REVIEW: Alan Wake's American Nightmare [X360]

They may say Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is not DLC, but it’s hard to tell. Perhaps being able to play it without the original game technically qualifies it as a standalone game, but there are important elements lost in the process. If you want some extra Alan Wake content with a few new features, it’s certainly worth the few bucks they’re asking on Xbox Live Arcade.

[img_big]center,8714,2012-02-06/1_Motel_Mood.png,Alan Wake’s American Nightmare[/img_big]

Our long-suffering protagonist, writer Alan Wake, finds himself in another disorienting dreamscape battling the forces of darkness. If this sounds a little passé, it’s because it is: After a game and two rounds of DLC, the whole Wakescape is becoming quite familiar by now. Thankfully Remedy seems to have acknowledged this and actually ramped up the cheese by casting this story within a fictional TV show Night Springs, a thinly-veiled Twilight Zone replete with creepy narrator. The connection is perfect: the characterisation of Alan Wake clearly riffs off Richard Matheson, author of I Am Legend and many Twilight Zone episodes as well as the film. Wake is caught in a metaphysical trap and taunted by his evil alter-ego, Mr Scratch, somewhat overacted by Matthew Porretta in live-action scenes viewable on TVs scattered through the game.

There’s lots of new stuff in American Nightmare: The setting is Arizona, rather than the Pacific Northwest, which is refreshing. Although we are still required to collect manuscript pages which Wake has presumably written prior to the action of the game, thankfully someone has hired writers who can produce better writing than the woefully purple prose of the original Alan Wake. And while there are some new enemy types, weapons and mechanics (a useful minimap, for instance, indicating weapons stashes and manuscript locations), the core “Fight with Light” gameplay remains, which requires whittling down an enemy’s defences with a flashlight to make them vulnerable to conventional weapons.

Once they are vulnerable, new weapons and stacks of ammo means puts them at your mercy. The assault rifle is particularly fun (but quite overpowered) for its blunt stopping power, but I couldn’t go past the nailgun for pure style. Unfortunately the mountains of ammo along the way dilutes Alan Wake‘s original survival horror influences, and makes dying a cause for celebration that there is actually a scene worth fighting. This does suit the aesthetic, though, which is more grindhouse than Lynch, eschewing the psychological thriller branding of the franchise in favour of run-and-gun action.

[img_big]center,8714,2012-02-06/Scene1.png,Alan Wake’s American Nightmare[/img_big]

The level design follows a fairly standard formula: Go there, get keys, unlock door, rinse, repeat. The environments, though shrouded in a threatening darkness, are characteristically beautiful and strongly reminiscent of the American Southwest. There is a country-town rest stop, a hilltop observatory, and a 50s-style drive-in with power station and projector booth. Frustratingly, you are automatically transported to a new environment when the game decides you are ready to proceed, and this linear handholding makes on beg for the driving action of the original game. Only having three environments raised alarms about the length of the game – it looked like it would only last a couple of hours. Unfortunately the reality is even worse.

Cast within a single episode of Night Springs, the action of the campaign actually takes you through the three environments several times, as Wake attempts to gather the resources needed to defeat Mr Scratch. While some things change as you advance – NPCs are more autonomous and helpful – this ultimately feels like a cheap shortcut and it allows for substantial recycling of environments, cutscenes and enemies. It makes the whole gameplay seem quite repetitive: once you have faced roughly the same wave of enemies in one location twice, pacing through it a third time is pretty ho-hum. Some brute enemies quicken the pulse slightly, but they are pretty easily dispatched.

Perhaps the best innovation is the new Arcade Action mode, which is much more than just a tacked-on bonus. It places you in a set environment – Cemetery, Ghost Town, there are many – with ten minutes to survive until dawn, finite weapons and ammo placed around the area, and waves of enemies to defeat to survive. This was surprisingly enjoyable; the levels are well-designed, and it offers substantially more challenge than you get in the campaign mode. The levels force you to use particular weapons, and you are often surrounded by up to a dozen enemies at once, which actually creates more tension and thrills than the story provides. Here the action is able to shine, which lengthens the value of the game well beyond the 5-8 hours that the main game provides. We are yet to see any multiplayer but there is definite potential here.

[img_big]center,8714,2012-02-06/TheGiant.png,Alan Wake’s American Nightmare[/img_big]

Although it’s a mixed bag, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is still quite enjoyable and we must remember the price point: This is more like a quick burger at a diner than a lavish restaurant steak. There are nice cutscenes, great environments, highly playable arcade action, and a particularly clever homage to B-grade television of a former era. If you want a fun snack to tide you over until the next main course of Alan Wake (a sequel is almost certainly in the offing), this will keep the dark wolf from the door.

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