This review was contributed by Jeremy Jastrzab, former Executive Editor of PALGN.
An interesting aspect of the current generation has been the number of vapourware titles that have managed to finally get released. Incidentally, just about all of them, from Duke Nukem Forever to Too Human to Splinter Cell: Conviction to L.A. Noire, have been followed by some controversy. Be they unfulfilled expectations or unrealised potential, one of the more successful vapourware titles to materialise was Alan Wake, though not without its share of praise and criticisms.
However, for what Alan Wake may have lacked in the initial ambition that it had touted upon announcement, it was a unique and focused title that delivered one of the most interesting and immersive stories and relatable sets of characters of the current generation. So what if the game was a little linear or the combat was a little simple? Contextually, it all worked quite well and didn’t take away from the thriller or survival element from the game, to provide a wholly compelling experience.
Given the way that the game finished, and how it was supplemented by two DLC add-ons – The Signal and The Writer – this download only follow-up (possibly sequel?), Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, is a fascinating prospect. It’s almost as if it’s a bit of a ‘pilot’, attempting to see whether there is just enough interest out there to continue the franchise, but at the same time it provides enough to finish off things on a satisfying note (even if it does seem a little too good to be true…). Either way, it’s still a superbly written and compelling title that provides a unique experience.
Titular character, Alan Wake, is still stuck grappling with the darkness, and has for the last two years been tormented by his doppelganger known as Mr Scratch (onomatopoeia for ‘blank’), a being hell bent on using the whole of his dark side. Prior to hitting fame, Alan had worked as a writer on a (fictional) show known in his world as ‘Night Springs’, and uses his past writing experience on this show as an ‘out’ from this nightmare. You’ll get the most complete picture if you’ve completed all of the original game and both DLC add-ons. Despite the more condensed nature of the experience, the story is still fully formed and superbly written – you won’t know the full picture until you get to the end, but there is still enough to have you pondering…
Built on the same foundations of the previous game, American Nightmare still shines in all the right places. Graphically, it’s still distinct and it’s topped off with brilliant voice acting and some of the most endearing use of licensed music in gaming. The gameplay may be simple, but it’s that simplicity that allows it to rely on the skill of the player to survive, but doesn’t need you to be a sharp shooter. It feels loose but works intuitively well, keeping the action fluid and the player on their toes. There are light puzzle solving elements, and with the structure of this title, they reflect the themes of the game well. The most endearing aspect of the game is the discovery of story through missing manuscript pages, the live action FMVs where Mr Scratch is masterfully realised, and the radio shows keeping Alan in tune with what’s happening in the ‘real world’. It’s a fascinating world.
Some of the changes to the formula though don’t do the game any favours. They certainly don’t break the game, but they don’t make it any better. Rather than playing out in a straight line, the three environments that you’ll discover and work through give you more space to explore. For epitomising the concept of a writer stuck in his own stories it works superbly, but in terms of gameplay, it can often feel like a glorified key hunt. The enemy ferocity has been ratcheted up a bit, and to compensate for this, you’re provided with a lot of new weapons and more ammo than you know what to do with. And by never needing to be frugal with ammo, the game loses its edge and need for survival. That, and the new spider enemies are pretty terrible. They add nothing to the game other than a distraction.
The story lasts somewhere between four to five hours, and it’s an ideal length for what’s on offer. However, the Arcade mode that has been added to the game is quite a good addition. Akin to the ‘Mercenaries’ mode from Resident Evil 4, you’re tasked with surviving waves of enemies till dawn while building up your multiplier and aiming for the highest score possible. What makes this mode endearing is that it relies on genuine skill and mastery of the simple flash-then-shoot mechanics. There is no fluff; just you, some guns, some ammo and some very aggressive and numerous enemies. It’s refreshing to play without any superfluous and gimmicky power-ups. And getting the highest scores will be a true test of the player’s mettle and ability to balance avoiding attacks, while managing counter attacks, ammo reserves and item/weapon drops.
On its own, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare provides great follow up to the underrated and unique experience of the original. The story is even tighter and sharper than the original, and provides a fascinating examination of the character and his internal struggle. It fits the arcade status very well by providing a good gaming experience, but with none of the excess fat. Some of the gameplay additions are either superfluous or do nothing to add to the game, but the skill demanding arcade mode makes up a lot for the deficiencies there. Otherwise, regardless of whether or not this turned out to be an experiment to gauge the mileage of the series, the developers and writers have produced something quite unique. The ‘show’ really could end here or continue on…