Review: Alan Wake: American Nightmare (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Alan Wake: American Nightmare
Genre: Horror
Developer: Remedy
Publisher: Microsoft
Release Date: 2/22/12

I’m a fan of Alan Wake, but as someone who is a fan of Stephen King, his book The Dark Half, The Twilight Zone, Norse Mythology, and writing horror stories, I’m pretty much the perfect demographic for that game. The original game may not have been the most innovative game ever, but I still loved the atmosphere and was truly interested to see where they were going with the story.

Nearly two years later we’re given a chance to see the story continued, through Alan Wake: American Nightmare, an Xbox Live Arcade title. This is one of the few times I’ve ever seen a retail title follow up with a sequel as a downloadable title, aside from Section 8, which is an interesting direction to take the series. The developer, Remedy, tried to assuage any doubts that the game might be lacking in content just because it is a downloadable title, but the question then remained if the game would be another creepy thriller, or if it would be as disappointing as a Dean Koontz book.

The answer? If Alan Wake was like the first book in a horror series, then Alan Wake: American Nightmare feels more like a spin-off novella. It manages to capture a lot of what made the original game great while adding some interesting features; however, there are some issues that prevent it from being a great game itself.

Let’s start with one of the things I enjoyed the most about the original: the story. The first game introduced Alan Wake, an author of horror novels that gets caught up in one. He is directed into staying at a cabin on a lake that happens to be infected with a dark presence that can turn written fiction into reality. If you want to know more than that, you’ll have to play the game, but to catch up to where we are now, it has been two years since the first game. Alan has been trapped in a dark alternate reality, and breaks through into the town of Night Springs. It is noted that the town is based off of the name of a TV show that is like The Twilight Zone, and that Alan Wake’s first writing job was writing episodes of that show.

During the game, Alan goes from being a victim of the (literally) dark forces that have been messing with his life to discovering the process himself of using the written word to change the world around him, and attempting to defeat his evil doppelganger Mr. Scratch. The whole thing is presented as though it is an episode of Night Springs, complete with the narrator of the fictional series adding commentary to frame each scene.

American Nightmare sets itself up as a stand alone product, and even in the press release we received it was stressed that prior experience with the series was not needed in order to enjoy the game. This, for the most part, is true. The game does a good job establishing the story of what has happened so far within the first interaction of the game, and while it does so in a slightly clumsy way, the dialogue seems like it is intentionally sort of cheesy. Some stilted voice acting by side characters and cheesy dialogue actually work, given the setting and tone of the game, as pulp sci-fi/horror entertainment.

While prior experience might not be a requirement, it really helps. There’s a lot of little bits with Bobby and The Old Gods of Asgard, or other small dialogue that ties into prior history of the game, like what Alan’s wife has been doing. Some of this backstory is added in thanks to the handy manuscript pages, but you will notice a lot more if you played the original game.

Of course, fans of the original might wonder why the game kind of jumps from Alan getting his mind back together and writing The Return, to wearing flannel and chasing Mr. Scratch. If this game is meant to bridge from the original title to a future sequel then it shouldn’t feel like there’s a gap from the original to this title.

As mentioned, one of the things that happens in the game is Alan learns to use his writing to change and shift the world around him. That sounds like an amazing feature to have in the game, but it doesn’t play out as well. Usually it involves obtaining a manuscript page, and then changing things to reflect the manuscript. It ends up being more of a fetch quest, instead of something like a horror version of Scribblenauts. Still, these lead to set pieces that play out in interesting ways. As a narrative effect, it is cool. However, it does little to actually engage the player.

Another problem with this plot device is the fact that it turns the game into Alan Wake’s Groundhog’s Day. You shift the world to make something happen, go to a different place, do it there, go to a different place, do it again, then start all over again at the original place. The developers do find interesting ways to make this engaging by changing the objectives and enemy encounters, so that it doesn’t feel like you are retreading the same ground all over again. Personally, I did not mind this, as the story is not all that long and the game keeps moving forward at a brisk pace. The areas in this game are not as linear, and when you repeat an area, you usually end up exploring a different section of that place. I really enjoyed the videos showing off the manic personality of Mr. Scratch, which play out in the form of messages on TV screens for Alan instead of Night Spring episodes, so I was invested in seeing how it would all turn out. Some people might not enjoy the recycled environments, but they did not get in the way of my enjoyment of the game.

