Imagine if you will – a famous writer finds himself trapped inside a nightmare of his own creation, and his only hope is to rewrite reality to find a way out. In a battle of light against darkness, the writer searches for answers by piecing together parts of his own manuscript to help battle a sadistic doppelganger.
Alan Wake's American Nightmare, available now on Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points, anchors the big House Party lineup with a new entry in the critically acclaimed supernatural series. This is not a direct sequel, more of a stand-alone side story, so both dedicated Alan Wake fans and those new to the series can jump right in.
If that intro up there sounds like the plot of some sixties-era sci-fi anthology show, that's because it is. The show is "Night Springs" (narrated by a perfect Rod Serling sound-alike) and the author of the episode is Alan Wake himself. Far from the claustrophobic evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest, Wake now finds himself in the middle of the desolate Arizona desert next to an abandoned motel and the story (episode?) begins.
Army of Darkness
The entire place is overrun with Taken, humans corrupted by the Dark Presence and unleashed by your sneering lookalike, Mr. Scratch. Light is used as a weapon, and Wake always has his trusty flashlight by his side. Grab some weapons as soon as you can – the game isn't short on them. The Taken lurk in the darkness and can't be killed unless they've been exposed to light. Burn off the darkness with your flashlight or a flare and they become vulnerable to pistols, or crossbows, or nailguns, or whatever you happen to be carrying.
American Nightmare has more of an emphasis on action and combat than the somber creepiness of the earlier games. For one, Wake has an entire display case of weapons at his disposal (combat shotgun, anyone?) that are unlocked by collecting manuscript pages. He's also more assertive and less whiny that he was last time around. The whole presentation has a fun campy feel to it that plays off cheesy sci-fi conventions, despite the fact that weird supernatural creatures will try to kill you whenever you step outside of the arc of a streetlight.
Fear the Reaper
That's not to say American Nightmare won't scare the heck out of you – the Taken aren't shambling undead zombies waiting to eat your bullets. Some can split in two, some double in size, and others unleash a flurry of birds. You'll find yourself jumping at shadows and twirling and firing wildly at the slightest movement during your treks through the desert (especially with a surround-sound HDMI setup). Keep your gun loaded and your flashlight batteries fresh, because just when you're wondering "weren't there four of them?" is when you get gutted from behind.
As you rewrite the episode and try to counter the otherworldly forces of darkness there are several damsels to rescue and some great plot twists and turns to uncover. Trust no one and believe nothing. Not all of it makes a whole lot of sense, but this is an Alan Wake game, after all. Video clips from the taunting Mr. Scratch will spur you on your way, and radio broadcasts hearken back to some of the characters and events in the previous games.
Fight 'Til Dawn
Aside from the Story Mode there's a survival arcade option called Fight 'Til Dawn. It's a ten-minute survival round where you have to battle increasing waves of Taken. You've really got to keep moving and grabbing new weapons in this mode, as the enemies get more and more difficult. Whatever map you choose to play will contain the weapons you've unlocked in Story Mode, so I'd definitely recommend finishing the story first.
Alan Wake's American Nightmare is a real winner with a creepy yet campy storyline, thrilling gun battles, and a slick presentation that rivals anything you'll find on store shelves today. The lighting effects are particularly impressive, but from the character models to the desert set pieces, this has the look and polish of a retail release. Even if you haven't played the first game, it's a supernatural thrill ride that will keep you on the edge of your seat. If you want to catch up on the Alan Wake mythology, the original game and both extra episodes (The Signal and The Writer) are also available on Xbox LIVE Marketplace.