Fetch me a dream, Mr. Wake
Alan Wake--both the game and the titular hero--has an identity problem.
The original 2010 retail game had a promise of chills that few games rivaled. The darken outback of the Pacific Northwestern woods perfectly coupled Alan Wake's tale of supernatural dread and reality distortion. Unfortunately, the actual action-centric gameplay completely unwound any and all suspense or horror conjured up by over-adequately equipping players with supplies, ammunition and slow motion camera pans. Never once did you feel helpless against the otherworldly forces of darkness; which went in the face of everything the story was attempting to communicate. That's not to say these two opposing concepts were poorly done. In fact, both elements were, at least mechanically, well executed. But taken as a whole, Alan Wake felt like two clashing games sparring for supremacy.
Alan's journey through blurring reality continues in the downloadable entry Alan Wake's American Nightmare.
Continuing the episodic nature of the core game, American Nightmare does an amicable job of weaving it self-referential plot into the overarching fiction of the series. Stylized as an episode of Night Springs--the fictional Twilight Zone homage/loving parody seen as brief FMV collectibles inside the retail game--American Nightmare follows Alan as he awakens in a dusty Arizona oil town under siege by Alan's evil doppelganger, Mr. Scratch and all swarms of possessed inhabitants known as The Taken. Familiarity with the Alan Wake story is a must considering how entrenched American Nightmare is in call-backs from the previous entries in the series. This is not a good place to start following Alan Wake, though the collectible (and thankfully easier to find) Maniuscript Pages scattered in game may help flush out the backstory to wandering neophytes.
With the faux-televsion credits scroll at the start of the game and the Rod Serling-like monologues between level loads, American Nightmare tells it's story with fashion. While the premise starts promising and fresh thanks in no small part to the drastic change in scenery and clever dialogue between Alan and the partly number of friendly NPCs, American Nightmare takes a few unfortunate turns for the worse.
Through a narrative device, which I will not spoil here, Alan is forced to revisit the same three locations numerous times. While the plot point in question certainly fits within the spectrum of the Alan Wake fiction, this does not make the game any less monotonous.
The first time this event happens, I rested assured that Remedy would spice up the second visit through the three sets with quests that broke the fetch quest mold of my first visit. I was wrong. I sighed out of relief the second time I approached "the end" situation thinking this must be it. At this point American Nightmare was a bit overlong, but still a half-way decent way to spend the majority of three hours.
Then American Nightmare rewound back to the beginning yet again.
I nearly threw my controller in absolute disgust.
As mentioned before, this tedious structure would have been a great deal more digestible if the tasks within each environment did not boil down to mere fetch quests. The goals required to pass each section remain concrete regardless of the number of visit. Admittedly, the game does shorten the amount of time a player spends hunting down trinkets around the three environments considerably each visit and the story justification for this leads to some fantastic navel-gazing discussions of reality and persistence of consciousness. The fact that each of the three different locations only feature two or so points of interest with one NPC nestled away among dead space makes the fatigue of repetition sink in fast.
Perhaps knowing of the shortcomings of the plot, Remedy has been billing American Nightmare as a "combat focused" expansion of the Alan Wake universe. As a direct result of this, American Nightmare feels much more "game-y" and less immersive than the boxed Alan Wake. Ammunition and batteries are plentiful thanks to infinite ammo supply caches--which are conveniently located near the sites of all major showdowns. The two pronged gunplay of Alan Wake remains unchanged in this downloadable outing; shine a bright light on an enemy until they are vulnerable then pump them full of lead until they ragdoll into disintegration. Rinse and repeat. Things can still get momentarily intense when grossly outnumbered, but the frequency of health regenerating checkpoints, area clearing flares and vast supply of bullets makes American Nightmare too easy. On the default difficulty, I did not meet an untimely end once. This crumbles any suspense or sense of prolonged dread that a more substantial difficult curve could have dealt to a player.
New to American Nightmare is the Arcade Mode which has Alan battling endless waves of The Taken until the cleansing rise of the morning sun. Everything I said about spitting in the face of the horror tone, times it by two. Even if you were to divorce my feelings about the conflict of horror and ability, the gameplay of Alan Wake wears thin quickly when it is as concentrated as Arcade Mode. The dedicated will be able to unlock all eleven venues for Arcade Mode fairly quickly and then battle for leaderboard domination against friends and citizens of Xbox Live. Manuscript Pages found within American Nightmare's campaign tally to unlock higher grade weaponry for use in Arcade Mode.
Speaking of collectibles--if you do decide to give American Nightmare a go--hunt them all down. Much like in Alan Wake, the bonus content found in each collectible is really worth you time. The FMV David Lynch-flavored taunts of Mr. Scratch found on each television set within the game world almost makes the 1200 Microsoft point (15 USD) ticket worth it.
Outstaying it's welcome by about fifty percent of it's run time, Alan Wake's American Nightmare is near impossible to recommend. The whole game feels woefully misguided. While far from perfect, Alan Wake had some great story threads and a few periods of uneasy while wondering alone in the shadow-laden woods. At very least these moments punctured the gunplay sections making the game flow nicely. These highs have been replaced with swarms of monsters, a score multiplier system, and a story that is creatively bankrupt. The product suffers greatly as a whole from these cocksure choices.
If this is what the inevitable Alan Wake 2 will look like, maybe Remedy should wake up.