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Alan Wake's American Nightmare (Xbox 360) artwork

Alan Wake's American Nightmare (Xbox 360) review

"American Nightmare stops trying to promote itself as the new Silent Hill and camps it right up to great effect."

Alan Wake was a great idea stretched too thin, and that was a shame. It labelled itself a psychological action thriller then tried its level best to get inside your head by showcasing the game’s namesake turn in on his own vivid imagination and go a little insane in the process. It was sharply written and brilliantly characterised: the opening stages had you fumbling through a dark forest with no idea what was going on, other than there were shadowy figures out there. They had axes and they wanted you dead. They were everywhere. They appeared in between the silhouettes of far-off trees, sprung from behind them as you ran past and made every inch of your journey feel wonderfully unsafe. Then it did it over and over again until everything blurred into one huge trek through the woods.

Alan Wake: American Nightmare wants so much to be different. Where the original Wake gave you just a handful of weapons, American Nightmare more than doubles your arsenal. Where the original Wake gave you one enemy throughout the entire game then either made him fast and evasive or slow and powerful as and when it pleased, American Nightmare largely bulks up the opposition. The mainstay remains the shadow-cloaked Taken, normal people possessed with darkness you need to weaken with your flashlight beam, then plough bullets, crossbow bolts or even nails into to see off, but also adds original foes. Sullen grey spiders appear in mass if you enter heavily cobwebbed areas while Splitters respond to light by tearing themselves in half like macabre humanoid amoebae. Other Taken can morph into a flock of birds at will, while the obligatory slow, powerful staple is seemingly fed a steady stream of protein drinks and steroids, had an industrial sized disk cutter thrust into his impossibly meaty hands, and pointed in your general direction. I’d add a screen capture, but I refuse to steal the best ‘holy shit!’ moment away from you.

As such, much more is made of combat, and the little extras that existed as a bonus in the original Wake return for a much higher standing here. Both titles have pages of manuscript hidden in unlikely places, but American Nightmare not only uses them as cool collectables that each give a further slice of insight into the twisted plotlines, but serve as currency for unlocking better weapons. Wake’s adventure starts in the middle of Arizona’s plains, the only landmarks being a Diner illuminated by flickering neon lights well past their prime, a dilapidated motel and an oil tower that spews forth an unholy torrent of Taken. You have a pistol, unless you find the first three pages, then you can unlock a sub-machinegun. It evens the odds a little. Which helps, because American Nightmare spends less time trying to spook you, and more time trying to murder you.

Switching antagonists to Mr Scratch (his name pronounced as a literal vinyl scratch), a personification of Wake’s awful reputation following his disappearance at the end of the first game, also switches a lot of the focus. Nightmare is a spooky game, but it’s no longer about trying to worm itself into your psyche; it realises that most of its player base have come back for more after the original, and isn’t afraid to change things up. Most of the game’s creeping horror comes from the messages Scratch leaves littered around the world, where he calmly talks bout the awful things he’s going to do, or just plain does them, then leaves them sitting on television sets for you to discover. A lot is made of light against darkness, and creeping shadows or sudden charges from murky dark corners all play a part. But the story here is less Steven King and more pulp action.

In a lot of ways, it has to be. American Nightmare is, after all, an Arcade title, not a full blown release, so limitations are always going to be present. In this case, the biggest downside is the size of the game’s world which, really, consists of three stages, the isolated motel, a lone observatory, and an abandoned drive-in movie theatre. While the game comes up with some clever ways to make exploring the settings fresh, there’s no getting away from the fact that you’ll be doing the same things with the same different backdrops over and over again. Mercifully, each revisit is cut shorter upon each return, almost as if the game is making fun at its own limitations. In fact, I rather fancy it is; this version of Alan Wake is a lot more laid back than the first, allowing its protagonist to be almost indifferent about the threats he faces. I suppose there’s only so many times you can be assaulted by your own living nightmares before it becomes part of the norm, and Remedy showcase that here brilliantly. The sparse collection of characters written into the game that aren’t trying to sheer your face off with a hunting knife are all effected by the darkness in some way or the other, and their emotional responses often conflict brilliantly with Wake’s near casualness.

The campaign can last up to around five hours, having you revisit each location three times each, and here’s the paragraph were I’d expect the venom to spew, but I have to admit to really enjoying American Nightmare. Unlike the full blown release, the title doesn’t hang around long enough to wear out its welcome, and simply doesn’t concern itself with the heavier subjects its predecessor did. It doesn’t even try to disguise the fact that it’s a series of fetch quests containing X number of ambushes and, indeed, pokes fun at itself for doing so. It’s like Remedy knew what went right in the first game and figured, hey, let’s just go with that and have a few laughs along the way. Scratch works brilliantly as a foe, turning up in the midst of battle to mock your efforts or being referenced as a better looking, more charming version of the protagonist by survivors just enough to raise Wake’s ire that much more. That the already solid gunplay has been expanded with much needed diversity in including new weapons and monsters breathes new life into a system that was already groaning and creaking with unwelcome repetition is a huge boon, even if the inclusion of a Horde mode where you take on waves of Taken feels more obligatory than appreciated.

Back when I beat Alan Wake, I labelled it an ambitious failure of sorts. A good game in its own right, but hardly the genre staple it so wanted to be. American Nightmare is a slap-patch fix of sorts, one that isn’t so much about Remedy fixing all that was wrong with the original foundation, but instead one that stops trying to promote themselves as the new Silent Hill and camps it right up to great effect.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (March 10, 2012)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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zippdementia posted March 10, 2012:

Do a find in your review for "likening." I think you'll spot the error.

That said, I really liken this review. You cover Mr. Scratch well, a character who I'm surprised I haven't referenced more in Alan Wake: Nightmare reviews.

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