Alan Wake's American Nightmare Review

By Jake Gaskill - Posted Feb 22, 2012

Alan Wake's American Nightmare is about as close to a retail-caliber release as the downloadable space has seen yet. It's super polished, the combat is slick and exciting, and the presentation is top notch.

The Pros
  • Slick, satisfying combat
  • Terrific tone, atmosphere, and presentation
  • Pulse pounding and "just one more" survival mode
The Cons
  • Story falls flat
  • Fights are mostly one-note throughout

Alan Wake's American Nightmare Review:

Before we get started, there are a few things we need to get straight. First off, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is not a true sequel to Remedy's 2010 somewhat polarizing survival horror title Alan Wake. It's more of a narrative one off that picks up following the events of the first game. And secondly, American Nightmare is a standalone downloadable Xbox Live Arcade title so you don't need AW to play it. Now that the formalities are growing smaller in our rear view (sorry, Wake’s style is rubbing off on me), we can proceed with the discussion.

 

Help I’m Stepping Into The Twilight Zone

American Nightmare takes place after the previous game, with haunted and believed-to-be-dead writer Alan Wake once again (and inexplicably) trapped in a nightmare of his own creation. Only this time, he finds himself a prisoner in an old episode of Night Springs, the game's version of the Twilight Zone. Wake wrote the episode many years before he had become a rich and acclaimed novelist, a fact that plays heavily into the theme of the episode, as Wake battles against a murderous, Mr. Blonde-ish version of himself known as Mr. Scratch.

In order for Wake to escape the insanity that surrounds him, he must break the demonic cycle that Mr. Scratch has imprisoned him in. To do this, Wake--or as is referred to in the episode, the “Champion of Light”-- must piece together scattered manuscript pages to recreate yet rewrite the events of the episode and dispose of hordes of Taken foes with his trusty flashlight and high-powered weapons.

It’s a familiar premise for anyone who played AW, but there isn’t much depth to the story this time around, so a lot of the campiness that worked in the first game comes off as a bit forced because it doesn’t have room to breathe. Mr. Scratch’s live-action performances have a David Lynch-ian stiffness to them, which definitely adds to their creepiness, but the conclusion feels so abrupt and lacks any real punch that all that potential terror just sort of fizzles out in the end.

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Location, Location, Location

Remedy has mentioned in multiple interviews over the past few months that while the vision for AW was Lost meets Stephen King, AN is much more Rod Serling meets classic Americana meets Quentin Tarantino and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. As such, the damp gloom of the Pacific Northwest has been replaced by the deep red and orange hues of Arizona, and rather than scrambling through dense pine forests, Wake now traverses such varied desert locales as a dusty motel, an observatory, and a dilapidated drive-in movie theater. This change of scenery not only perfectly sets the tone for the overall experience, it also gives American Nightmare an identity all its own, something that is absolutely essential when it comes to sequels or franchise additions.

The actual structure of the game is rather clever as well, but seeing as it’s high spoiler territory, I won’t give it away. What I will say is that the story mode takes around four or five hours to complete (depending on how thorough you are), there are three locations to explore, and the narrative isn’t entirely linear. Mysterious enough for you?

Alan Wake's American Nightmare

Let’s Fight

Presentation elements aside, the biggest improvement in American Nightmare over Alan Wake is the combat. This totally makes sense when you consider the folks at Remedy set out to make AN a much more action-focused affair than the predominantly story-driven AW, and boy did they. In addition to the handful of new enemies, each more dastardly than the last, Wake also has access to some hot new weapons with which to disintegrate these abominable creations. Whether it’s the new nail gun, Uzi, or hunting rifle, you have plenty of options when it comes to laying waste to the possessed hordes, and they each sound and feel superb, especially the shotgun. Kaboom!

What makes the combat so impressive is the handling. Wake’s duck maneuver returns, but when combined with the tighter aiming and smoother character animation, the gunplay takes on an almost balletic quality. Watching in slo-mo as a giant sickle passes inches above your head and then turning on a dime when the camera speed kicks back up and riddling that sickle lover with your Uzi is about as joyous a gaming morsel as you could ask for. It also happens to be heart-pounding as hell. Remember: flashbangs and flare guns are your friends.

To be fair though, the structure of the combat never really evolves beyond the “flashlight to remove evil, shoot, repeat” structure established in the first game, even with the addition of the new brutish type enemies and the improvements made to the controls. It’s more satisfying for sure, but chances are it won’t win over anyone who didn’t care for it the first time around. But if you were a fan of the previous game but just wished the combat were snappier, you are going to eat up American Nightmare; and for $15, it’s a must buy.

Alan Wake's American Nightmare 

In addition to the story mode, the game also features a horde-inspired mode called Fight Til Dawn, in which you must survive for 10-minute rounds against increasingly nightmarish waves of enemies. The mode includes five maps that range from a creepy ass oil field to a creepy ass ghost town to a creepy ass (and somehow more depressing) trailer park. Stringing kills together nets you multipliers, so if you want to snag a top spot on the leaderboards, you better get over your instinct to flee and face down your fears because simply surviving won’t cut it here.

Fight Til Dawn is an interesting take on traditional horde and survival modes in that it pushes you to defeat as many enemies as you can so you can earn more points but also curbing your enthusiasm by requiring you to survive the allotted time to win. Thanks to the smoothness of the combat, these increasingly intense showdowns bring with them a consistently frightening, spontaneous, and empowering experience that is even more impressive when you consider how methodically paced and structured AW was.

Alan Wake's American Nightmare

Wake Up

Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is about as close to a retail-caliber release as the downloadable space has seen yet. It’s super polished, the combat is slick and exciting, and the presentation is top notch. The story is clearly riding shotgun, which highlights some of the rigidness of Alan Wake’s stylistic mélange, and the combat is on the one-note side, but the smoking nail gun in Wake’s hand and the flickering neon motel sign set against the desert horizon at dusk make American Nightmare hard to resist.

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