keskiviikko 7. maaliskuuta 2012

REVIEW - Alan Wake's American Nightmare (2012)

GENRE(S): Action / Survival horror
RELEASED: February 2012
DEVELOPER(S): Remedy Entertainment
PUBLISHER(S): Microsoft Studios

Remedy Entertainment never closed any doors on delivering a sequel to their 2010 psychological action thriller Alan Wake, and the ending certainly left many fans of the game hanging on the possibility of one, but when a sequel was accidentally revealed in the summer of 2011, and promised to be out in just a matter of months, people were kind of confused as the first game took seven years to make. Remedy went to great lengths to point out that the new Alan Wake game was not to be an Alan Wake 2 - it was not to be a true sequel to the game, but a stand-alone downloadable title, which would expand the Alan Wake universe, be more of an arcade-style action game than its predecessor, and be influenced by traditional cult horror rather than David Lynch and Stephen King's works. Those who loved Alan Wake for the tension of battle will certainly be putting their 1200 Microsoft Points to good use. Those who loved Alan Wake for its story, most of all its conclusion - parts of which were never explained in the DLC - might wake up from this nightmare feeling more than a little disappointed.

Drama holds no meaning... in Night Springs

Matthew Porretta :: Alan Wake / Mr. Scratch
Brett Madden :: Alice Wake
Fred Berman :: Barry Wheeler
Lloyd Floyd :: Tor Anderson / Narrator
Cliff Carpenter :: Odin Anderson
Yadwa :: Dr. Rachel Meadows
Christina Evangelista :: Emma Sloan
Desi Sanchez :: Serena Valdivia
Larry Kenny :: Eddie Rodman
Nik Carter :: Shopping Channel Host

Alan Wake has somehow found a way out of the Dark Place. The homicidal lunatic Mr. Scratch has taken Alan's place in the real world, and being one of the Dark Place, he has power over the Taken. In a story and setting reflecting one Alan wrote years ago for Night Springs, Alan attempts to track down his evil doppelgänger and rewrite reality to utterly destroy the abomination posing as him.

It wasn't so long ago I returned to the world of Alan Wake, for the second and perhaps the last time. I like the game very much; hell, I even love parts of it, but it simply never was a very replayable game. It's so linear, complete with a lot of scripted stuff, extremely boring at times, and even its strongest quality - the story - has holes in it. Especially the end. Not even the DLC fixed that. I was always fascinated by Mr. Scratch. When this guy was introduced in the end of Alan Wake, I was totally pissing myself, in total awe of the homage they paid to the ending of Twin Peaks, in which, again, the evil spirit Bob took Dale Cooper's place in the real world, while Cooper himself was stuck in another dimension, the Black Lodge - which pretty much is a synonym for "the Dark Place". There's just one major difference between Twin Peaks and Alan Wake, that being a guaranteed follow-up to the latter. It's more than safe to assume we will never know of Dale Cooper's ultimate fate, but now we'll know Alan Wake's - up until Alan Wake 2 comes along, at least. The main focus - pretty much the only focus - as far as the storyline goes, is on perhaps the most interesting plot thread created in the end of Alan Wake. Do I like the resolution? Not much, I'm afraid - but Alan Wake's American Nightmare is a quite good action game considering that it's "only" a downloadable title.

Sometimes, running is better.
Remedy made the conscious choice of not really investing too much in a story here, and I think that's a pity. As good as the starting point for the story is, not to mention the potential that the story has to totally blow your mind, Remedy botched it with confusing plot twists that are very vaguely explained - more of that good ole' being weird for the sake of being weird - dull side characters (who needed them, anyway?!), and dull level design that is limited to three different settings, that are literally recycled throughout the game's three- to five-hour length. Even Mr. Scratch seems to literally scratch in place like a broken record. He usually shows up on TV's scattered around the field just like the TV's in the first game, making home movies of himself usually killing some slut that has fallen for his charms. At first, Scratch-TV is really cool and creepy, and Mr. Scratch hits you as one evil, malicious, murderous, not to mention batshit insane bastard as opposed to his mute, cryptic and much too happy presence in the end of Alan Wake. As Scratch's monologues go on, eventually you'll see he's quite damn one-dimensional. I lost interest in his little repetitive snuff clips altogether well before the final act. They just couldn't handle this guy right; I can't believe Remedy treated this guy as very little more than a mass murderer who obviously loves the sound of his own voice. He's more annoying than truly fearsome. You'll love to watch him go down.

