Alan Wake’s American Nightmare – Review

Title   Alan Wake's American Nightmare
Developer  Remedy Entertainment
Publisher  Microsoft
Platform  XBL
Genre  Action, adventure
Release Date  22nd February, 2012

When word spread of a new Alan Wake project from Finnish developers, Remedy, the rumour mill cranked into life about a possible sequel.  Fast forward through announcements and leaks and an XBLA title was suddenly, if not surprisingly, on the cards. It was an odd choice, perhaps, and fans of Alan Wake were naturally unsettled.  How could an XBLA game of all things possibly continue the story in any decent way; how could it be as deep and absorbing?  Was this the sequel they had clamoured for?

No.  Alan Wake’s American Nightmare (AWAN) is certainly not a sequel, but a standalone title set in the Wake universe, with familiar characters, gameplay, and a story that will nod to and perhaps add a touch or two to the tale laid out by Alan Wake.  To say that it was an interesting and ambitious idea is true, but it would perhaps tide eager fans over until Alan Wake 2 while hopefully pulling in newcomers.  At least, that was the theory, the reality is perhaps something else with the game presenting a somewhat mixed, if still enjoyable, bag.

We re-join moody writer, Alan Wake two years after the events of the first game.  In his absence, an urban legend has – literally – sprung to life.  Tales told of a dark version of the writer, painting a twisted, dark half have abounded.  Not a great idea in a place like Cauldron Lake – a place where the veil between dreams and reality is worn and thin and the darkness beyond can seep through, and can even be used to bring works of creation to life.  If you tell a tale often enough, you may just nudge it into reality.  Before you can say Candyman, this dark version of Wake is given form… and it’s one we’ve seen before: Mr Scratch.  No longer the blank, mysterious vessel we saw at the close of the original game, Scratch has become something else.  He is brimming with sadism, evil intent, and a sleazy showmanship-like penchant for mayhem and violence, and he has an agenda.  Worse, this supernatural nasty has access to the real world, unlike Wake.

However, Bright Falls isn’t the only place where reality bleeds into dreams and Wake is able to punch a hole through – just as Scratch has done – and finds himself playing out a story that he wrote as an aspiring writer, years previously, for the hokey TV show, Night Springs.  The psychopathic Scratch is making a beeline for Wake’s wife and his old life and Wake must stop him before it is too late.  Easier said than done of course, because Scratch is an agent of the darkness and has unleashed the dark presence in Night Springs.

The dark presence manifests, once again, as the Taken – once human vessels, now filled only with darkness.  Light is the key to defeating them and the innovative ‘fight with light’ gameplay makes a welcome return, with the staple flashlight and gun combo feeling more than at home and a joy to come back to.  Before a Taken can be destroyed, the wisping shroud of darkness must be burned away with light before any ammo will have an effect and it was here that the first gameplay tweak reared its head.  Whereas before, simply pointing a flashlight at a regular Taken would be enough to slow him or burn away his shield, it now does nothing unless boosted.  While it didn’t diminish the nature of the core mechanic, it was met with no small amount of personal dismay and it wasn’t the only change.

One of the better ones, however, were the new additions to the regular Taken.  This time out, with the inventive and sadistic Mr Scratch in charge, you can expect some nastier surprises than just sickles and chainsaws.  The Splitter Taken in particular will quickly ruin your day if you let them, dividing and sub-dividing in torchlight, and the possessed flocks of birds have evolved to morph suddenly into a pair of stealthy and nimble Taken that will flank you with alarming regularity.  The Tele-Flanker Taken and the chainsaw guys are nowhere to be seen, however in  a nod to the setting, expect lumbering oversized hillbillies with huge angle grinders and bigger attitudes.

The gameplay this time around is more focussed on action; rather than pursue/explore/run like buggery/survive, there is more of a fetch/fix/fight vibe as Wake repairs Scratch’s damage, attempts to prevent more darkness swarming into the town’s fringes, and actively hunts for his dark nemesis.  While it works fine, there is little suspense to be had – due in no small part to the setting as much as the shift in gameplay.  The move from the brooding pines of Elderwood National park and its evocative surrounds to the open Arizona desert and clustered locations hamstrings the atmosphere.  While the backdrops of the shabby motel and diner and the impressive observatory are more than satisfying in their own right, they feel somewhat bland overall, with the game lacking the imposing, often sinister, feel of Alan Wake’s setting, diminishing any real atmosphere to the point where there is, sadly, little tension.

Still, with it being Arizona and the focus switching to action more than survival, you can rely on guns.  Lots of guns.  Carbine rifles, sawn off shotguns, revolvers, and magnums are all there for the taking – although for the good stuff, you’d better get collecting manuscript pages, as the Rodriguez style black weapon cases can only be unlocked after locating a certain number.  And forget the nailgun and crossbow, you’d be better off using harsh language.