Graphically, the game in many ways looks even better than the first game. The environments are larger, the lighting is still great, and there are more enemy types and different weapons. There are some things that don’t look as good, like some random low resolution textures (like the engine block of a car that’s being worked on), and once I had the framerate drop to the single digits. It was only for a moment, though, so it might have had nothing to do with the game. Alan looks good and the animation of the smallest things, like the way his shirt moves, or the way plants shift, all look great. The lighting looks amazing, which it should, considering this is a game that’s all about light versus darkness. There are a ton of small details all around which really add to the atmosphere of the game. That goes for the audio portion of the game as well. The voice work suffers when it is not from the antagonist or protagonist, but it sounds like cheesy sci-fi dialogue, so it works. The music is really good, whether it is background music to set a scene or add tension to the action, or a song by The Old Gods of Asgard.

The game controls identically to Alan Wake, but some changes have been made to how everything works. For example, the flashlight recovery speed is much higher now, and you will hardly ever need to change batteries. Batteries and bullets are not a rarity anymore, and there are places with ammo that respawn often. There are different types of enemies, which react in different ways. New enemies will split into multiple, smaller versions of themselves. There are spiders, and some will throw darkness grenades. There’s a giant guy with a type of chainsaw. This all makes the combat feel like a much more interesting experience as you try to juggle an increasing number of enemies that have different ways of being dispatched. The only complaint I have is that the dodge move is still the same button that you push to run, and it feels clumsy. Actually it feels even worse than in the first game, because the rest of the combat has been tightened up so much.

Oddly, even though the combat has been worked on and shows much improvement, the whole single player game feels easy to beat. Areas to replenish health and bullets are plentiful, enemies don’t take very much damage when you break the darkness off of them, and so on. There are no additional difficulty levels, which is a shame since many people enjoyed the higher difficulty levels of the original.

While there aren’t additional difficulty levels, there is a whole new game mode called Fight Till Dawn. This is a mode completely focused on fighting against the Taken, sort of like the Mercenaries mode in Resident Evil. The game has a countdown clock running, and while that is counting down, waves of enemies will spawn. Technically, you could just not shoot anything, dodge and wait until the timer runs out, except there’s a high score to beat and a multiplier running the whole time, so the point is not to just survive, but to try and get the highest score. The best way to get the highest score is to keep attacking enemies and to dodge, as if you get hit, that multiplier disappears. There are weapons and ammo to scavenge, and spots of light to regain health in, so there’s never really too much of a worry about running out of ways to blast away at Taken.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of this mode, because I didn’t really care for the combat in the original game. I mean, it was fine, it just felt kind of bland. I liked Alan Wake for the atmosphere and the story, so a mode that revolves around the combat didn’t seem like an enjoyable idea. I love it though; the improvements to the combat really shine here, making for a tense experience. I still wish dodging did not feel so clunky, but you get used to it after awhile. There are a lot of maps for this mode as well, and between that and the quest for a better score, this improves the replayability of the title quite a bit.

Alan Wake: American Nightmare is a great sample of what made the original game compelling, while showing that the studio is continuing to refine the product for future titles in the series. The game is not as long as a full length title, coming in at about four hours or so for the story mode, but it manages to make the most of that time, and the Fight Till Dawn mode is certainly worth sinking even more time into. Everything from the combat, to the atmosphere, to little things like making it so collecting the manuscripts also serve a purpose to the game (you can unlock stronger weapons) has shown improvement and makes me excited for an eventual sequel. While it may not entirely live up to the promise of being as expansive as a full retail title might be, for $15 it is also a fourth of the cost of a retail product while delivering a lot of content. I think releasing this game is as an arcade game is a great idea; there’s enough so that people new to the game might become interested in finding out more, while fans of the series get a little more story and a peek at what the future of the series may hold.

The Scores
Story: Great
Graphics: Incredible
Sound: Incredible
Control: Great
Replayability: Great
Balance: Enjoyable
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Very Good
Miscellaneous: Great
FINAL SCORE: Very Good Game

Short Attention Span Summary: Remedy has made improvements to just about every area of the core game with Alan Wake: American Nightmare: combat is much better, the atmosphere is amazing, and the new Fight Till Dawn mode is a great addition to the overall package. The reuse of areas makes sense in the narrative, but still makes the middle part of the story feel a little stale before things pick up again in the third act. Regardless, American Nightmare is a very good game that costs as much as other games charge for map packs.