The downloadable release of American Nightmare is such an unexpected twist on the Alan Wake formula, substituting the more survival horror-oriented elements of the original with fast-paced, run-and-gun action with a nearly limitless ammo supply for the XBLA release. And while this isn't exactly what I'm looking for Remedy's promised full-fledged Alan Wake sequels, it's a perfect way to (briefly) revisit the world of literary horror made real.
Taking place after the events of the first game, author, serial narrator, and hero Alan Wake finds himself smack in the middle of a fictional world that he's created, on the trail of his evil doppelganger, Mr. Scratch. Wake can't write his way out of the heartland horror story in which he's found himself, but he can somehow nudge events around him in such a way that the primordial darkness behind Mr. Scratch and all of Alan's problems can loose its hold on him. In succession, you'll chase after the murderous Scratch and his minions through a ramshackle motel, an observatory, and a drive-in movie theater, in each case meeting a female local with another piece of the puzzle that might help you get out.
The story here isn't especially deep, nor does it plumb the mythology set up in the first game with any extra detail, but a conceit that will have you playing the game through a couple of times is pretty clever and effectively mitigates any fatigue you might potentially feel replaying the three scenarios in the story.
Mechanically, American Nightmare isn't anything unfamiliar if you played the main game: you'll still use your flashlight to remove the hard dark shell around enemies before blasting them with your small (pistols, Uzis) or heavy (shotgun, rifle) weapons, with flares and flashbangs thrown into the mix. Wake also still has his evade move for enemies that are in close that slows down the action for about half a second when things are getting hairy. The biggest change here is that you'll find ample ammo and batteries for your flashlight as well as checkpoints to heal up and save your game throughout American Nightmare, a useful concession to the focus on action. Manuscript pages make a return here, and this time around, as you collect them, you're able to unlock new and more powerful weapons at conveniently-located metal cases throughout the maps.
The other major change is that American Nightmare switches from the Pacific Northwest location of the first game to dusty Southwestern climes, contributing to the overall shift in feel between the two games. Alan Wake proper relied on that constant feeling that the environments as much as anything else were closing in on you, whereas here, the open air vibe drops that feeling of claustrophobia and actually makes the constant waves of new enemies feel less out of place.
Finally, the game contains a wave-based survival mode, where the goal is to chain together kills and get a high score before time runs out (represented here by daybreak). Precision shooting isn't exactly what Alan Wake does well, but it's also not a chore in any way. If you want to dig around in this mode, it can get kind of tactical as you try to memorize and make your way to weapon and ammo drops around the map while timing your confrontations with each wave of enemies.
Perfect use of the basic concept
It's Alan Wake, but shoot-ier, I'd say. That's not at all a bad thing. Plus, the way it elaborates on the story-within-the-story idea is well-executed and provides a smart rationale for playing through the short campaign multiple times.
Mr. Scratch is a hell of a guy
Take the time out to watch his little talks on the TVs strewn throughout the game. He's a sick, dark mirror to the main character, and while he's over the top, it's in a way that makes the character more menacing.
Oh, and if you're really into the fiction of the series, I'd encourage you to turn on nearby radios so you can find out what Alan's agent Barry has been up to.
The voice acting on the female characters, it grates
I'm not sure if it's by accident or by design, but the three female leads in the story deliver simply awful line readings. While they don't break the overall experience, they do bend it a little, giving American Nightmare an unnecessarily campy air.
American Nightmare is a well-crafted, fun addition to the Alan Wake series, and I hope that between now and the inevitable sequel, Remedy thinks about other interesting tweaks to the formula as downloadable releases.