I REALLY loved the original Max Payne…
Let me clarify that statement: Alan Wake IS NOT Max Payne, and in fact, most of what makes up Alan Wake, is fairly far removed from Max Payne. You cannot deny, however, that there are some very heavy similarities to both, one of the key factors being that both are essentially 3rd person shooters, and in fact, I feel that May Payne is, and will always be one of THE best in that category. It just felt GOOD, and you weren’t zoomed in over the shoulder necessarily, you had a birds- eye view of the world, and you could get a feel for the surroundings because of the camera placement and angle. Of course, you can also talk about the quote/unquote bullet-time effect that Nick mentioned in his review of Max Payne 3, but really, the game was far more than just that, it was a Noir-esque thriller with elements of horror, mystery, conspiracy and action. The character may have had some campy, cheesy metaphor-ridden dialogue, and I’m sure most of you, after seeing it once, skipped the comic-book style cutscenes (I liked them honestly), but the game was solid in most respects, and created a classic in and of itself..
Where Alan Wake came in, it was obvious that Rockstar had taken the reins of the Max Payne franchise, and it was all-too saddening how they took the story and tried to make it seem like Scar Face or Miami Vice all over again. You know. Like what they did in Vice City, except the established franchise wasn’t Rockstar’s to begin with. So, what we see now is an attempt to refresh the Horror/Survival (mostly Horror) genre, by focusing on writing more than anything else. No RPG elements, no black and white morality system, no chopped and mashed multiplayer or co-op. Pure and simple horror with interesting gameplay and a very twisted story.
Yeah, that’s cool, but what about American Nightmare?
You know, it’s odd seeing a developer put work into something that seems like an indie game that uses a licensed engine from a AAA studio, like what Epic has doing with their engine, and I’m not saying that Remedy’s latest games are purely AAA games, but really, would you ever see someone like Epic Games or id Software, or even Bethesda going You know what? I miss the garage-band style games we did in our early years – Let’s go back to doing those… And honestly, those that have released games in that light, were just miniature studios collectively pooling resources while the parent company decided to make a quick cash-in. I could be wrong, and I’ll admit that wholly, but American Nightmare feels like Remedy just wanted to take the Alan Wake franchise, and do something with it, explore a different territory, and experiment with a few different elements. Enter: Alan Wake’s American Nightmare
A quick romp in a single morning proved to me that American Nightmare something akin to what I’d felt I was missing in game’s these days, especially something that I missed from the current Max Payne games. That campy feeling, the pulp-fiction attitude and writing, and just the nature of the game felt GOOD, and refreshing, leading back to when Remedy was just starting out. There’s not a lot here, as it’s a quick 15-dollar purchase off Steam or XBLA, and like I said, my outing lasted all of one Sunday morning, but what was there was compact and fun!
So… Is this a sequel, a midquel? WHAT is it really?
No, American Nightmare is not a sequel, and from what I had seen of the trailers, I could have told you that. Nope, this is pretty much just a simple exercise in working with very few assets, a smaller budget, and a crazy idea. I’ll admit that some of it works, and some of it doesn’t..
The game pits you, as Alan, in a secluded Arizona town, named after the oft mentioned fictional sci-fi/horror series, Night Springs from the original game. The idea here is that Alan is trying to escape the Dark Place, where he has been trapped for nearly 2 years. A doppelganger antagonist, the charming narcissistic psycho-killer, Mr. Scratch (whose name is always dubbed over with a static noise whenever anyone speaks it), has put into place a trap for Alan, keeping him locked in a time-loop that plays out into infinity unless Alan can somehow turn it back on Mr. Scratch. He chats with you through randomly placed televisions in each area and at times will appear from thin-air, threatening Alan while at the same time maniacally plotting to ruin Wake’s life by taking his place. The game’s plot is thinly layered and doesn’t quite hold the same depth as its predecessor, but it manages to do its job considering that this game is more action-based rather than trying to create a tangle of plot threads, leading to some interesting dialogue between Wake and those people who are trapped with him. The time loop begins to break down a little each time Alan is sent through, as things change, choices made before affect the new cycle, and it becomes evident to everyone what’s going on, and what must be done to stop it. So basically, you’ll be playing through the same levels over and over again, with few changes in between to keep it a little fresher than the time before. The mechanic works in theory, but execution is varied, and does little to really add much to the game than padding. Ground Hog’s Day this isn’t.
