Alan Wake's American Nightmare Review
Feels like a great attempt to find a middle ground between a full retail release and DLC chapters of Alan Wake
When announced, I felt that because Alan Wake's American Nightmare was a standalone game, it meant that it had a hard line to straddle. It's clearly built with the Alan Wake engine, and feels like a fully fledged console game mechanically. However, it's priced for a downloadable market, and I couldn't be expected to find the full scope of a console game in this release. While the game has been marketed as a side story to the main game, and not a full sequel, can its 15 dollar downloadable format match the atmosphere, story, and combat that Alan Wake provided?
Starting the title up, the game really does feel like a proper follow up to a big-budget console game. This package is brimming with such polish and flair it does initially feel like a proper sequel to AW, and not some side story. Alan Wake offers 2 different modes, a Story Mode and a Horde Mode, entitled Arcade Action (or Fight Till Dawn, depending on what menu you're in). Remedy gave their all to fix certain design issues found in the original game, such as the ever-present HUD, which now has the option to be either turned off or to be faded when not needed. The map is made more useful by flashing the locations of Manuscript pages when you near them. This makes hunting for the pages a lot less of a hassle and is a welcome addition. The pages themselves, along with other collectables, are presented in a much more organic fashion. No longer are certain pages locked out by difficulty, and the overwhelming plethora of collectables in Alan Wake has been pared down to only enhance the story.
American Nightmare's Story Mode takes place over distinct areas, a Rest Stop, an Observatory, and a Drive-In Theater. The game sees Alan revisiting each area 3 times for reasons contextualized in the story, but it does get tiresome. Actually, it's a damn shame, because the second time Alan revisits each area, the story does such a good job contextualizing why he's back that I had no issues with the backtracking at all. However, by the third time around, the plot device and the areas had both become repetitive and dull. American Nightmare's change in venue to the dusty little town Night Springs in Arizona largely helps the game maintain a lot of its appeal. The game swerves off of the Twin Peaks vibe for a more Twilight Zone bend, and the detailed scenery found in Alan Wake is matched by that in American Nightmare. The dry, heavy atmosphere is imposing and yet familiar, and it makes me appreciate the fact that Remedy decided to have this little side story take place outside of the Pacific Northwest.
Whether you liked it or not, the story and characters of Alan Wake was a primary factor in what brought many of its fans in, the David Lynch-esque fiction tying together the world of light and darkness that the writer found himself within. The cast of characters that Alan interacted with were endearing and well developed, and the town of Bright Falls felt alive. While the characters introduced are largely interchangeable and feel more incidental than fully fleshed out, the dynamic interplay between Alan Wake and his Dark Presence doppelganger Mr. Scratch (pronounced Mr. *Television White Noise* ) helps to fill the game's character development. This is mostly achieved through fantastic live action FMV starring the actor that portrays Alan Wake.
While initially a bit silly, the FMV manages to add a layer to creepy and unsettling charm to Mr. Scratch. He's a sociopath with a sadistic mind, and yet the people in the game that reference his odd charm are validated. The actor that portrays him manages to balance these two really well, his facial expressions giving more insight than some people may find comfortable, something that simple voice acting might struggle to achieve. The idea of an evil twin that's simply “doing everything the original [person, in this case Wake] was too afraid to do” is nothing new, but American Nightmare executes on this concept stunningly well.
While continuing the story that the first game and its subsequent DLC set up, American Nightmare finds itself rather light on plot. In the 4 or so hours that it takes to complete the campaign, American Nightmare trickles story bits and mysteries too slowly for them to be truly effective. Some plot elements that do exist are the juicy ones, however, and are easily able to sustain the game over its short time frame.
Another problem with the story is that it pulls a 180 from Alan Wake. Whereas that game left the player wanting more resolution and answers to its many mysteries, American Nightmare takes all the mysteries it introduces, even up to innocuous ones like why Alan Wake is now wearing a flannel, and wraps them up neatly with a bow. However, it fails to really answer the questions posed by Alan Wake. I'm not saying that American Nightmare should have left as many open ended questions as the full retail game, but leaving more hooks into the next game would have been appreciated. While the ending does have a significant unresolved mystery, it feels tacked on, as a lead in that will be resolved in the first hour of Alan Wake 2.
