Preview: Alan Wake: American Nightmare

Alan Wake finds himself in an adventure that’s equal parts Stephen King and Quentin Tarantino.

Whatever its tourism board might say, don’t bother taking a trip to Night Springs. Even when its scientists aren’t committing quantum suicide or its residents take a break from impregnating newcomers with an alien brood, it’s still a pretty unfriendly place. Take bestselling thriller writer Alan Wake’s case in Alan Wake: American Nightmare, an upcoming Xbox Live Arcade title. After the events of the original game and its subsequent DLC packages, Wake finds himself in a nightmarish new setting where his own creations want him dead. Players can expect traditional Alan Wake gameplay, a bevy of creative new weapons, an intriguing story, and a few new features that may keep them playing past the credits.

I recently had the chance to sit down with two representatives from Remedy Entertainment, who walked me through a small chunk of the single player campaign as well as the competitive new Arcade Mode. Oskari “Ozz” Häkkinen, the company’s Head of Franchise Development, took the reins as he described the philosophy behind Wake’s latest foray into the world of gaming.

Ozz explained that American Nightmare is a standalone, downloadable title for the XBLA. While fans of the previous game will find plenty to enjoy, Remedy wanted to create an accessible starting point for new players. If the first game was 2/3rds story and 1/3 action, the ratios have been reversed for this title, says Ozz. Remedy believes that a more action-heavy title suits the XBLA, and has shifted the tone from “psychological thriller” to “pulp action movie” accordingly. American Nightmare has more in common with Quentin Tarantino than Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock.

The game begins in the unpredictable town of Night Springs, Alan Wake‘s Twilight Zone analogue. Earlier in his writing career, Wake penned a few episodes of the puzzling show, and now finds himself trapped in one of them. Right away, it was clear that American Nightmare is not a typical XBLA game; the graphics look identical to those in Alan Wake, save for a tasteful and unobtrusive grindhouse filter. As Wake ran across a darkening Arizona landscape, Ozz revealed that a big inspiration for the game was 1960s Americana, especially urban legends of the time.

While the UI in Alan Wake was not bad, American Nightmare presents a noticeable improvement. The health bar is now segmented, and ammo and battery levels are easier to keep track of. Some series veterans may be upset to hear that the ungainly dodge mechanic is unchanged from the first game, but the addition of a few new weapons make Wake a more capable fighter than before. Before the adventure is over, Wake will come across familiar shotguns and flares, but also pick up Uzis and get creative with hardware. As Ozz said, “The nailgun is mightier than the sword.”

As the demo continued, Wake did typical Alan Wake things. He fought demons with a potent combination of flashlights and shotguns, solved simple environmental puzzles, rescued comely female NPCs, and collected manuscript pages that fleshed out the game’s meta-story. While American Nightmare has a standalone plot, it still ties in to the larger series mythos. Mr. Scratch, Wake’s enigmatic doppelganger from the end of the first game, has broken through Wake’s manuscript into the real world, and is hunting down Wake’s wife, Alice. Throughout American Nightmare, Wake encounters Mr. Scratch through video recordings, but how – or if – Wake will confront this villain is not yet clear.

Wake continued to dispatch foes with nailguns, flare guns, or whatever else was handy. Familiar demonic Taken – possessed shells of men – from the first game made their return, but a few new enemies showed up as well. Of particular interest were the splitters, who reacted to light by dividing into two smaller, weaker, faster enemies, and a mobile, unpredictable foe that could transform from a human into a flock of crows. According to the company reps, this is Remedy’s “homage to Angry Birds.”

The visuals themselves were very similar to Alan Wake, but the color palette had changed considerably, better fitting its new Southwest setting. Instead of the deep greens, blues, and grays of the Pacific Northwest, American Nightmare embraces reds, purples, and browns for everything from the sky to the landscape. This time around, the narrator of Night Springs narrates the game instead of Wake, but the sound design is similar to its predecessor otherwise. Players can expect licensed music, an original score, and a brand new single from those aging metal poets, the Old Gods of Asgard.

The demo wrapped up just as Wake fended off a huge number of Taken in order to rescue a scientist at an oil derrick that seemed to be stirring up trouble in Night Springs. With his new weapons, Wake can handle most Taken with ease, although the vastly increased number of enemies he faces helps to counterbalance this.

After the hands-off portion, I got to try the Arcade Mode, a ten-minute survival match against waves of increasingly tougher Taken. In this mode, ammo for basic weapons replenishes at key points over time, but players can also find more powerful, limited-use weapons by scouring the map. The fights can get pretty tense, especially when the clock is ticking and players must decide between braving the far end of the map for a flare gun or Uzi, duking it out with flashlight and shotgun, or taking advantage of one of the few available light sources, which heal Wake but then darken permanently. While there is no cooperative or competitive multiplayer, players will be able to compete indirectly through Leaderboards in Arcade Mode.

While some players may balk at the more action-heavy nature of American Nightmare, the inspired storytelling and fully realized setting of the first game seem very much intact. American Nightmare is not Alan Wake 2, but Remedy assured me that Wake’s story would continue after this. As promised, Alan Wake’s foray into the world of XBLA is not exactly a sequel or a spinoff, but it may be just the thing to tide fans over while awaiting the writer’s next full-length adventure.

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