The game itself is relatively similar in its gameplay, comparatively to the original Alan Wake game. You run around in third-person, fighting enemies wrapped in darkness with light and whatever firearm you have on hand. There are a few new enemies this time around, though only two of particular note; creatures called Splitters who, when doused in light, become so violently affected by it they split into two weaker parts, turning one enemy into multiple weaker enemies over time the more light is shown upon them, though they are not covered in darkness, so any high-caliber weapon nullifies the effect a bit. We also get large spiders who creep out of the darkness to attack you in large numbers, of which can be killed by either burning them out of existence, or shooting them. I didn’t bother wasting batteries on them.
Speaking of you get a nice stalk of weapons this time, though you can only ever carry one pistol, one rifle, and your usual flares/flaregun/flashbang mix-up, it does add variety. I will say this though: The crossbow feel a bit overpowered in my mind, mainly because it bypasses the darkness entirely and almost anything within medium to short-range dies instantly. That being said, however, you won’t have access to all the weapons in the game until you have picked up enough of the manuscripts liberally sprinkled across the map, which give you clues and insight into the story behind what has transpired without your knowledge, as well as hints as to what you might run into later on. Collect enough of them, and weapon attaché cases that have also been placed at random about the level will unlock to give you more of a weapon selection. These weapons also unlock for the Arcade mode, which is no more than a single-player survival mode that pits you in an arena against monsters, with no real reward besides a place on the leader-boards. I wasn’t impressed, but you at least get kill more things in there, I guess.
As far as characters and characterization go, it’s a mixed lot, and with the engine’s underwhelming handling of lip-syncing and animation during dialogue, it feels like the part that had the least amount of work put into it, engine-side anyway. It does make the game feel like a play on the Twighlight Zone, but it can feel like the dialogue runs on a bit long, and with no way to skip some of the character interactions, the sparse auto-save function the game includes can make these parts drag on. As far as characterization, the most interesting of them seems to be Alan’s doppelganger, Mr. Scratch, whose charm and demure are layered over a conniving sociopath who wants to take up Alan’s life, and ultimately destroy it. He tends to rant, and his exposition you receive through live-action recordings on the TV’s you come across aren’t anything special, but I still find something sinister and charming about Mr. Scratch, and there is some enjoyment to be had when he isn’t being chatty. All-in-all, most of the characters are forgettable, and Alan himself doesn’t prove to be as strong a character as he would have in the original game, but we’re here to shoot minions and stop the bad guy from stealing our wife who thinks we’re dead, so I wouldn’t go into this game with much of any high expectations, writing-wise.
The game’s sound track is phenomenal, though, with returning performances by Poets of the Fall (Remedy apparently is married to this band). Sadly, the few sequences using their music are so few, and usually pretty short, that you sort of wish there had been more to the game than what it is, or that the difficulty had made the circumstances behind why they added these excellent rock-n-roll tracks more epic, or memorable. The subtle, electronic ambience that plays during the rest of the game is nice, and does give it a unique feel, but doesn’t necessarily mesh well with the game’s direction, at least not to me. Still, I view it as great quality sound that doesn’t quite get the mood where it needs to be.
Graphically the game hasn’t changed much, so I can’t really say anything about that. Glitches pop-up, and my computer was trying to churn out the best quality while sacrificing frame rate, but I have an older machine, so take that as you will. The game doesn’t capitalize on large-scale maps, but we’re not here to run around a giant landscape, we’re here to focus on locations draped in story… as little as there is of it to be told, of course.
If I said that I recommended this as a must-buy, I would probably be mostly unbiased, in that I feel it was a solid romp through a nice XBLA title. At 15 bucks, it’s short and sweet, does what it came to do, and though it’s not perfect, is enjoyable, in that sort of campy fashion that Remedy does best. For me, it’s a refreshing return to something old-school, of what the likes of Max Payne 1 was originated from, and I embrace it with a flash-light in one hand and a nail-gun in the other. Check it out if you loved Alan Wake, and wanted a bit more to do with a less horror, and a little more action.