I can only imagine the design meeting went something like this:
“So, Alan Wake was Twin Peaks as written by Stephen King in the form of a spooky third-person horror shooter, but we need something new for the Xbox LIVE Arcade spinoff. Thoughts, anyone?”
“PROMOTION FOR THAT MAN.”
Seriously: one of the new enemies types consists of cat-sized spiders that burrow out of the ground, scuttle towards Alan, and leap at his face, and because no-one in their right mind would actually think this was a good idea on its own merits I can only assume this was put in specifically to try to terrify me.
See, I’m an arachnophobe. A huge arachnophobe, in fact, and I don’t mean I’m only scared of huge spiders. I only got through That Spider Bit in Limbo by playing for literally five seconds at a time, before carefully pausing and then doing something else until I’d worked up the courage to face the next five seconds. The less said about Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, or Thief, or that level in Darksiders the better. Despite this, the spiders in Alan Wake’s American Nightmare don’t bother me one bit.
In fact, nothing about the game is particularly scary. Remedy seems to have traded in Alan Wake’s creepy horror aspects for a focus on the action.
Things are still somewhat unsettling, I suppose; the game is framed (sort of) as an episode of Alan Wake’s excellent Twilight Zone parody “Night Springs,” although things have turned away from Stephen King horror towards cheesy grindhouse. There are two or three paper-thin characters to talk to, 50-odd manuscript pages to find (most of which, admittedly, aren’t hidden), a few radio shows to listen to, and some TV stations displaying enjoyably ridiculous live-action monologues from Alan’s evil doppelgänger, Mr. Scratch.
It’s just that after Alan Wake’s mysteries, dark forests, superb balance between safe daylight and dangerous night, and a general uneasy feeling of being hunted by something that entirely outmatches you, American Nightmare puts you in wide-open areas with a veritable arsenal at your fingertips after the first five minutes. I don’t recall any jump scares, or button-mashing to turn on lights while Taken charged me from behind. There was no tension about where enemies were about to spawn, or if I’d survive. Hell, I don’t think there was even one panicked dash for a well-illuminated Safe Haven, and those regular terrified sprints pretty much characterised Alan Wake for me. No: here, you’re very much in control. The fear is gone.
I suppose the wide-open areas bear a bit more explanation, so: American Nightmare has swapped out linear levels for three larger hubs, each of which is revisited several times over the four or five hours the game lasts thanks to a very contrived plot device that’s far too silly to go into. Each visit has roughly the same ultimate objective, although a few specifics change each time and you might even be forced into a new area or two. Thankfully, the levels don’t outstay their welcome too much: subsequent visits are over faster, which is pretty much exactly what you want by the time you reach them, and rocketing through the repeats means that the game doesn’t get bogged down and retains a degree of pacing.
With all of the above in mind, I’m pretty sure that most of the development efforts went into the action side of things. The fundamentals are basically the same: you shine your flashlight at enemies until the darkness protecting them burns away, and then you shoot them until they explode in a flash of light. Mixing things up are a variety of new weapons (unlocked, mostly, by gathering manuscript pages) and new enemy types, and the catharsis of finishing an enemy off after painfully waiting for your flashlight to make it vulnerable is just as pleasing as ever. The generally wider areas give you more space to move, though, and this in turn means that you rarely feel under heavy threat.
The story mode just feels like a weak effort. It’s nice to see what Alan’s been up to and get a little more explanation for what actually happened in the previous game, but until a true sequel appears it’s going to be hard to gauge how much the story in this actually matters, and – while new enemies and new weapons are certainly welcome – it’s really not the most gripping of games. A couple of nice setpieces, a good use of licensed music, and certainly highly polished, but lacking in mystery, horror, or any real excitement. Good combat, shame about everything else, only recommended to Alan Wake devotees. Four or five or out of ten, or something.
Except we can’t end the review there. Y’see, I’m pretty sure that the story mode isn’t actually the meat of American Nightmare – I think the story mode is just a side-dish to the real main course, which is the Arcade Action mode. You can have a look at it in the narrated video below, if you like.
Arcade Action is a single-player horde/timed survival mode that bears more than a passing resemblance to Resident Evil’s Mercenaries modes. Alan starts off in the middle of one of five maps with the bare minimum of items and the aim of surviving until the break of dawn which, luckily, is in 10 minutes. Considering the regularly spawning waves of enemies, though, survival depends on scouring the maps for guns, items, and ammo.
Different maps have different layouts, lines of sight, available weapons, and a markedly different feel. Each has a few basic weapons lying around, but you can also find crates containing more exotic firearms – assuming you played the story mode enough to find the required number of manuscript pages for each, at least.
And you know what? It works really well. By focusing solely on the combat – and particularly the new enemies and weapons – Arcade Action provides a suitably intense experience that lets you enjoy what is, honestly, the best part of this game, complete with panicked dodging, flare-lighting, and desperate shots to try to survive for just a few seconds longer. Just like Alan Wake’s combat should be, then.
Better still is the Nightmare mode which lets you replay the five maps with discrete waves removed, meaning that enemies spawn constantly. No more breather breaks to restock ammo or find another gun: after the first minute you’ll be fighting tooth and nail and it gets both difficult and exhilarating very, very quickly. In other words, the Nightmare mode is just like the trickier combats from the first game, particularly in terms of how much panic it can produce on short notice. It doesn’t have the spooky atmosphere, admittedly, but it certainly captures a lot of the things that seemingly disappeared between Alan Wake and the story mode of American Nightmare – like those panicked dashes to Safe Havens.
It’s fair to say that – without the unlockable characters, myriad enemies, vast number of weapons, or tricky decisions as to triggering bonus points and extra time – Arcade Action gets stale faster than Resident Evil 4’s Mercenaries mode, but it’s still an intense burst of highly replayable action that you can grab on XBLA for a tenner.
And that, for me, is enough to make Alan Wake’s American Nightmare a solid recommendation. If for some reason you didn’t like Alan Wake’s combat then there’s unlikely to be anything here for you, admittedly. However! If you did like the combat in the previous adventure, or if you simply want a cheap, downloadable version of Resi’s Mercenaries, then Arcade Action, at least, is well worth your money.
Oh, and Remedy? Less random spiders next time, please. For me.