AWAN offers a far greater variety of weaponry than the first game but, rather frustratingly, the most effective of the old favourites have been oddly neutered.  The flare gun and flash bang grenades – previously the stars of the show – have been toned down to the point they are no longer as coveted.  Unless you hit a Taken point blank with either, the worst they will do is burn away dark shields and knock them down, rather than dissolve an incoming pack.  If you’d prefer to run away at this point, rather than take them out, don’t even think about skulking around under a streetlight this time, as they now burn out within seconds of you setting foot under one – only serving as a checkpoint and a way to heal your health bar.

Considering that this and the other moves that have been introduced, which would appear at first glance to make the game harder (the flashlight tweak and the toning down of the more powerful light weapons), it is confusing that other changes do the exact opposite, leading me to wonder why they bothered tweaking any of it, only to come out level anyway.  The biggest of these is that ammo is now more plentiful than at a Jimmy-Jo-Billy-Bob Jamboree, liberally scattered around.  Not only that, but the familiar red ammo boxes will now also restock every weapon in your arsenal to full capacity… and they regenerate, meaning that you only need to lurk around a short while after running into a pack of Taken and you can freely refill.

Locations of ammo boxes, along with safe havens and manuscript pages now appear on the game’s improved mini map, which is just as well as tracking down the elusive pages is not only the key to accessing some of the game’s better weapons, but also to understanding the story and filling in the gaps – essential if newcomers are to get a better idea of Wake’s back-story.  Should a new player choose to simply run and gun, however, rather than explore, there is a distinct risk that they will be left somewhat confused, disinterested, and even disconnected from Wake’s character and plight.  Not ideal.  A similar risk applies to even the most seasoned of Wake fans, as  the manuscript pages, although not quite as elusive as in Alan Wake, are also key to reinforcing the story of AWAN and fleshing out the new characters and key events.  Not only that, but many will be loathe to miss the wonderful ‘where are they now’ details about the old characters which crop up across some of the pages.

The manuscript pages are important because, as with Wake himself, story is key and while it was enjoyable enough, it also felt somewhat disjointed.  Rather than the whimsical/conspiracy-style questions thrown up in the aftermath of Alan Wake, AWAN had genuine moments where I wondered what I had missed, as some things didn’t feel properly explained.  It is a shame, as there are some fantastic elements – the genesis of Mr Scratch being especially inspired – but overall it just felt slightly unclear, and I came away still wondering what several developments had meant and whether I had just not fully paid attention.

While some uncertain areas of the story were disappointing, there were gameplay elements that were downright frustrating, namely the looping repetition – spoilers prohibit a better explanation, sorry – which became irritating, especially as you just know after the second time at bat that the gaming law of three is about to bite you on the arse.  It was, admittedly, an interesting and smart narrative device,  but in a title which only had three real locations, it made for a claustrophobic air and gave a feeling of false length to the game. A player should feel driven by curiosity, not drained by duty and it was a struggle between admiration and frustration.

Visually, it is hard to believe that Remedy packed this much polish into an XBLA game.  A few graphical flaws aside, it looked damned good.  Characters looked much the same as in Alan Wake, and the locations were impressive.  The shabby, out of town motel and neon diner lights looked perfectly at home among worn railroad tracks, desert scrub, and badly parked pickups.  Perhaps the most impressive, however, was the grand observatory, perched on a hill overlooking Night Springs, offering a starry vista that was genuinely beautiful.  Equally enjoyable were the excellent live action cut-scenes and taunting TV appearances from Mr Scratch, giving a welcome touch of ‘reality’, all of which were well produced, acted, and voiced.

Matthew Porretta once more heads up the main vocals and the quality of the voice work overall is, as expected, excellent (although the disturbing Taken vocals appear to be missing – a real shame).  In fact, if players take the time to hunt down the radios, they’ll hear more than a few familiar voices from the first game, filling in some great details about their lives post Alan Wake, and offering a genuine treat for fans while grounding the game more firmly in the Wake universe.  Score-wise, there wasn’t much to get over-excited about – it did its job, but wasn’t especially noticeable.  However, music fans will spot the Kasabian track that much fuss was made of (who they, Ed.?) and, of course, this being a Remedy title, Poets of the Fall make an appearance again as the Old Gods of Asgard, throwing more energy into proceedings and making this feel more like a bigger Alan Wake title than it actually is.

