When we last left Alan at the end of the original game’s second DLC episode, things had gotten weird. Without spoiling anything for those of you who are just coming in now with the PC release, American Nightmare picks up a full two years later, and things still aren’t going great for poor Alan. He’s trapped, it seems, in a dark version of Arizona that may or may not be part of an old episode of Night Springs, the television show he was lucky enough to work on early in his career. His doppelganger, the evil Mr Scratch, is busy creating havoc in both the ‘real’ world and the one Alan is stuck in, while Alan once again deals with the ‘Taken’, enemies engulfed in darkness that only he can dissipate.
While the first game’s most obvious television inspiration was Twin Peaks (which was all but required viewing if you wanted to fully understand the ending), American Nightmare takes many of its cues from The Twilight Zone, complete with a Rod Serling-esque narrator. Ultimately it’s probably not as elegantly or lovingly handled as the Night Springs episodes you encountered during the original game were, but the game’s warped corniness offers up a few great parodies of the show’s occasionally overwrought dialog.
Placing the events of American Nightmare in the wider Alan Wake continuity (assuming we get a sequel) is difficult, since the storytelling is a bit meandering and confusing, but the insight offered up by the various collectable manuscript pages, NPCs, radio shows and televised messages from Mr Scratch you’ll encounter are welcome. Alan, meanwhile, still clearly fancies himself as the next Stephen King, although the quality of his writing in the manuscripts doesn’t exactly match up. The series continues to be part loving ode to and part parody of various things, which melds with the serious action and plot far better than you’d expect.
American Nightmare is very similar to the original Alan Wake in most ways, albeit severely truncated and with a launch price of a mere 1200MS points, or about a fifth of what Alan Wake launched at. The game assumes you’ve played the original (which you definitely should have, it’s excellent), and that you don’t need all the mechanics or story elements outlined for you. Before launch, Remedy stated that this iteration of Alan Wake would have a much stronger focus on action over story, and indeed it does – despite all the aforementioned framing devices, the balance between shooting stuff and getting involved in Alan’s woes has shifted quite a bit. Even the focus on using light to your advantage has been eased up, despite the need to douse most enemies in your flashlight’s beam before you can take them down. There’s only one type of flashlight in the game, you’ll rarely need to replace your batteries (they’re perhaps emphasised less because Energizer dropped their product placement), and there are far less scenarios where you can lure your enemies into traps involving light. It’s a shame, because Alan’s ability to make the most of his environment used to be one of his greatest assets.
On the weapon side of things, Alan’s arsenal has been upgraded substantially. One of the game’s best moments comes early on when you find a nail gun and, if you’re anything like me, go about re-enacting the opening nail gun scene from Happy Gilmore. Finding manuscript pages scattered throughout the game gives you access to more weapons in both the story mode and the arcade mode (more on that later), ranging from various pistols and shotguns to assault rifles, SMGs, and even an awesome crossbow that takes out most enemies with a single hit. Alan can run more than a few meters without getting winded now, which is handy in most combat scenarios, and performing a perfectly executed dodge is as satisfying as ever.
This is all well and good, but American Nightmare was designed to be a slight experience rather than a fully-fledged instalment. The reality of its content deficit doesn’t really sink in until you hit the halfway point and everything loops back in on itself, forcing Alan to revisit the relatively small locations you’ve just travelled through again. There are only three locations to explore, each of which you’ll visit three times, and none of them are particularly exciting. The first area, which encompasses an oil rig, a motel, a diner and the surrounding desert areas, is the only one that actually gets you to check out a new part of the map on your second run through it, although by the third go you’ve seen everything and the game hustles you through impatiently. You don’t end up doing a whole lot aside from shooting bad guys over and over again, and there’s nothing to rival the brilliance of the sound stage battle in the original, nor the section in Hartman’s clinic.
American Nightmare is also super easy. It’s bizarre that there are no options to increase the difficulty in this one – it’s easier than Alan Wake was on its default difficulty, so anyone who played through the original on its harder settings will be able to finish this in their sleep. At no point in the game did I even come close to running low on ammo, and my Flare Gun (the most powerful weapon in the game) barely ever crept below full ammo. None of the new enemies really require you to change your tactics, and some of the more tenacious and troubling foes from the original game have sadly been excised.
Thankfully though, American Nightmare has an arcade mode, labelled ‘Fight Till Dawn’, for those of us who like our games to have a little more bite. And though many will download the game purely to continue Wake’s adventures, it’s this portion of the game that really shines. Mixing together elements of Resident Evil’s ‘Mercenaries’ mode and the ‘Horde’ mode featured in every single game released after 2008, Fight Till Dawn is all about fighting… until dawn. Enemies attack in waves, and you earn higher score multipliers by killing a lot of Taken and dodging their attacks – your multiplier drops off should one of them hit you. Once you hit your time limit, the sun comes out and kills any enemies that remain.
The five levels all give Alan Wake’s excellent combat engine a little room to breathe, and managing assaults from all sides, aiming for big multipliers and high scores, is addictive fun. Learning the weapon layout of each level and when to use your more powerful tools adds a level of strategy to proceedings that is missing from the story mode. It probably won’t hold your attention for as long as some of the modes from other games it’s emulating, especially without a co-op option, but this is a budget release, and you’ll get your money’s worth.
It’s easy to praise American Nightmare for what it is, but it’s also hard to ignore what it’s not: the proper Alan Wake sequel we’re clamouring for. It’s a game constrained by form, obviously meant as a stopgap in which Remedy can test out a few new ideas without having to craft an entire new game around them. Diving back into the darkness with Alan Wake is still a pleasure, but the package is saved by the fun ‘Fight Till Dawn’ mode, rather than through the traditional Alan Wake flavour we’ve developed a taste for. If you loved the original game you’ll want to give it a play, but don’t expect an improved experience.