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Alan Wake's American Nightmare (Xbox 360) artwork

Alan Wake's American Nightmare (Xbox 360) review

"While there’s still undeniably appeal in the Alan Wake franchise – the story is interesting for those players willing to read between the lines, and the combat is still a blast in moderation – American Nightmare is an underwhelming follow-up that simultaneously feels abbreviated and spread too thin."

Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is legit. That doesn’t mean it’s great, but simply that, for a fifteen-dollar downloadable Arcade title, it feels like the real deal. It looks as good as any Xbox 360 game you’d pull from a store shelf, which means the series’ typically phenomenal lighting effects once again greet us with dancing shadows as the titular protagonist points his flashlight around very dark places. The setting has moved from the forests of the Pacific Northwest to the deserts of Arizona, and while the scenery is new, the game’s old-timey locations – a quaint motel here, a drive-in theater there – channel vintage horror just as effectively. Developer Remedy has dropped the Stephen King act and is now in full-on Twilight Zone mode – with an appropriately Rod Serling-esque narrator to boot – and it still feels like an Alan Wake product, for all of the claustrophobic combat and labyrinthine plot points that this implies.

Alan Wake's American Nightmare asset

I liked Alan Wake. I liked it a lot. It boldly announced in its very first cutscene that it was more concerned with horror than logic, and its dreamlike nonsensicalities made it a masterclass in atmosphere. What’s more, the basic shine-and-shoot gunplay was a thing of simple pleasure, and Remedy pulled off the challenging task of making us feel totally comfortable in combat and then regularly finding ways to freak us out anyway. It’s one of those games, like Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space, that has fans arguing over whether it should be classified as action or horror, while I sit on the sidelines and commend it for offering the best of both worlds. And as with those two games, Alan Wake has spawned a sequel – if American Nightmare can be called one – that cranks up the volume and leaves its horror elements in the dust.

Well, okay, that’s not exactly fair. There are no Uncharted-esque set pieces to be found here, and the enemies never start shooting back (though some of them have started lobbing grenades). On the other hand, ammo boxes now replenish your supplies indefinitely, the game relentlessly bigs up Alan’s arsenal of increasingly overpowered weaponry, and they’ve finally thrown in your standard fend-off-waves-of-enemies endurance mode that’s becoming a staple of action games these days. The latter in particular answers the question of whether Alan Wake’s combat would still be fun if the game was stripped clean of the slow-burning atmosphere and puzzle-like story that play a big role in the series’ appeal. The answer is that it isn’t. I enjoy whittling enemies’ health to nil with a flashlight and then sending them into seizures of sparks with a bullet, but not enough to stand in a single room for ten minutes at a time doing nothing else.

What helped Alan Wake remain consistently interesting, at least for me, was its steadily ramping craziness factor. It’s what kept the fun-but-repetitive gunplay afloat, and what kept me attached to Remedy’s increasingly (and knowingly) bizarre plot. With American Nightmare, either Remedy’s bag of tricks is getting light, or they’ve simply turned their attention to other areas. Even Alan himself no longer seems all that surprised by the nonsensical goings-on around him, as his frequent wisecracks demonstrate. I dig the game’s newfound sense of humor, but it comes with the trade-off that American Nightmare just isn’t very frightening. If the guy that all of this stuff is actually happening to isn’t scared, why should we be? Yeah, it was neat the first dozen times an inanimate object leapt to life and tried to crush Alan; here, it’s expected.

But even if American Nightmare is a relatively predictable affair, some new enemy types keep the combat fresh, and the frequent treks through environments perfectly suited for this sort of thing prevent it from ever being boring. The story’s intriguing, too, if extremely weird. Alan is once again a prisoner of his own fiction – this time, a TV series called Night Springs – and must continue to explore his ability to influence his new reality by rewriting his own story. This for some reason involves crashing a satellite into an oil rig while listening to Kasabian, among other things. Yeah, the story still doesn’t make much immediate sense, but Remedy frequently drops us juicy nuggets in the form of well-written manuscript pages and videos left by Alan’s evil doppelganger (Mr. Scratch, whose name is literally pronounced with an audio “scratch” effect) that make putting together the series’ jigsaw puzzle of a plot so much fun.

Oh, an important detail about the story this time is that Alan is caught in a time loop, for some reason. Remember how I said that American Nightmare looks like a full-scale Xbox 360 game? Yeah, well, it’s not a full-scale Xbox 360 game, as its mere three levels confirm. And Remedy has padded out the play time by forcing players to repeat the same string of events not once, but twice. Each revisit is mercifully shortened by Alan now knowing exactly what he needs to do, which helps speed things along, but it’s obvious that corners had to be cut. All of the environments are fairly big, but repetition sets in quickly. The game’s climax is also a bit of a letdown, because the last thing you do in American Nightmare, you’ve already done twice.

So while there’s still undeniably appeal in the Alan Wake franchise – the story is interesting for those players willing to read between the lines, and the combat is still a blast in moderation – American Nightmare is an underwhelming follow-up that simultaneously feels abbreviated and spread too thin. It makes me want to go back and play the DLC I missed, and leaves me yearning for a proper sequel. One can be counted among American Nightmare’s successes. The other, I’m not so sure.


Suskie's avatar
Featured community review by Suskie (February 25, 2012)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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zippdementia posted February 26, 2012:

Your voice is very conversational here and I like that. I also like the numerous references to other video games and media that immediately paints a picture for us of this experience without getting too wordy about explaining every minor detail.
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EmP posted February 26, 2012:

I'm writing my own review on the game that should be up any day now, so I'm not going to read this one as of yet. This is just a heads up in case another Halo: Reach moment happens.
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Suskie posted February 26, 2012:

I'll be interested to see what you decide to talk about now that there are no more trees :)

Thanks, Zipp.
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EmP posted February 26, 2012:

Sneak Peek:

Alan Wake: American Nightmare is a game of countless cacti.
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Masters posted February 26, 2012:

Nicely done, and--agreed.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted February 27, 2012:

This review makes me want to run out and pick up the first one. I probably would, too, if I weren't hopelessly addicted to Skyrim.

Great job, man!
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Suskie posted February 28, 2012:

Thanks for the comments. And to be fair, Joe, I seem to be in the vast minority of people who loved Alan Wake, so I take no responsibility if you're underwhelmed by it :)
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Linkamoto posted April 08, 2012:

Vast minority? What? I loved the first Wake. I was not aware it was frowned upon in the gaming community. With that said, I almost feel compelled to play this BECAUSE of how much I liked the first, but most of its reviews have been ho-hum. You finely displayed the pros and cons in this piece while painting a clear picture of the atmosphere. Nice piece. I'm sure the small price tag will result in me owning this very soon.

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