Friday, March 23, 2012

REVIEW - Alan Wake's American Nightmare.



Beyond a few choice downloadable exclusives like Bastion and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, Alan Wake has the distinction of being the only Xbox 360 exclusive I actually really, really enjoyed.  It was far from perfect, but its strengths coalesced to a point that it remains the only disc-based game on the system I have any great affection for.

Alan Wake's American Nightmare, a fifteen-dollar, six-hour jaunt back to Wake's trippy, somewhat silly reality, is... actually a pretty great sequel, if you want to go so far as to call it that. American Nightmare retains what made Wake great, does a clever job of addressing (what I felt was) the original's greatest misstep, and stretches itself to a reasonable length for the money without over-extending on production costs by way of a canny structure and story that legitimizes that most vilified of gaming conventions - backtracking.

It feels just as lovely to play, trims the fat and offers the most enjoyable writing we've had from Remedy Entertainment since Max Payne 2 - because, like Payne, American Nightmare is at least consciously ridiculous.


In a nod to the cheesy soap operas that played throughout Max Payne and its sequel, Alan Wake would regularly see the character strolling by televisions playing Night Springs - Remedy's spoof of classic cheese-horror/sci-fi show The Twilight Zone - which is the setting for American Nightmare.  To repeat -  American Nightmare takes place within an episode of a Twilight Zone spoof show.

That is delicious - and it immensely strengthens the proceedings, when compared to the original's rather boring and very overwritten narration.  Don't get me wrong - there's still plenty of extraneous exposition, here - but now it's read by an actor aping the narration on The Twilight Zone, which makes the whole thing more than a bit tongue-in-cheek, and cranks the entertainment factor.

American Nightmare sees you exploring only three (nicely large) environments, which would be a weakness if the story (which I won't spoil) didn't play its particular riff on classic horror/sci-fi. With this amendment to its narrative technique and the wise adoption of a classic story structure, American Nightmare both addresses the original's greatest sin and excuses itself from a design trope which would have otherwise been profoundly disappointing.

Very clever.


Combat retains the easygoing, responsive and satisfying feel Remedy have been honing since the turn of the century.  After becoming comfortable with the properties of your weapons and how reliable the cinematic dodge maneuver is, the game does an excellent job of empowering the player and making them feel, for lack of a better word, badass.

There is an addictive rhythm - and a grim thrill - to burning the protective darkness from a foe with your flashlight before slapping them in the chest with a round of buckshot, scattering them to the breeze in a silhouette of burning embers.  New additions to your arsenal are hit-or-miss, but I rather enjoy the game's system of unlocking more powerful weapons based on how many pages of Wake's lost manuscript you've recovered.

The combat is slick, rewarding and still gorgeous to watch, and I never tire of the ping of a grenade pin as I toss a flashbang into a crowd of nightmarish hillbillies.  I fight with light!


Similar to last year's inFamous: Festival of Blood, American Nightmare is a pleasingly triple-A affair, with striking art direction, well-chosen music and an engine that's still very good-looking two years on.

There's just very little to be displeased about, here - beyond the hit-or-miss voice work and the seriously sub-par facial and cutscene animation.  It has a goodly sum of content for its price, production values which are well beyond par for a downloadable game, hugely enjoyable combat and writing that's often very entertaining.

Not the meatiest of entrees, American Nightmare remains a very well-chosen antipasto, which - while heavy on the cheese - is an improvement over the original in some very significant ways.  It's certainly primed my appetite to spend more time with Wake.


THE GOOD
  • very good graphics, excellent art direction and sound design
  • regularly entertaining writing - I liked the story
  • it takes place inside a Twilight Zone spoof
  • Remedy are really, really good at making third person shooters where you don't hide behind walls
  • I never get tired of shooting a dude and seeing him explode into sparks as if he were a vampire in Blade II
  • they got rid of Wake's tedious narration and replaced it with something that makes Wake a celebration of form, rather than a dimly realized recreation of one
  • a decent value for the money
  • the part with the oil field never gets old
  • makes me want to play more Alan Wake

THE BAD
  • crappy character and facial animation during cutscenes
  • you retread the same three environments a few times, but I didn't really mind
  • hit-or-miss voice work

THE VERDICT
Length aside, American Nightmare is actually a better Alan Wake than Alan Wake was. 

3 comments:

  1. that's good news. Survival horror needs all the help it can get at this point. and from what I've, been hearing about it's sales, this should hardly be the last we hear from Alan Wake.

    On a bit of a u turn here, I've been swooning over this little PC rougue-like "Dungeons of Dredmor" these last couple days.

    It's like a turn based Deamon souls meets monkey island and i love it to pieces.

    one of the best five bucks I've ever spent. Check it out.

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  2. Keep in mind that Alan Wake is "survival horror" in the same way Resident Evil 5 or Dead Space are survival horror. It's more a horror-action game that leans heavily on narrative.

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  3. yeah. . . I'll take what i can get

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