The game doesn't look any better or much worse than Alan Wake, but considering that the whole game is smaller in size than many demos for the Xbox 360, it looks pretty darn good. The much utilized full-motion video clips look a lot better than they did in the last game - the lip sync is technically better, not any more believable than it was before, though. Maybe part of it's got something to do with the fact that I know Ilkka Villi and how his actual voice sounds like; it's pretty distracting to see him lip syncing to Matthew Porretta's lines. Even though using a real actor from time to time makes some scenes, especially the snuff clips, somewhat more comprehensible and perhaps even creepier than they already are, I don't know if it was such a great idea - at least they could've remodelled Alan and Scratch to actually look just a little more like their real-life model. Let's just face it: they look nothing like him. Even Villi's hair is totally different than before, while Alan's haircut stays the same.

Billy, I swear I didn't rape your prize goat.
The voiceover work (for the two main characters that is) is great, as always, but the game simply isn't as well written as Alan Wake. A bit rushed, maybe. A bit careless, too. Even though Remedy never intended to make American Nightmare a story-driven game, OR a real sequel to Alan Wake, it is still part of the franchise and a good story well told is what a lot of fans expect from it by its name only. Even though they merely scratched (no pun intended) the surface of Mr. Scratch's potential as a villain, I enjoy the contrast between Alan and his evil caricature; Porretta must've had a ball in the recording studio. Old friends mostly make their voices heard on the radio as fan service, and they sound great, while the new side characters sound just as wooden as their faces look. I have no complaints about the music, none at all - once again Petri Alanko nailed the moody soundtrack perfectly, and the couple of licensed songs included are just great.

...Aaaaand, what would a Remedy game be without Poets of the Fall? Oh, I'm sorry, what I meant to ask was: what would Alan Wake be without Old Gods of Asgard? Tor and Odin are making a comeback, and they treat us with a new single of theirs, called "Balance Slays the Demon". Needless to say, the song ROCKS; it's a little different from old school Old Gods, but great nonetheless; it solidifies Old Gods of Asgard's status as the best fictional band that ever was exclusive to a video game. Yes, even better than Love Fist. The Poets also contribute with a weird, generic track called "The Happy Song", which is somewhat of Mr. Scratch's theme song and frankly, unlistenable out of context. I was shocked to learn that this is actually a song from Poets of the Fall's upcoming album Temple of Thought, which can't turn out too good judging from all the material I've heard from it thus far. The talent of the Poets goes to much better use under the Old Gods moniker this time! The "music video" of "Balance Slays the Demon", stitched together from scenes in the game, is unlocked after the first playthrough of the game, so you are guaranteed to have a rock 'n' roll moment with the full-length song, if you happen to miss it during the game.

American Nightmare starts out much like Alan Wake. You - I mean you, as in the player - have no idea what's going on, where you are, there are wrinkled manuscript pages lying around, and you have only a vague clue as to what your actual goal is. The thing is that Alan knows exactly what to do. There's no mystery involved. The side characters are freaking out... or at least they claim to be freaking out, they sound awfully calm about it... but Alan just brushes everything off as another day at the races, and does weird things with a sense of purpose, never really explaining to the NPC's, or the player, what that purpose is. Instead, he just repeatedly tells NPC's to stay calm, in the light and away from the guy that looks like him, 'cause he's evil. Then he goes out to an oil field, turns on a few warning lights, slaps in a Kasabian CD, and tinkers with a valve to make a satellite in space come crashing down on an oil derrick and blow half of a ghost town in Arizona to shit, 'cause he just knows this series of antics will bring him one step closer to finding Mr. Scratch. It's a good thing he knows what the hell that's all about. They try explaining this to us, and it all kind of makes sense in a half-baked Alan Wake sort of way, but that's not a whole lot.

