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Alan Wake’s American Nightmare Review (XBLA)

by GaryTun

After his debut as a disc based retail release, followed by several chunks of DLC, the story of writer Alan Wake now takes an unexpected turn that could be straight out of one of his very own schlock novels. Arriving on XBLA, the latest outing for the troubled author, titled American Nightmare, carries on from the end of the previous titles, meaning anyone hoping to just pick up the game without any prior knowledge of the series will be completely and utterly lost.

In fact it continues straight on from last piece of DLC, with Alan tracking down his doppelganger Mr Scratch, the embodiment of the evil that seems to plague him at every turn. After almost losing his mind but managing to regain some modicum of control, Alan has managed to push through into a separate reality – one inhabited by the Night Springs universe from the TV series that he helped create. Now going on the offensive for a change, Alan decides to employ reality altering methods to try and defeat the darkness, forming the basis for the puzzles found in the game. The player must find various items and complete different tasks to complete these objectives and, after the stream overly of similar settings found in the original releases, there’s a real sense that the developers have been able to loosen the reigns a bit and play around with some different ideas that didn’t fit before.

This is no more evident than during the games first puzzle, which involves causing a satellite to fall out of the sky to bring about some wholesale destruction. It might be rather random, but it’s also totally indicative of this new found sense of freedom. In the Night Springs universe there’s a dramatic change to everything from the scenery to the general tone of the game. Gone are the darkened forests and log cabins which the first overdosed on, replaced with open Nevada desert filled with motels, diners and observatories. The sense of foreboding is still there thanks to the use of light and dark and other sinister elements, but the changes makes it feel refreshed. Undeniably this is also helped by a graphics engine which has clearly been given a noticeable boost since the original.

Even the Twlight Zone-esque narration contributes to this new found `pulp` feeling and there’s some nice dialogue contained in the game. It’s the kind of wry stuff that was generally confined to Alan’s sidekick (and publisher) Barry Wheeler during the first game, but commendably it occurs far more regularly here, and often from Wake himself, making him eminently more likable.

Overall there’s an undeniable polish to American Nightmare which you’d expect from a larger developer like Remedy. As with the original, there’s some clever use of music with even the overused `Club Foot` by Kasabian being put to good use at one point. It’s hard not be enamored with the flow of it all, cemented together by the fact that it just feels so well built for an XBLA title.

Naturally alongside the puzzles the game has also received a slight overhaul in its combat, the other core element of the Alan Wake experience. The changes are generally quite subtle, such as allowing access to more powerful and varied weaponry (including sub-machine guns and industrial nail guns). Or even Alan’s head turning to the side if an enemy is flanking you unseen.

Crucially there’s also more variation in the enemies and, while the darkness possessed Taken are still the main fodder, there’s some nice twists to keep you on your toes. One particular enemy requires a distinct change of tactics as shining your flashlight on them (usually a prerequisite to strip the darkness shielding from assailants in order to shoot them) actually causes them to keep multiplying. Throw these into a pack of traditional enemies and it requires a bit more thought and precision to prevent yourself from being over-run.

The main game itself is not particularly long and there’s a bit of padding due to backtracking to locations, something that is disappointing given how this seemed like the perfect opportunity to run riot with lots of different ideas. Even with this element of bulking out, anyone expecting something the same length as the original will be bitterly disappointed, but it still feels longer than the DLC pieces.

Completionists will certainly enjoy extending their playtime by tracking down all the manuscript pages and this time around they can be used to unlock more powerful weapons. For those looking for even more long-term value, there is an Arcade styled Hoard mode called `Fight Till Dawn` which pits Alan against waves of enemies on a timer. Keep your score multiplier going and survive till the timer runs out (causing the sun to come up) and there’s a chance to post your score on the leaderboards, adding a competitive element to a game which you wouldn’t think lends itself to having one.

American Nightmare might be a stand alone release, but much like Capcom’s Dead Rising Case Zero and Case West, there’s still that lingering doubt that you’re just playing some cleverly put together DLC that doesn’t require the disk to play. That’s not to say it’s an unpleasant experience, far from it, but it’s undeniably an odd feeling that takes a little while to get your head around. And then there’s the questions it raises over just how downloadable content will be handled in the future…

Regardless of this, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare feels like fresher, polished version of the last game that the fans will love. While they’re sure to lap it up, even those who are indifferent to the series will be hard pressed to deny this feels like Remedy pulling out all the stops to correct the issues people had with the first game.

However be warned that if you’d had your fill of the series by the time you reached the end of the original stand alone release then, despite the refinements found here, this will probably do little to reinvigorate your interest.