Developer: Remedy Entetainment
Publisher: Xbox LIVE Arcade
Alan Wake is back, but not quite in the way you might expect. Overbearing and stodgy exposition gives way to Twilight Zone kookiness. Traditional horror takes a turn into action alley. And, bizarrely, there's a survival mode without any story whatsoever. American Nightmare is freshly-streamlined and sharpened up for its XBLA debut, but does Remedy's new direction pay enough respect to the original game to appeal to existing fans as well as newcomers?
The answer, like Alan Wake's canon, is complicated.
After the extremely convoluted events of the original game (and its two DLC packs), writer Alan Wake finds himself trapped within an episode of his own TV show, Night Springs. His evil doppelganger Mr. Scratch has been fleshed out from an ambiguous plot device into a fully-fledged antagonist, and to combat his adversary's machniations, Wake travels through a few Arizona environs with the intention of literally re-writing reality.
The story is handled well and delivered brilliantly, with most of the heavy lifting done by optional manuscript papers and a tongue-in-cheek narrator who gleefully apes the style of The Twilight Zone. Its tone is kooky to the point of being a little reminiscent of Deadly Premonition, but the narrative is refreshingly straightforward and easy to engage with. Newcomers will be able to pick up the gist fairly quickly thanks to the scattered manuscript fragments, while series veterans will be able to enjoy a few well-implemented nods to characters and events from the original. Pleasingly, Alan seems more natural and relateable thanks to the change in tone, more like a well-rounded and likeable everyman rather than a undeniably pretentious artiste.
Combat still revolves around burning Taken - menacing possessed humans - with a portable torch and subsequently riddling their vulnerable bodies with bullet holes. American Nightmare has done a fantastic job of making its combat much more punchy and accessible than its predecessor, which is a good thing too because traditional notions of horror are at a serious premium. The appearance of small groups of Taken is telegraphed by an audio stinger or even a short cutscene (for reasons I can't get my head around), but the new combat focus is as satisfying as it is streamlined. Your torch can be focused into a deadly darkness-stripping beam by holding the left trigger, while a veritable cornucopia of boomsticks are on offer to lay the smackdown on newly-unshielded enemies. Every gun, from handguns and revolvers to nailguns and hunting rifles, feels powerful and potent while being easy to wield with one hand. Pleasingly, Wake can also gleefully evade opponents with an awesome slow-motion duck triggered by a well-timed jab of the left bumper.
On the flip-side, the newfound ease with which Wake can dispatch his foes has made the experience fairly easy. Though massed attacks will rip the writer to pieces if you let Taken get close, the vast majority of enemies can be put down at range with a minimum of fuss. Bigger enemies or more nuanced encounters appear too late to make much of an impact, and worse, the large and deceptively open levels allow you to easily slink back for respawning ammunition and health. Trudging around these large environments to search out manuscript pages - which unlock weapons when you reach certain thresholds - can quickly become boring rather than tense, but there's enough action to keep you hooked regardless.
Unfortunately, American Nightmare's campaign never reaches the levels of intensity you'd expect from an action-oriented horror game, which comes down to a flagrant missed opportunity regarding its premise. Rewriting reality is a terrific concept that could have provided us with wildly new and exciting gameplay experiences... but it essentially boils down to fetch quests. Loads of fetch quests. And the occasional barely-interactive puzzle. On top of this disappointingly tedious focus, the biggest set pieces (one of which features an unexpected and thoroughly welcome appearance by Kasabian) don't last long enough to make much of an impact.
Mr. Scratch also gets short shrift, appearing only as a regular cameo rather than an omnipresent nemesis. He's easily the most interesting thing about American Nightmare, but rarely gets the chance to shine and live up to his psychopathic potential. Shame.
What we're left with, therefore, is a strange mix of the new and familiar that never quite gels yet feels consistently satisfying. There's not enough horror to go around and the combat isn't quite as nuanced as we'd have liked, but the experience works and hangs together thanks to the surprisingly moreish storyline.
Once you've completed the five to six hour campaign (longer if you're a completionist with an eye for manuscript pages), you can dive into a few survival levels that challenge you to... survive. There's not much more to say: it's essentially a wave-based horde mode with increasingly-dangerous waves of Taken, limited resources and a mixture of open and cramped environments. There are plenty of tense moments to be had and some leaderboard scores to settle, but there's clearly a missed opportunity for cooperation. There's no multiplayer - neither in splitscreen or online - and I doubt that this mode will last you too long. Without the characters and quirky new tone, it's basically just another third person shooter.
For 1200 Microsoft Points, though, American Nightmare is great value and fun while it lasts.
- Satisfying and accessible combat
- Intriguing story, delightfully kooky presentation
- Survival mode adds value
- Slightly too easy, set pieces lack intensity
- Disappointing dearth of true horror
- Missed opportunity for reality-changing gameplay... and multiplayer
The Short Version: Alan Wake's American Nightmare makes the most of Remedy's quirky new direction and action focus, delivering an exciting and refreshingly accessible take on the original game. However, the lack of genuine horror and an overall lack of intensity is set to disappoint, while cooperative multiplayer would have helped to give this downloadable title some extra legs. Still well worth checking out for 1200 Microsoft Points.