Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Review: Alan Wake's American Nightmare (Xbox Live Arcade)

The original Alan Wake was released in 2010 and was met with a mixture of positive critical reviews and a somewhat lukewarm reception from gamers. As a third person shooter with horror elements that were equal parts Stephen King and Twin Peaks, it provided a fun story-driven experience with a haunting atmosphere that kept you on your toes the entire time. Nearly two years later, we have been given Alan Wake's American Nightmare, a downloadable title that is not so much a sequel but rather an episodic mini-game that connects loosely to the original. While it lacks the immersive story of the original and seems to end just as it gets interesting, there is still enough substance here to appease the Alan Wake fans who have been hoping for more of the same.

Two years on from the events in the first Alan Wake, we find ourselves playing as Alan in an episode of the Night Springs TV show, a Twilight Zone-esque supernatural drama that was prominently featured in the first game. The premise is that Alan must fight the darkness to stop his evil doppelganger, known as only Mr. Scratch, from continuing his killing spree. Throughout the game, Alan meets various people around the Arizona town where he has landed and works to bring light to the down and drive away the darkness. All the while, Mr. Scratch taunts Alan by showing up in various TV programs, often in the process of killing his victims, and occasionally in person. The premise is fairly simple and each scene is book-ended by a narrative by Alan, sometimes highly descriptive and other times frustratingly cryptic. The story never soars above this premise and it feels weak compared to the original, however the smartly-written dialogue makes up for this somewhat. For those who have not played the original Alan Wake, there is a dearth of expository dialogue and absolutely no recap of what happened previously. As such, newcomers will be less likely to get the full enjoyment out of this game and it seems to be largely aimed at fans of the original. 

Alan Wake's American Nightmare adopts the same fluid third-person shooter mechanics of the first game, with little deviation outside of a few new weapons. Your main enemy in the Alan Wake universe is the darkneess, which takes the form of poltergeists that assault you with environmental objects, as well the murderous "Taken", townspeople possessed by the darkness that assault you throughout the game. The light is their weakness, so your most vital tool is the flashlight that will break through their defenses. Once the darkness has been broken, your selection of pistols, shotguns, automatic weapons and the like are there to finish the job. One new addition to Alan Wake's American Nightmare is how the collection of manuscript pages affect the game. In the original, they were collectables that fleshed out the story, however they are now a requirement for unlocking new, more powerful weapons. This is more of an annoyance than anything, since nothing is more frustrating than finding a weapon drop and discovering that you lack the required pages. In some games, this is a fun way to encourage exploration but it is used to poor effect here.

The combat has a rhythm that feels familiar to fans of the original Alan Wake, but still maintains the same sense of tension and dread. Since the enemies are very strong and brutally accurate, effective use of your flashlight and weapons is essential to survival. As a protagonist, Alan may be a lot of things, but a quick and nimble superhero he is not. He is rather sluggish and easily-winded when running away from enemies, and getting him to move at a reasonable speed during the more intense moments is a bit of a struggle. This led to increased difficulty spikes in the original Alan Wake, however the difficulty in this game has been toned down considerably. Also detracting from the tension is the predictable placement of enemies, since your missions in this game boil down to fetch quests and guessing when the enemies will pop up is fairly easy. Higher-powered weapons and frequent re-spawning ammo drops ensure that death is a rare occurrence. Still, you can end up on the business end of an enemy's blade if you're not careful.

The story mode in Alan Wake's American Nightmare is fairly short, as one would expect from a budget-priced downloadable game. To add some replay value, we are also given a fun "Arcade Mode" that is akin to the Mercenaries mode in Resident Evil and the Horde mode found in the Gears of War series. It doesn't play as well as the aforementioned titles, however Arcade Mode is one experience in the game that is not to be missed. The goal is simple; survive waves of enemies for as long as you can hold out and rack up a high score in the process. You build up a score multiplier by effectively killing and dodging enemies, so this provides more opportunities for strategic combat than you might think. Since combat is one of the key strengths in the game, this is a fantastic addition and one that you will likely get the most enjoyment and replay value out of.

The original Alan Wake was a visually appealing game that used dark and light effects to build an effectively chilling atmosphere, however this feels dumded down in Alan Wake's American Nightmare. The new Arizona setting lacks the creepiness and sense of foreboding that Bright Falls had, and it ultimately feels bland and tired by genre standards. However, this is not to say that this is a bad game by any means. The graphics are still good and the character animation and cut scenes still convey the effectively creepy Twin Peaks vibe, however they lack the impact of the original game. The voice acting and soundtrack are also top notch, so the shortcomings mentioned above can easily be overlooked by some. 

Overall, Alan Wake's American Nightmare succeeds in a few areas and stumbles in others. As a downloadable game with a $15 price tag, it is easy to forgive the shortcomings and take it for what it is; a fun, albeit brief action/suspense adventure. The story mode itself will take around five hours to complete, while the arcade mode will definitely add some replay value. The story may be relatively weak and the difficulty and tension that made the first game so memorable has been toned down, however Alan Wake fans should be well serviced here. Now we can only hope for a proper sequel.

Rating: 7 out of 10

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