And that is just it really; AWAN feels like a larger Wake game that has been condensed and chopped about by Reader’s Digest to fit onto XBLA (albeit with the story suffering somewhat).  The great visuals, inventive gameplay, absorbing characters and story, thumping songs, top cut-scenes and voice acting, and an easter egg (or more?) for good measure are all here, just far more compact and pared down.  Songs are reduced to snippets, what would have otherwise been large scale set-pieces are miniaturised (a shame), locations are limited, and the story is a little disappointing, but still, the game manages to feel bigger, bolder, and more mature than those whose company it will be keeping on the arcade and far more impressive than one would have expected.

Being an XBLA title, there has to be something for the leaderboard whores, but instead of feeling shoehorned in, the diverting horde/survival mode is actually surprisingly enjoyable.  AWAN and the fight with light gameplay lends itself beautifully to this sort of game mode, pitting Wake against increasingly difficult waves of Taken in some sinister but well presented locations as the clock ticks down (painfully) slowly until dawn.

Overall, AWAN is a success.  While there are things that grate and some unnecessary and bewildering tweaks, there are as many things to be enjoyed and some inspired additions and moments.  Remedy’s love of their characters and of the Wake universe ultimately shine through the issues and the game that is presented stands above, not only many of those around it, but the perhaps wary expectations of  what a LIVE title can offer.  A devilishly compact and entertaining version of a larger Alan Wake title, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is innovative, enjoyable, and certainly more alluring than a Taken sandwich.  Sorry, that should have read ‘bacon’.

  • Slick and well polished, surpassing expectations for a LIVE title
  • Like a scaled down version of a full Wake title, with everything you'd expect
  • Innovative 'fight with light' gameplay returns
  • Live cut-scenes and in-game moments work well and look great
  • Some gorgeous backdrops and well crafted locations
  • New Taken additions
  • Mr Scratch
  • Good range of new weaponry
  • Plenty of touches and extras to keep Wake fans happy
  • Arcade horde mode fits the gameplay and theme like a glove
  • Now an actual sequel please
  • Some of the decent returning weapons have been neutered
  • Some gameplay tweaks aren't all for the better
  • Lacking in atmosphere
  • No real big set pieces, only several rushed small ones
  • Story was unclear in places
  • Looping repetition of gameplay was frustrating meaning that...
  • The few actual locations were dragged out by the above
  • No Taken vocals!
  • Newcomers could feel disconnected from characters or lost

Alan Wake’s American Nightmare shows XBLA how it should be done, presenting an innovative and entertaining compact version of what we would expect from a full Wake title. From the impressive visuals and cut-scenes, new Taken, and the returning fight with light mechanic which so defined the original game, there is much to enjoy.

That said, the flaws are grating, with not only some unnecessary tweaks to the gameplay, but with the repetition which ultimately irritates far more than it should do, somewhat stifling enjoyment. The unclear elements of the main story don’t help matters, and newcomers who don’t take the time to fill themselves in with the back-story are at risk of feeling disconnected from the character and his motivations. However, the familiar voices and ‘where are they now nuggets’ offer a treat to fans who have been waiting for something Wake related for a long while.

While this title may fall somewhat short of grand expectations, hopefully Alan Wake’s American Nightmare will be just another diverting bridge before a fully fledged sequel sidles out of the darkness in time for a new dawn of consoles.

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  1. Edward Edward says:

    I’m really looking forward to this game. Even if the locations repeat themselves, I can’t wait to get my hands on more Alan Wake, and a new Old Gods of Asgard song coupled with Mr Scratch really add to my eagerness to get a hold of it.
    Brilliant review from you, Lorna :D An approval of the game from the biggest Wake fan I know is all I need to persuade me to drop some coin on this. :D

  2. Chris Chris says:

    Yeah much like Ed I can’t wait to play this. Have to wait till payday but It’s still going to be super awesome. Great review Lorna.

  3. Tania Tania says:

    I’ve been excited about this for a while and it’s a must-buy for me! Just reading this makes me want to go play the first game again, not that I need much of an excuse! ;)

  4. Michael Author says:

    I will finally have to complete the first games DLC before I even think of playing this. The missus likes watching me play it, so it may take me a while.

  5. Lorna Lorna says:

    Worth picking up as a Wake fan, but expect a few frustrations with the gameplay :) Still, that this is an XBLA title is massively impresive and now they’ve proven they can do it, perhaps we’ll see more, although I’d prefer a sequel I think :) Thanks massively for the comments folks :)

  6. Richie richie says:

    Lorn doesn’t fuck about. Top work, Lornofthedance.

  7. I very rarely play through games multiple times but I did so with Alan Wake. I think it was due to, what I see as, a perfect blend of atmosphere, narrative and gameplay (I don’t usually buy DLC either).
    So I am desperate to play this, I may buy it as a reward for finishing Uni in a few months time.

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