Previously on Alan Wake: After a great struggle with the dark powers of Cauldron Lake, Alan managed to save his wife from the grasp of the darkness, but was trapped in the Dark Place in the process. Now, two years later, Alan manages to reach back into the real world, but his evil doppelganger, Mr. Scratch, will do everything to stop Alan from returning and reclaiming his life.
That's the premise of Alan Wake's American Nightmare, a game bringing with it a change of setting, pace, and philosophy to the series. The focus on storytelling and atmosphere has been eschewed in favor of a more action oriented experience, so much so that you can play through the game without getting much story at all. Fortunately, for fans of the original, the folks at Remedy haven't actually removed the story, they've simply hidden it a bit. Finding manuscript pages is now mandatory to make sense of just about any of what's going on, so Remedy has made sure there are plenty of them around; not to mention extra incentive for collecting them, as they unlock weapons going through the game. Both radios and TVs are back too and allow you to catch small glimpses of what's happening around you, though they are more important to fleshing out the story than they were in the original game. Finally, you can also converse with characters to learn some more about what's going on.
While the characters can help flesh out the story, they're still very wooden, with incredibly stiff facial expressions and motions that serve to remind you that you're still playing a game rather than experiencing an adventure. The unremarkable voice acting doesn't help, though it doesn't hurt either, but in contrast with the excellent presentation for Alan and Mr. Scratch, the other characters feel plain and unsatisfying, even if they offer small improvements over those in the first game. The rest of the graphics have been taken a notch upwards too, but unlike with the characters, the original Alan Wake already had great graphics.
Unfortunately, it never feels like American Nightmare can put the graphics engine to as good a use as the original could. The new setting of a small town located in the middle of nowhere out in Arizona just doesn't offer the same incredible atmosphere the dense forests of the pacific northwest offered in the original. The atmosphere of Alan Wake's American Nightmare is by no means bad, but it feels like a step back from what was on offer in the original, in spite of Remedy's excellent use of live action footage in the game and a good soundstage. And this feeling of things being a step backwards unfortunately goes for the story and the storytelling as well. While the story ultimately stays true to the Alan Wake universe, it's not until an hour or two into game that it starts to dawn on you what's really going on and why it makes sense. This is partially because the story feels a little unpolished, but also because the storytelling feels clumsy and not something Remedy is completely comfortable with much of the time.
But all that was never meant to be the focus of this game, the focus is on creating a more action oriented Alan Wake experience, and that's exactly what Remedy has done. It might take some getting used to; all of a sudden Alan can wield a much greater array of weapons than he could before, ranging from sawed off shotguns through to assault rifles and crossbows, but there's no denying that the action in American Nightmare is much more satisfying than it was in the original. You're still fighting the Taken, but they come in a few more variations here, helping to mix up the action well when coupled with all of the new weapons at Alan's disposal.
The Taken are still protected by darkness, and the only way to make them vulnerable to gunfire is to shine enough light on them to get rid of that darkness. To do that, you have your trusty flashlight, flares, flashbang grenades and good old fashioned explosions. Combine this with the dodge maneuver, making its return from the original game, and the fact that almost all of your opponents use melee, and the action here becomes a bit more unique than it would otherwise have been, even if it is very reminiscent of the original. But these returning staples also keep the gameplay from being too recognizable, as otherwise it would feel like something you would get if you crossed Alan with Marcus Fenix or Nathan Drake, rather than something that really is its own. Although the fact that cover is nowhere to be seen is a refreshing change.
Remedy isn't satisfied with just letting the player feel the heat in the campaign. Alan Wake's American Nightmare also includes an Arcade mode, which is basically an Alan Wake interpretation of Horde mode, but without the multiplayer. You're let loose on a map with 10 minutes until dawn, and you score points by killing enemies. You have a score multiplier that rises when you make a kill or dodge an attack, but the multiplier is reset when you take damage, so keeping a long streak going is both tough, but also essential for moving up the leaderboards. Your score is then graded with up to three stars when you're finished, regardless of whether you manage to hold out until dawn or not.
American Nightmare comes with a handful of maps for this mode, with each map coming in two versions. The first version is the standard version; enemies spawn in waves with a bit of room to breathe in between each wave, so you can get around and collect weapons and ammunition. It's not terribly difficult, and although it can provide for some good moments of score attacking, it's probably not something you're liable to stick with for long. The second version is the Nightmare version. These versions of the maps are all the same as their standard counterparts, except in one key difference: enemies no longer spawn in waves, but will spawn regardless of how many enemies are still left on the map. This changes the action dramatically, because if you're not killing enemies fast enough, you'll get overrun. Knowing the map is essential in getting to the right weapons and the right tactical positions, and flares and flashbang grenades need to be saved for emergencies.
Nightmare maps definitely make for more compelling gaming compared to the standard maps, even if the difficulty can be a bit off-putting. They do provide a nice twist on the Horde mode formula though, but the lack of multiplayer feels like an odd omission. It means that the mode doesn't add the same sort of longevity to the title that we've seen in other games with similar modes, even if multiplayer isn't the best fit for an Alan Wake game. And depending on your fondness for Alan Wake, that might be an important point. The campaign will last you four or five hours, but lacks incentives for replaying. The Arcade mode is a fun diversion, but it just doesn't have the same pulling power as other games with similar modes.
Ultimately, Alan Wake's American Nightmare feels like an experiment. Can Alan Wake be about more than story? Based on what we have here, the answer is yes, but not an especially resounding one.
This review is based on a digital copy of Alan Wake's American Nightmare, bought from XBLA.