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Alan Wake: American Nightmare [Review]

Overall Feeling: 

Using the tools established in Alan Wake, specifically the ability to re-write reality, Remedy has taken Alan Wake in a whole new direction. The game is now themed more like pulp '80s action films, moving away from its Stephen King/Twin Peaks roots, and offers a whole new (unique) story with the flavor of the mini-series Night Springs that ran within the original game.

The Pros: 

+Well written story-line that manages to feel fan-fiction and cannon at the same time.

+Improved gameplay mechanics that make the core even more fun to play.

+Remedy's love for genre films really shows through.

+Small touches like the constant narration (via a Twilight Zone knock-off host) provide that same strong feeling of the original, with a whole new tone.

The Cons: 

-The game does only use three locales, which loop three times. Rating : 

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Remedy’s 2010 thriller title Alan Wake. I went on record saying that it was the best game of the year, and was passionate enough in my appeal of the other writers of the site that eventually we pushed it through to win. The reason was that the game brought something new to the table, it was atmospheric, creepy, smart, and offered just a touch of humor (via the TV series Night Springs, which could be watched through monitors placed through-out the world). And to that end, I was rather vocal, both on the site and when I met up with Remedy on the show-floor of CES, about the fact that American Nightmare seemed like they had broken the world they created.

You won’t hear me say this often, because I do like to play the role of the ‘know it all,’ but… I was wrong.

What Remedy has managed to do is build the world’s best excuse for taking their property in a completely different direction, while making things feel cannon (and when I say cannon, I don’t mind “they said it is so it is” but by the end of the game you know what it fits). American Nightmare picks up after the end of the original title, but with a twist. The evil entity that was driving Alan insane in the first game, manipulating his ability to recreate reality for its own nefarious purposes, has become so much more now… It is now powerful enough that it can now bring to life urban legends, which is where Alan Wake’s “American Nightmare” begins.

After the loss of Alan’s wife the town people of Cauldron Lake begin to circulate rumors of Alan Wake. Rumors including the notion that he was a terrifying murder who offed his wife himself… and through that rumor a new identity is created, via the magic of Cauldron Lake, named Mr. Scratch. A dark and evil version of Alan, Mr. Scratch sets out to take the place of his original, and it’s Alan’s job to stop the maniacal evil twin and clear his good name.

Sound a little like a cliché plot-line from an old pulp fiction? Well you’re right on, and that’s exactly what Remedy was working on. This was the part that irked me a little originally; the original AW was such a gritty dark thriller with an intense plot-line and a rather impressive final act unveiling a twist-ending (post credit roll). The concept of going campy, almost comically so, nearly offended me as a die-hard fan… But once you realize the truth of the series, Alan has begun reworking reality via his old writing (specifically a script for an episode of Night Springs) becomes quite clear why the setting and tone of the game have changed so dramatically.

When I spoke with Remedy previously, we talked about how the original Alan Wake was inspired by the classic thriller novels, TV and film (like Stephen King and Twin Peaks). This time around they were shooting to pay homage to pulp film makers (like Quentin Tarantino), but during my play-time (and credit where credit is due, it was a friend that first made the comparison) it seemed a little more like a ‘80s (John) Carpenter film than anything else.

The action in the game is solid, and has been dramatically increased. There’s hardly any concern about weapon/ammo management, thanks to the plethora of supply boxes located around the game world (which restock themselves every minute or so), and the weapon catalog has gotten a big boost (shotguns, automatic weapons, assault rifles, etc.). I know there were complaints from some of the fan-base with the original Alan Wake with how the game handled, and as a side-effect of making it more of an ‘action shooter’ the controls have all been tightened up to take advantage of the new weapons (making it easier to hit people on the fly, react quickly, and fire accurately).

The only real complaint that I have about the mechanics of the game are in the locales that were chosen. Thematically, what Remedy has done for the game makes sense. The concept of Time Warps and a city that loops back in on itself (not allowing you to ever leave) makes sense for a world that is, more or less, an incarnation of an old Twilight Zone episode (right down to the regular narration provided between ‘scenes’). In game though, it’s a little lazy feeling and boring. There’s only three locations in the game, which recycle. You’ll be thrown ‘back in time’ a number of times, and have to run the exact same area with the exact same checklist a total of three times by the end of the game. And that’s really all there is. They are kind enough to at least have characters that learn from each go-round so that the tasks that you need to complete each time are accomplished faster, but I absolutely would have loved to see a little more of Night Springs then the three maps they offer you (which don’t even have proper travel between them, you are simply teleported via narration to the next locale each time you complete a ‘chapter’).

What impresses me the most about Alan Wake: American Nightmare though is the fact that all I’ve done so far is talk about it’s rather short story-mode. The game was built, originally, as a concept for the Arcade mode that’s included in the XBLA title. From my understanding, Remedy was looking to build a tool to tweak the combat, threw in a sort of ‘survival’ mechanic, and had so much fun with it they wanted to share. So the concept, at first, was not to extend the universe of Alan Wake with a quirky little one-off Night Springs-themed story, but to provide an arcade-action title for people to enjoy what the Remedy staff had been playing around with.

Again, I’ll say I was the pessimist on this front. Alan Wake isn’t an action shooter, it had no need to be arcadey and have so much focus on combat… but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun as hell anyways. I had a blast playing through the Arcade challenges of the game as well, and as silly as it all is to someone that fell in love first with the story and considered himself a purist, there’s something magical about running around a cemetery, dive-rolling out of the way of axe-strikes in bullet time, leaping from weapon cache to weapon cache, trying to keep up a combat multiplier and struggling to see sunrise.

Again Alan Wake manages to, against all odds, provide what is sure to be one of my personal favorite games of the year. I wanted to hate this game from the jump, for deviating from the original so drastically… but it won me over in the end, and in a big way. American Nightmare is a passion project from Remedy, and it shows. The game is fun, distilled to one of its purist forms, and offers a love-letter to the cult/pulp action flicks of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. It has humor and heart in spades, and winds up being one of those must-have titles that people in the know are going to have a whole lot of fun discussing (and probably even quoting) with their friends.

This review is based on a download for the Xbox 360 supplied by the Publisher.

Allan Wake: American Nightmare
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Remedy
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Release Date: February 22, 2012
Price: 1200 Microsoft Points ($15.00)