Alan Wake is a man as mysterious as his first game, an enigmatic title that ended its long development with a release that was impressively ambitious. Of course, not all those ambitions were fulfilled, but the creepy adventure was successful at telling a story that left a dedicated audience clamoring for more. The writer’s second adventure (not necessarily a sequel) may be a smaller XBLA-exclusive downloadable, but Alan Wake’s American Nightmare builds wonderfully on everything the first game did so well. We just wish it didn’t have to repeat itself so often.
American Nightmare’s plot starts oddly enough, mostly due to the original title (and its downloadable epilogue) giving few answers and little closure. Taking place some time after the last game, Wake finds himself spit back into reality (or is it?) to chase after his evil double, Mr. Scratch (or is he?). This drops him in the arid desert of Arizona (or is it?) where he needs to use his reality warping powers of creativity to save himself and a trio of women he meets along the way (or does he?).
A mysterious air hangs over the entire plot, as you aren’t sure just how real everything is, or if Wake is merely trapped in a clever Twilight Zone homage called Night Springs. That conceit makes for a much different tone than the original, as the Stephen King-inspired grey emptiness of a quiet mountain town is replaced with a dangerous, rocky desert filled with enemies. Dense forests being replaced for big open spaces is one of the many ways AWAN differentiates itself from its predecessor.
The tone is also thankfully lightened compared to the (at times) too serious first game, as Wake’s hushed tones about the power of writing and other philosophizing have been mostly replaced for the better. The game is now narrated by the Rod Serling-type that introduced the Night Springs series, framing the adventure in an entertaining way. Even Wake’s voiceover for his manuscript pages are more pulpy and fun. As a result, there are fewer frights and disturbing moments, but this tonal shift mostly pays off for Wake.
Similarly, Wake’s interactions with other characters is improved too, as the once confused hero now knows his purpose and has many of the answers he once was fumbling for. The morose leading man, once unsure of so many things, knows what he’s fighting for and won’t give up so easily. It makes him more likeable, and thankfully this new clarity for Wake also means the game doesn’t have to waste as much time reintroducing concepts like the combat.
Story and the power of narrative are still paramount to Wake, but AWAN indulges itself by truly embracing its exciting gunplay. Gone is the awkward platforming and other strange diversions, as the main focus of the gameplay is blasting away a steady stream of the darkness-covered Taken that are lurking behind every rock and abandoned car. Much like the rest of the game, the gunplay is greatly improved by a renewed focus on fun.
Though some will miss the inventive use of words becoming reality from the previous title’s finale, the shooting is more engaging this time around, partly thanks to a deeper armory. Hunting rifles and automatics are replaced by combat shotguns and machine guns that fit with the pulp fiction vibe. You unlock new weapons based on how many pages you collect, giving more value to the plot-enhancing collectible. The battles are further enhanced by a number of new enemy types, including giants that split into smaller men when hit with the flashlight and a creepy fellow that transforms into a flock of birds when you least expect it. This variety keeps the combat interesting for the many times you’ll have to fight your way out of somewhere.
The already exciting shooting has been so improved upon that it’s easily good enough to support its own mode. Called Arcade Action, the wave-based single player side game drops the player into a map, seeing if they can survive the time limit, and how many kills can be racked up in that time. Its complete removal of any plot might rankle some Alan Wake fans, but this variation on Horde was a great extra that proves the franchise’s gameplay is strong enough to stand on its own if it has to.
Those same fans bothered by the lack of plot in Arcade Action will be similarly disappointed if they expect the equivalent of a dense novel in this downloadable. Much like its Twilight Zone inspiration, this tells a smaller story, a brief interlude in Wake’s bigger narrative. Yet, even understanding that concept, the story lets us down occasionally, mostly due to repetition and a reliance on fetch quests.
Wake is constantly running back and forth to complete very similar goals. Finishing these tasks occasionally borders on monotony while simultaneously revealing that each area is much smaller than it first appeared, at times diminishing our enjoyment of the setting. Each location gets reused extensively to lengthen the game, but it ends up periodically stretching the content a little too thin.
Alan Wake’s American Nightmare ends up being more inviting than ever to new players, with a clearer plot and goals. The game knows what it does well and highlights it instead of trying too many hit or miss concepts. Despite the sometimes limited scope of its world and objectives, it’s a great downloadable that hopefully will introduce a whole new audience to one writer’s unique world.