked in these Nightmare levels. The levels are far darker, there is only one escape zone of light to regenerate your health, and waves keep spawning regardless of your progression. It's no small feat to survive one of these levels, let alone reach a high score, and despite the odd annoying Taken grenadier who can regularly hit you out of the blue thanks to the lack of a proper grenade indicator, this is by far one of the tensest experiences you'll find on the Xbox 360's entire digital platform.
Arcade mode is a very welcome addition overall, especially since most of American Nightmare is lacking in the mystery and brooding atmosphere that Alan Wake had plenty of. The renewed focus on better combat and high octane action empowers Mr. Wake beyond the weak and shaken physical and mental survivalist of the original. Then again, Alan has already fought his fears and claimed victory over a smoke monster, his irrational Ego, and a thousand Taken, so he is ready to kick some ass this time around. Having said that, anyone who claims there is no tension to be found at all has simply never played any of the Arcade mode levels on Nightmare.
Alan Wake's American Nightmare is as close to a full console title as we've seen on Xbox Live Arcade to date. Its story mode is fun foray into the twisted universe of Alan Wake, even if some of what's going on won't always make complete sense to any but the most dedicated of fans. Remedy has admirably tackled the repetitive nature of the campaign in order to get the most out of the the content they had, although it does start to wear thin at the midway point. Thankfully, a strong final act and a ridiculously addictive Arcade mode more than make up for it.
For the hardcore Alan Wake fans, there is a lot to love in this new title. You can enjoy it fully without knowing about everything that happened in the original, the DLC special features, and the expanded universe from the Limited Edition book, but you are most definitely rewarded for having stuck with Alan in his past adventures.
If anything, my main gripe with American Nightmare is that it shows Remedy can take the Alan Wake series to places that could blow us away if someone would just give them the resources to create another full retail title, yet we are only allowed glimpses of various mechanics and experiments in their downloadable titles to date. If that makes you think it's not worth playing, think again. Alan Wake's American Nightmare is a worthwhile expansion to the novelist's saga and one that you'll come back to time and time again, quite literally until the break of dawn.