The story is shakey, but the gameplay is MUCH improved.
2010's Alan Wake was critically acclaimed for it's well written storyline, beautiful visuals and the well-polished gameplay driving the narrative forward. It's introduction of an episodic approach to storytelling combined with light-versus-dark gameplay meant that Alan Wake was one of the more notable games of the year. Yet at the same time, the game was criticized for being too repetitive, featuring a limited number of enemy types and a small arsenal of weaponry. The sales for the game weren't particularly fantastic either, being a new IP released on the same day as six other major games. And since then, Remedy have been fairly quiet...
...Until now. Alan Wake's American Nightmare hopes to bring an array of new fans to the series by being released on Xbox Live Arcade, while also pleasing old ones by being a new entry in the series. By introducing a much larger array of weaponry and a number of new enemy types, Remedy has hoped that American Nightmare can respond to the cricisisms of the original. But does it manage to stand alone as a great spin-off to the original? Or is it forced to forever live in Alan Wake's shadow?
Immediately from starting up the game for the first time, it is clear that American Nightmare has stronger production values than AW. The introduction of live-action cutscenes means that the original's issue of lip synching is practically non-existent here, and it adds to the new "pulp" mood of the spin-off. The HUD elemenets seem more polished as well, with the option to add a "Fade Out" effect REALLY helping the immersion of the game. Even the voice acting seems improved at times, with a Rod Sterling-like narrator sounding brilliantly over-serious.
Yet these elements are accompanied by a radical change in the approach to the story. No longer is there a large cast of likable characters with clear development arcs right through to the last hour of gameplay. No more are the interesting mysteries or questions that are raised, being slowly but surely revealed and answered over the course of the gameplay. Instead, a basic premise is what the game sticks with - you find yourself in Arizona and you have to defeat Mr. Scratch, your evil doppelganger, and stop the Dark Presence from spreading any further.
And unless you look underneath the surface, that is all you find. No context to this situation Alan finds himself in is given, nor why the Dark Presence is in Arizona, or what the importance of three women you encounter over and over again is. The only way in which you can discover any of the reasoning for this is by finding vague clues in the manuscript pages. Not only are they vague, but only when you have every manuscript page can you piece them together, in order to find clear, direct links to the original game.
The story is not exactly bad in American Nightmare. In fact, it works well on it's surface and you can proceed without having to look for the manuscripts to understand what is happening. But the fact that you have to actively search for answers in terms of context, explanation or links to the original game (through the manuscripts, TV videos and radios) rather than have it explained to you, means the story feels more disjointed and less well-connected. This may have been an attempt on Remedy's part to allow for newcomers to easily jump into the story without any experience to understand what is going on, while also letting fans of the original have an enjoyable extension of the franchise's general story. Which is understandable. But the clarity of the narrative suffers, as doesthe established mythology set out by the original game. And so unfortunately, the story becomes weaker as a whole.
The game is built upon the same graphics engine as the original game, and it shows. It looks fairly similar to the original game - slightly waxy looking character models and overall average texture work, yet with some stunning lighting effects. But along the way there have been some minor improvements to the engine that make a BIG difference.
As shown in this Digital Foundry article, the frame buffer size being increased makes everything look sharper and clearer on the whole. The smoke effects as well look generally better, with the particle effects looking particularly good too. The most striking thing about the visuals from the get-go is the changedcolor palette. The change in location from the Pacific North-West to Arizona means the visuals switch from a black-blue look to a red-brown look, with the bright neon lights of the diner changing up the palette even more. It helps make the spin-off feel more unique and separate to the original game, and once more could be seen as helping it stand up on it's own.
Not only does it look notably better than the original game, but American Nightmare is an XBLA release. It easily has one of the best visuals for an XBLA game ever, and so the visuals are easily on-par with the original game.