Alan Wake's American Nightmare, in comparison to the first game, has a much greater focus on combat. In a game like Alan Wake, combat is not the key element that engendered people's interest. While combat may not have been one of the primary reasons that people came to a game like Alan Wake, it's certainly not bad in any way. Alan Wake's 3rd person shooting was fun and unique. Having to destroy the enemy Taken's shield of darkness with light before they could be harmed was fairly novel and well implemented mechanic.
That combat has been largely improved in American Nightmare, though the improvements come more as tweaks to the base game than they do as an entirely revamped combat engine. First thing players will notice is that batteries have largely been rendered obsolete due to the amazingly fast recharge time on the flashlight. Ammo/Battery stations are also plentiful, so ammo never felt scarce. While this prevents American Nightmare from feeling frustrating over the course of its 4 hours, it also loses some of the terse nature from the original.
The game also significantly increases Alan's arsenal from the first game, giving him a wide variety of rifles, shotguns, and some odder weapons like crossbows, and my personal favorite Nail Gun. Most guns are unlocked by finding manuscript pages throughout the levels, which gives collecting the pages both a story and gameplay element. These guns do a good job of distinguishing themselves from each other, and every player will find a weapon combination that works best for them. The flares, flash bangs, and flare gun return, and act much the same way as they did previously. Combat is further improved by the addition of multiple enemy types. Whereas Alan Wake was a bit scant on the types of Taken the titular writer took on, American Nightmare expands the enemy base considerably. Larger, hulking enemies, along with grenadiers and enemies that warp around the environment, keep players on their toes and make the combat feel more fully fleshed out.
Importantly, Alan Wake's American Nightmare is more than just the story mode. The game also provides a wave-based survival mode called Fight Till Dawn, which works much in the way as it does in other games. Maintaining a larger score multiplier the longer you survive increases your score, and Alan can catch no relief from the endless hordes of the Dark Presence. While the game tracks your score and offers a leaderboard to compare scores with friends, the mode feels a little lackluster. Alan Wake's combat is certainly better than it's ever been, but other, bigger games offer a better Horde mode experience. A lack of cooperative multiplayer leaves it feeling lonely in the shadow of other titles’ cooperative Horde Modes, such as Gears of War 3. It's a fun diversion, and certainly is a reason to revisit American Nightmare after beating story mode, but doesn't feel as fully fleshed out as it could have been.
The game performs admirably well, but this is not that surprising, at it's based off the 5+ year old Alan Wake engine. Remedy has had the time to iron out a lot of the technical problems the original had, and the game feels smoother as a result. However, that's not to say I had no issues whilst playing the game. When Alan was engaged in conversation, I often saw instances of stuttering and repeated dialogue. This wasn't a huge issue, but was jarring and took me out of the story a bit.
I also experienced a moment about 2/3rds of the way through the game where the framerate took a significant hit for an entire encounter with the Taken, from the initial spawning until they were all defeated. It didn't prevent me from completing the game, but it was noticeable and made that encounter less than fun. Also, not really a performance issue, but as chairs are objects with physics in this world, I found that running into them/jumping on them caused Alan to take physical damage for seemingly no reason. Not a big deal, but highly amusing to hear Mr. Wake get hurt messing around with a plastic lawn chair.
All in all, the game delivers on its premise quite well. It's priced at a quarter of a full retail console game, and the content that Alan Wake's American Nightmare provides certainly fulfills that premise. The mechanics developed in Alan Wake are further expanded upon and polished here, and help to set the stage for an Alan Wake 2.
A different location is a welcome change, and while the story felt thinner and didn't really expand upon Alan Wake's story, the self-contained experience works well for the 4 hour story it sets out to tell. While I felt that it took away from the mystery of the original title, some fans may find the game's desire to answer every question it proposes to be a welcome change from the original. The game's addition of a Horde Mode extends re-playability, and gives the whole package more bang for buck. While it's not likely to sway people who had serious issues with the first game, Remedy's changes in American Nightmare are smart, and help set the stage for AW2.