In today's video game industry, the idea of a "sleeper hit" is almost laughable. Most quality under-the-radar games get their just due, whether it's through extensive games media coverage, ports and HD rereleases, or the increasing accessibility of indie and underexposed games brought by digital downloads. As such, the original Alan Wake stands as a not-so-secret gem in the Xbox 360 library. Though it might not be remembered for its gameplay, its quirky vibe that merged pulp mystery and horror-humor was utterly captivating. Despite some doubts that Remedy's latest IP would ever see another release, the now-franchise returns with Alan Wake's American Nightmare. Unfortunately, the game has made no great strides in the gameplay department, and to make matters worse, the game's story falls totally flat. Lacking playability and the soul that made its predecessor such a special title, American Nightmare is an uninspired game that isn't worth the time or money despite its $15 price tag.
The setting of Alan Wake's new reality-blurring adventure is the television show Night Springs, a program Wake used to write for but now finds himself trapped inside (or so I assume). Toward the end of the original game, the titular writer learned of the emergence of an evil doppelgänger known as Mr. Scratch, and in American Nightmare he hunts down his homicidal impostor before any harm can come to his loved ones. Taking him down won't be so simple, however, as Wake soon finds himself trapped in a time loop that forces him to repeat the same night over and over again.
It's this demented Groundhog's Day that ultimately proves to be American Nightmare's biggest problem. You'll be forced to relive the same night three times throughout your five hour adventure, completing the same steps over and over as you inch towards facing off with Mr. Scratch. The lack of objective variety alone makes this scenario rather mind-numbing, and the fact that the characters and plot are all bland and uninteresting (especially compared to the original) makes the journey that much worse. The nail in the coffin is the game's thoroughly unsatisfying endgame, which is far too abrupt to justify the repetitive campaign that precedes it.
The fact that the game lacks the charm that made its predecessor's narrative so engrossing is also hugely disappointing. The original Alan Wake used its convoluted plot to great affect, using its labyrinthine plot to introduce players to many great characters and set up numerous fun scenarios. American Nightmare does none of this; its new characters are all uninteresting, secondary sources of narrative such as radio broadcasts and television shows offer little meaning, and the game never explores its hero's psyche as much as it should. Alan Wake has always found himself caught between realities, and the original title did an excellent job of keeping you guessing as to whether or not he would find his way back to reality or sink deeper into the dark realm he found himself in. American Nightmare, on the other hand, asks you to take everything at face value, never once giving you any hints as to what's really going on with its protagonist's fractured existence along its main story track.
Luckily, manuscript pages make a return, and these collectibles hold the only interesting narrative you'll get in the entire game. These pages serve a few purposes from foreshadowing future events to recapping the original game, and most importantly, offering the smallest bit of insight as to what American Nightmare's plot is really about under the surface. There are an absolute ton of these pages scattered throughout the game's three environments, so those who are into hunting down hidden collectibles will surely get a kick out of tracking down all 53 of the hidden goodies. Manuscript pages also unlock weapons crates that further flesh out Wake's newly-expanded arsenal. No longer is he limited to the normal pistol, rifle and shotgun fare - nailguns, SMGs and even crossbows make Alan more dangerous than ever.
Though its rarely challenging (mostly thanks to the overabundance of guns and ammo), combat in American Nightmare is solid, and occasionally thrilling. Almost all of game's enemies are enshrouded in a darkness the makes them immune to firepower, so you'll have to pierce through their shadowy veil with a high-powered flashlight before delivering the killing blow with your weapon of choice. Its a simple formula, but it works well in building tension as enemies can close in on you quite quickly before you're even able to harm them. Though decent enemy variety and the occasional huge battle will keep you on your toes, the aforementioned lack of intensity really drags down American Nightmare's combat sequences. Most of the time you'll be facing off against only four or five enemies, and considering how powerful the new arsenal is, taking down your enemies will feel like a chore more than a white-knuckled struggle to survive.
American Nightmare features a whole secondary mode based around the game's combat mechanics, and though it avoids the campaign's pitfalls by cutting back on your armaments, it has its own fair share of issues. Fight Till Dawn is a spin on the wave defense mode that has been dominating multiplayer gaming for the past few years now. You'll be tasked with surviving for ten minutes, combating wave after wave of possessed foes in hopes of racking up a high score before dawn. The quintessential problem with this setup is that its three ways of dictating your performance in a round (the timer, the wave number, and the score) never come together to form a cohesive objective - if anything they all conflict with one another. Often I found myself wanting to face off with a more challenging wave of enemies, only to be inhibited by the game's ten-minute countdown. Though it does support a basic leader board, the disappointing lack of multiplayer makes the Fight Till Dawn mode feel like a real missed opportunity.
On a presentational level, American Nightmare is something of a mixed bag. The game's visuals are a bit underwhelming thanks to some jolting animations, supremely cheesy live-action cutscenes, and the overall lack of detail on offer due to the unrelentingly dark art direction. Still, there's rarely anything outright bad, and certain lighting effects are done quite nicely. The game's sound department, on the other hand, is of a consistently high quality. Creepy ambient sound effects, stylish narration, and licensed music are all used to great effect, and though there are a few poor performances, the voice acting is mostly spot-on. Though the graphics aren't all that impressive, its great audio design keeps the presentation from falling into the realm of mediocrity that the rest of the game does.
Though it's great to see a game like Alan Wake get a second chance, American Nightmare not only fails to expand on what made the original so great, but doesn't stand up as a quality title in its own right. The game's repetitive, time-loop premise is its most glaring flaw, but the throwaway story, sloppy visuals and lack of fun enemy encounters bog the experience down even further. The game's Fight Till Dawn mode does serve to alleviate some of the campaign's frustrations, but is riddled with problems of its own, namely the lack of focus and intensity that makes other survival modes so thrilling. Though there are a few things that American Nightmare does right, the bad far outweighs the good. The writer has entered a dark place indeed.
+Good audio presentation
+Solid combat mechanics
+Collectible pages offer some nice insights
-Combat scenarios are mostly dull
-Fight Till Dawn feels like a missed opportunity