Alan Wake: American Nightmare Preview

Doppelganger Murder: It's What Kids Crave (and by kids, I mean me).

When I make Alan Wake turn on a television set outside of a run-down motel in the Arizona desert, he gets a glimpse of his remorseless doppelganger, Mr. Scratch, who taunts Alan through the TV before garroting a man tied to a chair with a bag over his head. It’s a testament to the strength of the narrative that I could have made Wake move on from this totally optional video, but he stood there instead, riveted by the in-game television set. I haven’t been so focused on a video game execution since I cringed while watching a former roommate play Manhunt. I’m reminded a little bit of the torture scene in Resevoir Dogs, and after playing the demo, I’m told by the developers that the game is influenced by Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez movies. It shows in odd ways, like that scene, and a color palette richly saturated in reds, yellows, and browns.

Finnish developer Remedy continues their examination of American pop culture with Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. Where the original Alan Wake was heavily influenced by Twin Peaks and Stephen King; this venture is framed as an episode of "Night Springs", the first game’s in-game TV series that's an homage to The Twilight Zone. American Nightmare’s narration is done with an amazing Rod Serling impersonation, capturing the feel and style of The Twilight Zone but generously winking during the game’s new Fight Till Dawn mode. Continuing the first game’s story-within-a-story narrative, the Night Springs opening credits reveal the episode is written by… Alan Wake. Dun-dun-duuun!

The game uses the same light-based combat from the first game, where you must burn off the darkness that protects enemies with the flashlight before killing them with a few well-placed shots. A dodge feature, when activated just as an enemy attacks, allows Alan to spin away from enemies in slow-motion and avoid taking damage. Sanctuary can be found under a streetlamp, which also regenerates Wake’s health. Finding pages helps to fill out the story and get weapon upgrades, but it didn’t seem obligatory that you actually read them. The focus of the playable mission in the demo centers on grabbing some items so that Alan can rewrite the world around him, naturally those items which appear in places shrouded in darkness filled with enemies. A writer capable of changing the fabric of space-time just can’t ever get a clean break.

The story isn’t a sequel but a side-story or spin-off from the original game. Alan Wake comes to an Arizona oil field, after a brief live-action cinematic explains how he’s chasing his psychopathic copy, Mr. Scratch. After escaping to a motel from enemies spawning from an oil well, he meets a female mechanic who recognizes him and realizes she’s confusing him for Mr. Scratch, who’s passed through earlier. Found pages of a manuscript written by Wake fill out the story non-linearly, as they are scattered slightly out of order, which helps add to the mystery of the narrative.

For the original Alan Wake, the developers were primarily concerned about the story, and it wouldn’t make sense for an unlikely-action-hero-like Stephen King (whom Wake is partially based on) to suddenly get an assault rifle in a small Washington town. American Nightmare is different, though. By placing it in a self-contained universe they don’t have to worry about that kind of logic.

The more pages you pick up, the better weapons you can unlock. Pretty soon Alan will ditch his nailgun for a submachine gun and carbine rifle, which make dispatching enemies that much easier. This allows the developer to focus on a more action-oriented style of play.

This is made very clear in the game’s Fight Till Dawn mode. In this mode, with a set time limit, Alan has to survive waves of enemies within one of several different environments. Ammo refills appear about once a wave, and two porchlights on shacks on opposite sides of the level allow Wake to heal completely before going out for the rest of the round. The number and difficulty of enemies increases the further you go, and the last wave I played ended with a sizable group that included a large figure carrying a rotating saw, who looked like Resident Evil 4’s chainsaw-wielding Dr. Salvador. At another point, I accidentally used a flashbang on a new enemy type that divides into two weaker enemies when struck by light, causing the newly formed group to swarm me. The dodge button quickly becomes a player’s best friend, as a sense of panic grows as ammo begins to run down.

Even not having played the original Alan Wake, I can affirm that American Nightmare is a compelling experience that anyone can jump into and enjoy from the get-go without needing prior knowledge of the series. At the same time, while it’s a side story, it appeared to contain enough ties to the original game (a radio lets you catch up on what other characters from the first game are doing while Wake is stuck in Dark Springs) to keep fans hooked. The story is compelling but optional enough to let the player choose their own level of involvement with it. I only played the first thirty minutes-or-so of the game, but it definitely sunk its hooks into me. It will be hard to let go once it arrives February 22, 2012 for 1200 Microsoft Points.