Author: Rory Young
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Games/Reviews/alan_wake_american_nightmare/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.
Alan Wake's release on the PC met with critical acclaim, or at least more so than its initial debut on the Xbox 360. In fact, Alan Wake's PC release almost eclipsed the launch of spin-off title Alan Wake's American Nightmare, also initially exclusive to the Xbox 360. Remedy, however, was quicker to realize its mistake on this occasion and was fast to port the title.
Despite the nearness between PC port release dates, it's best to keep in mind that almost two years separate these two games. That fact, combined with Remedy Entertainment's insistence that American Nightmare is a spin-off and not a true sequel, create an interesting perspective going into the game. What exactly is American Nightmare, if not an Alan Wake sequel?
Remedy says American Nightmare is inspired by pulp fiction, sci-fi and B-movies, but Alan Wake was originally born from Stephen King, Twin Peaks and Lost. How does that unique suspense and tension translate? Do the significant stylistic changes make for a better or worse game?
At the heart of the original Alan Wake was its story, a story frustrating in its mystery and intrigue. It twists and turns, full of symbolism and cliché, but its endearing cast of characters and layered narrative are oddly compelling. Alan Wake's plot tantalizes you in ways rarely seen in gaming, and therein lies its charm. Alan Wake's American Nightmare is woefully lacking in comparison, as a sequel, spin-off, or however it was intentioned to be associated with its predecessor.
American Nightmare is framed as an episode of the series Night Springs, the show where writer Alan Wake first earns his, "big break." Camera pan past a snoring Barry Wheeler in a hotel bed, zoom in on a Night Springs logo on the television and our show begins. The narrator, in a well-done Rod Sterling impression, explains how Wake is caught in a darkness trap, chasing his double Mr. Scratch. Down the rabbit hole we go as Wake chases Scratch through three different scenes, only to be forced to repeat them. This time, maybe Wake can recreate the scenes as he has written, defeat Mr. Scratch, and escape from the "Dark Place" he's trapped in.
Though it sounds well-designed in summary, in execution the shell proves quite hollow. Alan's typically verbose inner dialogue feels mundane, heck even Alan himself is rather apathetic about the entire situation he has been thrown into. The settings – a motel, an observatory and a drive in-theater – are treated as just that: places Alan has to visit in order to progress the story. Even the secondary characters, three sexy ladies at the wrong place at the wrong time, are treated more as landmarks for gameplay as opposed to helping shape the plot and context of the game. Their dialogue may make you smirk, but it doesn’t make them memorable.
Mr. Scratch himself is rather interesting, alluded to at times as a dark reflection of Alan Wake's own twisted psyche. The majority of the game ignores the depth of this symbolism however, portraying Scratch as a simple maniacal psychopath. Scratch is now just a bad guy, a nemesis, a conflict in need of resolution, rather than a larger, symbolic anti-hero as he was characterized in the original Alan Wake. As a result, the climax and conclusion of the story are formulaic and rather uninspired. Alan Wake fans will search for deeper meanings and question the reality of the game, but that's as much to do with Remedy's dissociation of American Nightmare with the canon as anything.
One area where American Nightmare makes a significant improvement over classic Alan Wake is in combat. Streamlined to maximize combat efficiency and intensity, American Nightmare will have you poppin' batteries into your flashlight, reloading your nail-gun and shooting The Taken as fast as they spawn. Here's where the decision for a PC port is really a strength, as the accuracy of a mouse and keyboard shows just how fast and fun Alan Wake combat can be.
Half a dozen new weapons have been added to the game, most of which are hidden in cases strewn about the three different settings. These cases can only be opened after collecting a certain growing number of manuscript pages. Yes, those collectible manuscript pages are back, but relatively easier to find than in classic Alan Wake. Don't worry, the game is still fairly easy with just flares and your pistol – though if you dive into the Nightmare difficulty you'll definitely be wanting some heavier weaponry.
Alan Wake's American Nightmare also adds a new gameplay mode to show off its charged-up combat. Fight till Dawn arcade mode sets you up in a Left 4 Dead-esque survival mode where you face endless amounts of enemies for an extended time-period. The more enemies you kill, the more enemies spawn. Though I've found kiting an army of Taken works just as well. The better you do, the more maps you unlock for Fight till Dawn mode, including Nightmare difficulty versions of each map. If you're into challenging yourself or competing against friends' scores then Fight till Dawn mode is worth a look.
Here is the point in the review where I begin to contradict myself. Above, I described how combat in Alan Wake's American Nightmare is fun and intense and while that's true, I didn't enjoy it in the context of Story Mode at all. How can that be? It has to do with game design principles, something I'll refer to as complementary combat, and it's going to take a bit of a setup and more comparisons to the original Alan Wake.
Alan Wake began as a story about a writer, lost in a very dark and scary forest with nothing but a flashlight and a pistol to aid him. Combat was about avoidance and escape, it was almost a tool to build atmosphere and immersion, as opposed to combat for the sake of combat. The flashlight protected you from the darkness, the pistol protected you from what hid beneath the darkness. It was symbolic, and those early moments in Alan Wake, lost in the forest with little idea as to what's going on were some of the best of this generation.
Now you have American Nightmare and it keeps the flashlight and the pistol, but it takes away the mood and atmosphere of the classic game. Instead you have this "pulp" take on horror, complete with machine guns enemies that launch darkness grenades? It feels like sketchy design and it definitely doesn't feel immersive. I could not, for the life of me, reconcile the new combat and atmosphere with everything I had loved about the original Alan Wake.
It's not just how combat works out, of course. It's also how the majority of American Nightmare's gameplay involves waves of enemies sprouting out of the ground in front of your character. You defeat them you progress to the next story checkpoint, or encounter another wave of enemies. Actually playing American Nightmare feels like the skin of a story wrapped around sequences of the Fight till Dawn arcade mode. The game feels like more of an experiment than a full experience designed with atmosphere and story in mind.
Alan Wake's American Nightmare teases itself as simply another episode of Night Springs, a Twilight Zone copycat filled with paranormal situations and unexpected twists. In creating such a premise, Remedy was able to create a situation for themselves to have fun with Alan Wake, bend the rules, and experiment without any effects on the true canon and franchise. It's just a goofy television show, after all. Unfortunately, what the end product became doesn't stand well on its own and doesn't lean well on its predecessor either.
The game itself is a mishmash of enjoyable to sub-par aspects, from a combat system and arcade mode that are both fun and challenging, to a story and setting don't feel particularly fleshed out. It all comes together in an awkward way, and is rather disappointing as a result. There are hints and teases at some of the aspects that made the original Alan Wake wonderful, but a majority of American Nightmare is spent going in a different direction. At some point in the future, Alan Wake will get another opportunity to finish his story, to turn on a light in the, "Dark Place." American Nightmare isn't that opportunity, and if Remedy hadn't already distanced the game from the canon, I'd say the franchise would have been better off to let Alan Wake keep dreaming.
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