How could a game like Alan Wake be expanded upon? While it wasn’t a completely self-contained story, allowing for DLC packs and extra content, there seemed to be no other place for the series to go. With its setting explored, its environments taken in and its atmosphere experienced, what could Alan Wake have next? Remedy Studios seems to have found inspiration in the most unlikely of places…
Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, a downloadable spin-off of the first game, takes place in a much pulpier setting, discarding the blue tinged forest environments of Bright Falls for the red soaked deserts of Arizona. With a feel more reminiscent of Grindhouse than Stephen King, the setting shift seems to set the story further away from the intellectual, literary motif of the first game and into the wild and twisted machinations of Quentin Tarantino. Will the game’s modest downloadable platform and radical shift from previous themes prove to be a good move? Or should this entry be scratched from the record? Check out the HOTs and NOTs of Alan Wake’s American Nightmare.
Natural Approach To Storytelling
Alan Wake has its roots in story telling, being almost embarrassingly close to becoming a Stephen King alternate universe. The first game maintained a healthy balance between action, cutscene and interactive story segments, but never found a way to marry the three concepts. American Nightmare takes the spotlight off of its story segments and, in the process, becomes more compelling. Alan Wake takes the broader story concepts and makes them the objective of the game, rather than letting small details take over, or in other words, the gameplay becomes the story. Optional segments such as radio shows and the occasional video recording from American Nightmare’s villain ‘Mr. Scratch’ manage to be compelling to watch and listen to while simultaneously fleshing out Alan Wake’s setting. Keeping the cutscenes down to a minimum, this approach allows for setpiece moments and small optional breaks from the action to bring color to its world and create a more conducive approach to the game’s progression.
One of the biggest complaints about the first Alan Wake was the game’s repetitive combat and it’s an issue that’s been thoroughly addressed. While little is introduced in terms of game mechanics, the tedium is mollified by varying setpieces and events and a wider range of enemies to fight. Remedy hasn’t reached a completely perfect formula for an eternal action game, it’s enough to carry a smaller, stand alone download title such as this one and carry it sufficiently until the end of the game. What’s more is that while the tension-stealing camera cut-aways to show incoming enemies are certainly still present, they’ve been toned down and the atmosphere is much more menacing and immersive as a result.
Faithful To The Original In Core Concepts
What would one expect from a downloadable, full-3D spin off of a full retail release game? It’s been attempted before to varying degrees (i.e. the downloadable Dead Rising games), but Alan Wake manages to truly make American Nightmare feel like an Alan Wake game instead of a chopped, hackneyed version of a full game. The controls transition smoothly, the atmosphere returns, varied but keeping up the high standard that the original set and becoming a well-wrought, balanced package. With an appropriate length, if not on the shorter side, the asking price slapped on this 5-6 hour Arizona tour with Remedy’s personal touch behind it, the game feels full and complete.
Alan Wake’s original design was entirely linear, moving from chapter to chapter down a prepared, straight and well designed dirt road. American Nightmare, in order to save space and file size to make it on to the Xbox Live Arcade, takes three large environments and forces the players to explore and trek through larger and more exploratory areas. What this effectively does, in the overall game design, is shift the focus not from scene and setting but to event, allowing for a greater focus on what’s happening, rather than copy-pasting a dirt road just for the same thing to happen as the last copy-pasted dirt road. Certainly none of the three areas could be described as sandboxes by any stretch of the imagination, but the game never draws attention to the edges and invisible walls of these desert areas so a feeling of emptiness and darkness seems to pervade the horror and general feel.
To accommodate the game for the downloadable market, the game took a pretty meaty swan-dive in quality of graphics but makes up for the downgrade with an impressive lighting system and smart texturing. The biggest downgrade, however, is in the faces of the characters. Most of the game is spent in dark areas, watching Alan Wake’s plaid speckled back shooting darkness with a flashlight, when he makes it into a light source and speaks to one of the games three female supporting characters, both Alan and the lady of the hour feel as though they came straight out of a budget Playstation 2 title. Perplexingly, a lot of attention is pulled toward these segments and often the player will get locked into a dialog segment and be stuck watching the stiff, unreal mouth movements of the characters and picking at small gaffs in the game’s graphic engine.
Varying Voice Acting
While the villain, Mr. Scratch, steals the show with his believable live-action segments and fantastic dialog, and Alan Wake’s dialog is read at least competently if not a little monotone in nature, none of the three women give a completely believable performance with the arguable exception of the mechanic woman at the motel. They deliver their lines without any sort of relatable twinge, urgency or realism and at the worst of times can bring the player out of the experience and put a damper on the game’s story… speaking of which…
While the story telling has improved significantly, the actual story the game is attempting to tell feels lackluster and not entirely present. It’s obvious there’s a lot the game is trying to tell, but it refuses to let the player in. While players of the original may understand what’s going on, it’s still stiff and not much effort is being afforded to taking the time to sit the player down and say what’s happening. Alan may understand the dark world around him and how he could possibly attempt to snuff out the evil that roams the eternal night, but when satellites are called down from space and time starts resetting itself, you’ll still be left in the dark.
Alan Wake’s American Nightmare manages to exceed all expectations by actually addressing issues from the first game and managing to turn a tuned-down, fifteen dollar game into a complete package. The game certainly has its share of missed opportunities and let downs, but as a whole, there’s not a lot of risk to be taken in purchasing this gritty reinterpretation of the original psychological action thriller title. It’s value and setpiece moments will carry the experience and weave an interactive tapestry of a dark, haunted Arizona. It may be over as soon as it started, but you’ll enjoy what you were given. You may even ask for seconds.
[Editor’s Note: Alan Wake’s American Nightmare was reviewed on the Xbox 360 hardware. The game was provided to us by the publisher for review purposes.]Alan Wake's American Nightmare Review,