zenogiasu's Alan Wake's American Nightmare (Xbox 360 Games Store) review

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A Hollow Campaign Partially Redeemed by Engaging Gunplay

Ditching the hoodie and blazer for a t-shirt and plaid get-up, Alan Wake returns for a downloadable sequel to his 2010 debut. American Nightmare is a far cry from the “psychological action thriller” that was his first game, opting to sacrifice horror for the sake of greater gunplay. Remedy made a good move by expanding upon the celebrated combat mechanics, but an overall lack of engaging content—exemplified by repetitive environments and an unexciting supporting cast—drags down the experience.

Taking place shortly after the original, American Nightmare tells the tale of the “Champion of Light” and his continuing struggle against the Dark World and its shadowy denizens. Leading these forces is Mr. Scratch, a sinister doppelganger who embodies the dark and perverse elements of the writer’s troubled ethos. Scratch is ever-present throughout the game, taunting you via pre-recorded TV broadcasts that allow the player to catch a glimpse into the twisted mind of your psychopathic nemesis. By establishing your antagonist right from the beginning, American Nightmare presents an immediately clear goal, and provides ample motivation to take down your lookalike—it gives you the drive to keep playing.

The problem is that the game needs this hook to keep you invested. By abusing a “time loop” concept, American Nightmare sends you through the same three small environments three times each, so the player has essentially seen everything the game has to offer before they’re even halfway through it. The greatest tragedy of this cop-out is that it really kills the atmosphere that the original perfected: you know what to expect when you’re trudging through the same level for the second or third time, and the tension simply disappears. Ultimately, the game fails to convince the player that sending Wake through these environments over and over again was a conscious design decision rather than a concession to the constraints of development time and budget.

What’s worse is that the environments themselves are occupied by dull characters who deliver bad writing with even worse voiceovers. Interactions are flat-out painful to listen to, and add little to the narrative. The eccentric personalities of the first game, like your lovably daft agent Barry Wheeler, or the retired rock gods Tor and Odin Anderson, are mostly absent, only gracing us with brief audio cameos in optional radio broadcasts.

What American Nightmare is buttressed by is its combat system, which is an expanded carryover from the first. You’re still illuminating and then gunning down enemies, but where the original had you scouring environments for makeshift weapons and batteries, American Nightmare arms you to the teeth with all manners of pistols, shotguns, and fully-automatic rifles. Collecting manuscript pages scattered throughout the Arizona sands grants you access to a growing arsenal of weapons to dispatch your foes with, and it’s also a smart way to expose players to the game’s more solid writing. Running low on ammo, batteries, or flares is never really a concern, so you end up trading the terror of scarcity for the satisfaction of point-blank headshots. The guns sound great too, providing a real punch every time you pull the trigger. The combat just feels good, and clearing a room full of the Taken with the soundtrack blasting driving rock music makes you feel like quite the badass.

To compliment this new emphasis on combat, a mode called “Fight ‘Till Dawn” drops you into an original environment and tasks you with surviving for ten minutes while fighting off waves of enemies. Complete with multipliers and high scores, this mode is free from the forced obligation to a weak story, and it’s where the game’s best component, its combat, really shines. There aren’t too many maps offered, but it’s both challenging and addicting, and provides a worthwhile distraction once you’ve completed the lackluster campaign.

If you’re looking for another chilling and atmospheric journey through the dark and unknown, you won’t find what you’re looking for in American Nightmare. This game is an action-oriented romp through a story and backdrop that are really just there for show, with mere lip service paid to any amount of genuine world-building. American Nightmare is damaged by an uninspired campaign, but its stellar combat system justifies a recommendation for anyone looking for a more unique fix of action.

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