To understand the tonal difference between Alan Wake and new Alan Wake’s American Nightmare (XBLA), you need look no further than the title card for both games. In the original, you can hardly see Alan at all; the important visuals are the oppressive shadows created by his tree-filled environment and the flashlight that Alan uses to fight the forces of darkness. In American Nightmare, Alan stands tall atop the red Arizona rocks, nailgun in hand, looking more like an ad for Craftsman tools than a self-absorbed writer who may or may not be insane. If Alan Wake was about exploring mood and creating tension, American Nightmare is about shrugging off the big questions and just shooting everything in sight. It’s a slightly different direction for the franchise, but a fun one.

It’s ok if you haven’t played the original Alan Wake or any of its DLC – American Nightmare stands completely on its own – though much if it will likely be confusing to anyone not familiar with Alan’s previous dealings with his dark alter ego, Mr. Scratch. Alan attempts to catch up new players by offering bits of explanation to some of the people he meets, but his plan to fight the physical manifestation of his dark impulses by rewriting reality is a tough concept to convey with just a few lines of dialog. American Nightmare takes place in Night Springs, a Twilight Zone-esque show that was Alan’s first gig as a paid writer. To escape, Alan will have to bend reality, which apparently involves listening to Kasabian and doing lots of shooting.

Alan will have to fight off legions of the Taken as he tries to bend reality to his will. Once human, the Taken are impervious to harm until Alan uses a light source to burn away their protective shroud of darkness. Veterans of Alan Wake will know to save up flare gun ammo and flash bang grenades for big swarms of enemies, and rely on Alan’s standard flashlight to render Taken vulnerable to one of the many guns Alan can find lying around the desert. The combat is well-paced and becomes steadily more challenging as the game progresses, but short of a few moments where you have to hold your ground against a tide of Taken, it’s never really all that difficult. The environments are peppered with ammo boxes whose contents replenish after just a few minutes, so you’re never more than a few steps away from topping off your arsenal, or in real danger of your gun going dry.

Like Alan Wake, American Nightmare has you hunting for manuscript pages, but the search isn’t quite as satisfying this time around. In Alan Wake, the pages were from a novel that Alan didn’t remember writing and that seemed to spookily mirror events unfolding around him. Finding and reading them helped you share the experience with Alan, as you discovered their narrative together. The pages in American Nightmare have a similar story to tell, but their main function is to unlock weapons cases left lying around the desert. The cases, which contain tasty morsels like submachine guns and sawed-off shotguns, require specific numbers of pages to unlock, so you’ll be scouring the countryside in the hopes of leveling up your arsenal, not delving further into a mysterious manuscript.

One of American Nightmare‘s other collectibles is a holdover from Alan Wake – interactive TVs. In Wake, they played episodes of Night Springs, but in Nightmare, they play messages from Mr. Scratch that will chill you to the bone. He’s the manifestation of Alan’s dark urges, a serial killer bent on claiming everything Alan has – his wife, his life, his sanity – and then destroying it all. He leans towards the camera, sighing contentedly as he discusses the merits of one knife over another as implements of torture. He beams as he discusses exactly how he’ll play the good husband “as long as he can stand it” before killing Alan’s wife. He’s incredibly disturbing, a charming ghoul in a well-cut suit.

If only Alan himself were as interesting. In Alan Wake, we saw a complex man ill-suited to the role of hero, but driven by love and guilt to rescue his wife. In Nightmare, he’s embraced his situation and is quite comfortable shouldering the responsibility of saving the day. In fairness, Nightmare is a much smaller game than Wake, which leaves little room for nuanced character development, but the relationship between creator (Wake) and creation (Mr. Scratch) is so fascinating that I couldn’t help but wish for it to be explored in more depth.

Alan Wake was rewarding for players who took to its story, but was lackluster when it came to combat; conversely, American Nightmare is most enjoyable when it comes to killing bad guys, but falters when it comes to its story. Mr. Scratch has trapped Alan in a time loop, which means you’ll be visiting the same three locations not once, not twice, but three times. Your tasks change slightly in every go-round – after all, you know what’s coming, so it makes sense that you’d work ahead – but retracing your footsteps means that progression offers very little by way of surprise. The animations used for Alan’s interactions with the locals repeat, too, so that cute scientist from the observatory literally makes the same motions every time you see her.

American Nightmare is arguably most fun when it ditches the pretense of plot altogether. Arcade Mode, in which you rack up points by fighting off Taken for as long as you can manage, is immensely enjoyable and its numerous maps help alleviate the visual ennui inspired by the main game’s repeating locales. Nonstop combat isn’t exactly what springs to mind when I think about a writer grappling with the chaos of his own creation, but it works well here.

Bottom Line: Alan Wake’s American Nightmare feels a bit spiritually out of step with the original Alan Wake, but provides just enough story to balance out the action. But, seriously, it needs more Barry.

Recommendation: You’ll have fun with it even if you never bothered with Alan Wake, so pick it up.

[rating=4]

What our review scores mean.

Game: Alan Wake’s American Nightmare
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Remedy
Publisher: Microsoft
Platform(s): XBLA
Available from: Xbox.com

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