Alan Wake, writer. A tortured soul trapped in a realm known only as The Dark Place. His enemy: an evil version of himself who goes by the name of Mr Scratch. His weapon: the power of light. As the champion of light, Alan Wake must find a way to defeat the demon walking in his image and discover the secret of the make-believe town of Night Springs.
Please forgive my poor-man’s attempt at a Rod Serling intro. It felt appropriate since an episode of Night Springs - in-game hero Alan Wake’s Twilight Zone-inspired TV show - serves as the backdrop for the subject of this review, the Xbox Live Arcade spin-off from 2010 game Alan Wake, titled Alan Wake’s American Nightmare.
Alan Wake is a writer who (as chronicled in the first game) takes a vacation to the town of Bright Falls, Washington with his wife Alice. Alan’s life is turned upside down after Alice is kidnapped by a Dark Presence in a plot that plays out like a Stephen King novel mixed with Twin Peaks. Alan sets out into the night to save his wife, semi-aided by his best friend and agent, Barry Wheeler. Alan must face and defeat the possessed townsfolk, The Taken, sent to stop him by the Dark Presence.
The original Alan Wake game (which I thoroughly recommend) ended on a cliff-hanger that left fans gagging for a sequel. The original game was intended to be like the first season of a TV show, to the point that every chapter of the game started with a cool ‘previously on Alan Wake’ recap. There were even two downloadable content special episodes entitled The Signal and The Writer that were supposed to act as a bridge between the first season/game and the second season/game.
However, while critically acclaimed, Alan Wake didn’t do as well as publishers Microsoft would have liked. After five years in the making, the game was released up against 2010’s most anticipated title, Red Dead Redemption; Alan Wake’s sales suffered and hopes for a franchise were put in jeopardy (you can read my Game Console review of the original Alan Wake game here).
So, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare isn’t Alan Wake 2. Not by a long shot. But the game doesn’t pretend to be so, developers Remedy going to great lengths to state on record that this is not a direct sequel to the first game. What American Nightmare does provide us with is something between a great Xbox Live Arcade game and a full price retail release, and for only 1200MS Points.
As with the first game, American Nightmare features some light puzzle elements, but mainly it is about fighting from point to point through waves of The Taken. Remedy seems to have listened to criticisms regarding the lack of variety in the enemies, which this time around are even more capable of ambushing the unsuspecting Alan. The motley band of demonically possessed opponents have been joined by some nasty light-sensitive spiders, as well as members of The Taken that split into two when bathed in light, creatures that turn into flocks of ravens, and huge chainsaw-wielding behemoths that like nothing better than to knock Alan flying.
American Nightmare has the same ‘fight with light’, third person shooter mechanic as the first game. Players use the beam of light from Alan’s torch to burn the darkness from the demonic enemies allowing them to be dispatched in a hail of gunfire. Sounds bonkers, but is actually very cool.
In order to put these supernatural freaks down Alan also has at his disposal a very satisfying arsenal of weapons. Players can choose to from a range of armaments such as the combat shotgun (personal fave), nailgun, and crossbow among others. As well as his torch, Alan can pick up flares and flashbangs to ward off and incinerate The Taken.
The campaign levels are set across three iconic 1950s B movie-style locations: a motel, an observatory and a drive-in cinema. Not as many locations as I thought that there would be, but they’re fairly large and perfectly formed. That’s a good thing, since – without giving the game away – players will be visiting them all multiple times. There is a Groundhog Day sort of thing going on in the game, no doubt employed to get the most gameplay out of the constructed maps. At first I thought the idea sucked, but it is actually a bit of genius and a credit to the developers in that the game doesn’t really feel that repetitive. Saying that, I wouldn’t have been so happy with the idea of padding a game out this way if it was a full-priced affair.
The game is interspersed with live action cut-scenes that look a bit too 1990s for me. I’d sooner have had the game stick with the in-game graphic engine for these sequences; a minor gripe, really. On the subject of graphics, this time the visuals are a bit crisper than before, especially the Alan Wake character model. On saying that, American Nightmare doesn’t have to deal with the dense windblown forests that pushed the Xbox 360 to the max in the first game. Whilst The Taken managed to make me jump on more than one occasion, as nice as it looks, I found the desert setting not quite as eerie as wandering forests of the American Northwest in the first game.
As with the last game, the levels are littered with manuscript pages. Some pages are easier to find than others and it may require more than one play-though to find them all. The pages not only offer players more insight into what is going on, but also allow Alan to unlock crates and gain access more powerful weapons in both game modes.
Speaking of game modes, the campaign story mode is complemented by the rather fun arcade action mode. Over the course of five stand-alone maps, players control Alan Wake as he faces off against increasingly difficult waves of The Taken until the sun rises. The maps are suitably themed, including a graveyard, a ghost town, an oil field, some caves and a trailer park. Across each map are spread a variety of different weapons and ammo. Lit streetlights provide a moment of sanctuary and a health boost for when it all gets too much. I couldn’t help thinking that the Arcade mode is crying out for co-op, although what with the game’s slow-mo effects, it is probably asking a bit too much. In any case it’s a nice extra bit of gameplay that’ll keep players coming back for more.
All in all Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is a great addition to the Xbox Live Arcade library; it’s not the sequel that fans are crying out for, but it’s better than nothing. Newcomers to Alan Wake’s adventures will be made very welcome and be able to enjoy that game without having any prior knowledge of the previous instalments.
I really enjoyed Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, but I also liked the first game. At 1200MS Points Xbox360 action fans could do a lot worse. Be mindful that if you enjoy this game, you’ll likely feel the need to check out Alan Wake’s first adventure as well. Come on now Remedy/Microsoft, let’s get on with Alan Wake 2, shall we?
Lasting appeal: 8