Alan Wake's American Nightmare Hands-On Preview -- When Rod Serling Met Quentin TarantinoBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Dec 19, 2011
For anyone who thought Remedy Games’ tumultuously developed if technically impressive thriller Alan Wake was a bit too slowly paced or was too much of a Stephen King love letter (as if there could ever be such a thing), your criticisms have been heard loud and clear, and the result is Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, Remedy Games’ downloadable effort coming to Xbox Live Arcade sometime in 2012.
In American Nightmare, our once again troubled and haunted titular author finds himself (rather brilliantly) staring in an episode of the series’ Twilight Zone inspired television series, Night Springs, which Wake himself wrote prior to his success as a novelist. As such, the game is narrated by the Rob Serling-esque narrator of the show rather than Wake himself. It’s a seemingly small change, but it perfectly sets the mood for American Nightmare.
Remedy hasn't revealed too much of the game's story, only that a supernatural serial killer named Mr. Scratch, aka "darkness shaped in Wake's image," has appeared and is hell bent on doing terrible things to Wake's wife, Alice. Wake, as the "Champion of Light," must stop him. The two Wake's will no doubt cross paths in an epic final showdown, but players will encounter this twisted foe thanks to the televisions scattered through the game world that play live-action messages from Mr. Scratch.
In one such clip, Scratch is seen in the middle of torturing a half naked man in a scummy looking hotel room. "I bet you're wondering why I'm doing this," says Scratch, talking directly to the camera, to Wake. He rambles about Wake not knowing what to do with his success, assuring Wake that he knows what to do and that what he does will be "a lot more fun too." Creepy stuff.
During our hands-on preview session, Remedy Games managing director Matias Myllrinne explained the style and tone of American Nightmare is more akin to Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn meets campy, pulpy, sci-fi Americana, as opposed to Alan Wake which was very much Lost meets Stephen King. The result of this shift is instantly apparent the moment the game boots up and you see Wake in his flannel shirt kicking up dust in the game’s Arizonian desert setting—far from the damp, dense forests of the Pacific Northwest, although you wouldn’t know it from his shirt (zing!). The game also opens with the Night Springs narrator setting up the story as if you’re about to watch the episode, so right from beat one you feel instantly attuned to the world of American Nightmare.
But this isn’t simply “Alan Wake Goes to Arizona.” The changes are much more substantial than a mere location shift. Remedy has made it a point to fine tune the combat and rightfully so, considering American Nightmare is a much more action-packed outing than Wake’s previous effort with less of a focus on narrative. In fact, as Remedy explained it, if Alan Wake was two-third story and one-third action, American Nightmare is two-thirds action and one-third story.
Still, it’s very much an Alan Wake game, so you’ll be spending the majority of your time using your trusty flashlight to break the defenses of spooky smoke creatures capable of taking human form and then blasting them back to hell thanks to Wake’s newly expanded arsenal. While Wake has access to such high-powered staples as a combat shotgun and hunting rifle, he can now waste demons with an uzi, a crossbow, and, Myllrinne’s favorite, a nail gun. The always handy flashbang and flare gun return as well, giving Wake plenty of ways to battle his nightmares.
For the purposes of our demo, we jumped around to a couple scenes designed to show off some of the overarching design concepts at play in American Nightmare. Our first showdown introduces us to the new setting, which is painted with deep oranges and reds thanks to the pre-dawn desert surroundings, as well as one of the game’s new enemies. These dastardly dudes split in half when you shine your light on them. This creates multiple, weaker enemies, but increases your chances of being swarmed. Nothing your handy nail gun can’t handle, but still something to keep in mind.
The opening scene also reestablishes the power and importance of Wake’s writing as a young woman gives Wake a loose typewritten page that tells tales of a mysterious oil derrick and a satellite (both of which you no doubt remember if you’ve seen the recent reveal trailer). These moments of backstory will be much sparser than they were in Alan Wake, but for players eager to learn more, there will be optional story content that you’ll be able to seek out. The pages that Wake finds, though, similar to the first game, will not only foreshadow events to come but now offer Wake a chance to rewrite “history” to solve puzzles and thwart Mr. Scratch’s dirty deeds. One such story puzzle involved deactivating the inter-dimensional portal Scratch had constructed to call forth his dark army using the oil derrick mentioned in Wake’s story.
The next scene takes place in a picturesque observatory. Starting out on the winding street below, Wake must reactivate a series of generators to get the lights in the area back on so he has some cover from the encroaching darkness. Environmental destruction will play a bigger role in American Nightmare, as enemy forces—at least those capable of hurling taker trucks and other massive objects—will make sure your precious cover isn’t so precious, forcing you to stay on the move, which can be hard because the destruction can be mesmerizing. After flipping on the generators, a hefty truck came hurdling down from the observatory, crashing into the ground and then skidding and crashing through a chain-link fence mere feet in front of Wake’s feet. Needless to say, we took that as our cue to run.
We didn’t get a chance to play the story mode, but watching Wake duck and weave and unload nails with ruthless efficiency made it quite clear that the controls have been tightened and improved significantly. At one point, Wake found himself squaring off against several waves of enemies inside the observatory, giving us a chance to see several of the new enemy types in action at one time. By far the most terrifying new enemy type is a Lenny from Of Mice and Men-ish beast of dude wielding a giant buzz-saw. This bastard can take a pounding, and the sight of him slashing at you with that saw just as you duck beneath it in slow-motion is pretty special.
The final part of our session was spent struggling to survive American Nightmare’s take on horde mode, Fight Till Dawn (Interestingly enough, the story for American Nightmare was written after the team at Remedy had developed this survival mode; that’s how much the developers were determined to make the action the primary focus for the game). These 10 minute wave-based fights take place across five maps and can be played in standard or nightmare mode, the latter of which limits your resources considerably making for an even more nail-sweating experience. There is no set number of waves, so if you want to be the best, you’ll have to really earn it.
I played the cemetery map, and while I managed to survive until daybreak, I didn’t come close to besting the top score set for that map. To top the game’s leaderboards, you’ll need to pull off combos, string together dodges, and find other ways to make the most of your 10 minutes. This includes knowing exactly when to restock at the various ammo boxes and when to take refuge beneath the lampposts scattered around the map, which requires a whole new set of strategies since they only stay on for a few seconds once you step beneath them.
The controls definitely felt smoother than they did in Alan Wake, and they are more than capable of handling such a fast paced mode as this one. Whether that remains consistent throughout the course of the story mode and other Fight Till Dawn maps is a question that we won’t be able to answer until the game is released next year. But what I do know is that when that sun came up, disintegrating what remaining dark forces remained, my hands were shaking, my heart was pounding, and my nail gun was smoking. If that’s not indicator enough that Remedy is on the right track with Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, I don’t know what is.