The sound design is similarly on-par with that of the original game. The weapon sounds have some real weight to them, there's some nice atmospheric sound effects that start playing when the Taken arrive and the sounds for the Taken themselves are suitably moody and serious, especially the distorted vocals they all share. The voice acting is one again great across the board, with the aforementioned Twilight Zone-like narrator being particularly great. No real gripes with it other than the fact that I thought the newly introduced characters were a bit stereotypical. They all did a great job playing their roles, but while the roles were wll-written they were still stereotypes with nothing particularly memorable about them.
The soundtrack is comparably excellent and is once more on par with the original game. The use of Club Foot by Kasabian during a particularly AWESOME moment fits in really well with the gameplay and it adds to the experience experience. It's just a shame that you get numbed to it after doing it 3 times. Once again Poets of the Fall return to contribute some songs for the game, and once more they manage to pretty much define the soundtrack of the game. The fact that there are some new Old Gods of Azgard tracks makes this fact all the more great. It really helps make the soundtrack for AWAN all that more unique and identifiable.
Thankfully this is the area in which AWAN really shines. The gameplay here is MUCH improved over the original game. The number of weapons have been increased exponentially, yet they are all extremely satisfying to use with no single weapon being more powerful than the other. They are all suitable for different situations. The shotguns, for example, are great when you are fighting the tougher Taken variations, while the Nail Gun is great for when you have to deal with crowds of enemies. The M16 rifle is similarly great for that situation. But they are all equally as much fun to use, and so having more toys to play with already makes the gameplay that much stronger.
Not only is the gun variety greatly improved, but so are the enemy variations. The intoduction of "the splitter" and "the birdman" creates some of the most unique enemies in the franchise thus far, because they force the players to approach them in radically different ways than they could before. They directly challenge the core light versus dark gameplay, and so the player has to think dramatically differently in terms of how to defeat them. Not to mention they have to worry about all the same enemy types from the original game. You usually have to fight much larger numbers of enemies than the original game, and they are thrown at you a LOT more frequently than the original. This creates a hectic feel that really makes the player wants to keep pushing the story forward, rather than having moments of down-time like the original game did. They still exist, of course. They just last 30 seconds or less this time around.
If it were for these two elements alone, the gameplay would have gotten a 9.0 by now. But unfortunately it is let down by repetitive level design. The original game had many memorable moments throughout because of the variation in set-pieces, with at least one of these moments per chapter. And American Nightmare has a few of these great moments as well. The problem? These moments all happen in the space of two hours. And then you are asked to play through it twice more, with slight variations. There is a fairly good narrative reason for doing this, yet it doesn't change the fact that you essentially do the same things 3 times in a row. And so naturally, the gameplay suffers as a result.
Lasting Appeal: 8.0/10
Once more, this is an area in which American Nightmare has managed to greatly improved over the original game. I haven't even mentioned "Fight Til' Dawn" mode, have I? It is Alan Wake's equivelant of Horde Mode. You choose a level, and then you are given 10 minutes to survive against waves of enemies, until the sun rises. There are weapons and health packs scattered around the world to help you survive, and you're scored depending on how you do (there's a multiplier for killing enemies without taking damage). It's great if you're looking for a quick burst of Alan Wake gameplay, which is exactly what it is. There's also global leaderboards as well as a star rating for every level, giving you more incentive to come back and play through it again and again.
The collectibles from the original game return also, but with one key difference - they all add something to the narrative. They are essential if you are trying to find links to what happened between this and the original game, so you are given a genuine reason to go through the single player campaign all over again to collect them all. As a result American Nightmare has many more reasons to play through it again compared to the original, and so it has much better lasting appeal than the original also.
Final Score: 8.5/10
While it may not be able to match the original in terms of story presentation, Alan Wake's American Nightmare shows that it's a step in the right direction. The gameplay has been made that much more enjoyable thanks to the variety in gameplay and enemy types, and the use of the "Fight Til' Dawn" mode really helped make it much more replayable. And on the whole, the game is still heaps of fun and is still very unique (especially for an XBLA release).
If Remedy manage to carry across these lessons into a full sequel and return to their episodic storytelling format, they may have a real combination on their hands. Here's to hoping!