Remedy's Alan Wake was a surprise hit for Microsoft when it debuted on the Xbox 360 in the first half of 2010. Telling a story that was part "Twilight Zone" and part Stephen King, Alan Wake was a departure from the typical console action game. Dialogue was smartly written, the pacing mimicked a TV series, and the hero was a writer who fought the shadowy Taken with the power of words. After two DLC expansions, the franchise moves into its first stand-alone follow-up with Alan Wake's American Nightmare.
Despite saving his wife from the Dark Presence in the first game, it wasn't a total win for Wake. He had to sacrifice his own freedom and risk his sanity to ensure her safety. The two DLC expansions covered Wake's attempts to leave the dark place, all the while fighting off both the Taken and his twisted doppelganger, Mr. Scratch. American Nightmare picks up two years after the events of the first game, with Wake on the verge of returning to reality.
Escaping from the Dark Place, Wake finds himself in the town of Night Springs, Arizona. Although it appears to be the real world, the town is modeled after the in-game TV show that appeared in Alan Wake. Pursued into this assumed reality by both Mr. Scratch and the Taken, Wake must discover the truth of his situation in order to finally break free.
Gameplay in American Nightmare has a more action-oriented bent than its predecessors. The story is there as a backdrop, but it isn't the primary focus. This time around, the goal is squarely on providing fast action first and foremost, with the character development and tense moments coming in second. The change doesn't make for a bad experience, though it is different than what has come before.
As before, Wake's primary weapons are his flashlight and gun. The flashlight is used to disable the shield of dark energy that protects most Taken, while the gun finishes the job. Over the course of the game, you'll discover a number of different weapons, with the primary differences being stopping power, firing speed and magazine size. Plentiful ammunition caches encourage you to be liberal with your firepower. Unlike Alan Wake, there should never be an instance where you have to worry about wasting bullets — at least not in story mode.
Even though the pace has been sped up, combat keeps the same level of intensity. American Nightmare isn't shy about throwing enemies your way. Given that they can almost all run faster than Wake, turning tail isn't usually a viable option. Surviving combat is all about properly balancing use of the flashlight and your gun. Rely too heavily on either one, and you'll quickly be overwhelmed.
In an interesting twist, one of the new enemies doesn't shy from the light like the others. Instead, the Splitter splits into two whenever you hit it with your flashlight. Each set of new Splitters is weaker than the original; however, there is strength in numbers.
Lost manuscript pages also make a return as a collectible item. Easier to find than before, the manuscript pages are used to unlock access to more powerful guns. Each stage (both in the story mode and arcade mode) has the strongest weapons locked up in munitions cases. The only way to open a case is to have the required number of manuscript pages in your inventory. Most players should be able to collect all of the pages in a single run through the game.
Being a smaller title, American Nightmare only features three distinct areas in story mode, but it does a good job of making them feel fresh even as you replay them. The repetition is due to a plot element, which traps Wake in a time loop. Each time you go through the loop, Wake gets closer to the ultimate resolution. Think "Groundhog Day," except with supernatural elements.
Alongside the story mode, American Nightmare also features an arcade mode. Inspired by the survival style seen in Gears of War 3's Horde mode, arcade mode pits you against a never-ending stream of Taken. Dual goals of survival and scoring drive arcade mode.
With five different maps to explore, arcade mode changes up things by introducing a score multiplier. You can increase the multiplier by killing Taken as well as successfully dodging an attack. Get hit, and your multiplier resets. It makes for some interesting moments, as chaining a series of dodge moves can sometimes be a more prudent course of action than simply shooting everything in sight.
The only real disappointment in arcade mode is the fact that it is single-player only. A co-op option would have been a welcome addition.
While not a true sequel, Alan Wake's American Nightmare does a fine job of expanding on the franchise's universe. It may not have the depth of exposition of the original game, but for 1,200 Microsoft points ($15), there's enough here to please fans and newcomers alike. Now, if only it had more Barry ....
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