Someone's been eating their vitamins and
saying their prayers!
So Alan has, at least temporarily, become an action hero, and American Nightmare is an action game above all else. Although it retains some of the original game's spirit, it's not much of a psychological thriller. It's a game of "catch me if you can" in somewhat of a cult horror setting. It's a choice by Remedy, and it has consequences fans of Alan Wake will be disappointed with, but which action fans will surely approve of. First off, even though the primary engine is nearly identical to the original, the controls are more dynamic. Not perfect, though. Dodging works better; it requires even better timing than before, though, and the slow motion animations accompanying enemy attacks from behind or from the side make dodging them impossible. It turns out to be a true nuisance in the Arcade Mode, in which a successful dodge results in a better score multiplier. Reloading weapons is not nearly as clumsy and stiff it was before, and since you can't drive cars manually in the first place, the horrible vehicle controls are not there to drag the whole experience down.

The radio shows and Scratch's TV clips are there for your entertainment and that only - "Balance Slays the Demon"! - but the manuscript pages are for way more than just show. There are weapon chests scattered all around the three settings and nine acts of the game, which you can unlock by going on a thorough search for written word. The variety of weapons proves American Nightmare's true point; nailguns (ouch), Magnums, crossbows, submachine guns, assault rifles, and of course, the usual rifles, shotguns, and pistols. You can only carry two primary weapons at a time, plus the flare gun, flashbang grenades (which are not nearly as effective as before) and flares. Some of the weapons are just plain useless, I'm afraid; you'll have to test every piece out to judge them for yourself. The Takens get stronger, bigger and different in each act, and I tell you, if you enter the final string of events with a pairing of a nailgun and regular shotgun equipped, you can pretty much kiss your geeky writer ass goodbye. How does a Taken the size of a small cabin, equipped with a chainsaw sound to you? Or guys equipped with grenades? Or a flock of birds that can take the shape of an extremely fast, agile and sharp-clawed, rabid hobo? Or guys that multiply when you take a well-placed shot at them? Remedy might've ditched the drama, but they really invested in enemy design. Props be.

Pumping through the story mode of the game indeed takes you about four to five hours, depending on how much the manuscript pages (and the Achievement linked to them) mean to you. Getting bored after you learn that you're stuck zooming through the same levels over and over again is not an impossibility, but luckily you won't have to do the exact same "puzzles" (hah!) or endure the exact same boring conversations each time. They differ enough each time to uphold some level of interest, and well, at least it's only three times. It could be worse. After the kind of conflicted ending - I'm not sure what to think or make of it - there's Arcade Mode, which is probably going to BE the game for a lot of folk who invested their hard-earned points on this title.

Trollfaced punk.
In Arcade Mode, there are several different levels that are straight out of cult horror movies, and like in many cult horror movies, your goal is simply to survive 'til dawn. It doesn't matter whether you fight or run from the waves of Taken, although fighting is the healthier option and natural selection most of the time. About half of the game's Achievements are linked to the story, and the other half to accomplishments made in the Arcade Mode. The first few levels are kind of practice - yeah. - for the real thing, which is the Nightmare Arcade. This delightful series of levels will take your skills and your patience as an avid Alan Wake player to the limits. Although I wouldn't have minded if Remedy had paid more attention to the story, I must say they pulled a good one with the Arcade Mode. The suspense, thrill of success and addictive gameplay that is missing from the Story Mode are all found in the arcades. The Arcade Mode is pretty much what makes the game a mandatory purchase for an Alan Wake fan. The part the story plays in the deal is for each individual to decide; my final opinion on the story and its place in the franchise, after seeing the ending, was pretty much 50/50. The Arcade Mode is the schniz; it doesn't guarantee endless fun by any measure, but it makes the game's price feel just right.

I originally fell in love with Alan Wake because of how it began. The first chapter in that game promised so much - it was a masterpiece in itself. The game had potential to be an incredible psychological thriller, and it even ended up being quite good in that league. American Nightmare balances the scale by being more of an all-out action game, and when you think of it as such and stop thinking too much of its connection to Alan Wake, I think you're going to find decent boomstick entertainment for a reasonable price. It might be even some of the best arcade entertainment exclusively available for the 360.

+ Comes with a reasonable price tag
+ The Arcade Mode
+ Good enemy design
+ Better controls to support the tense action
+ Great music including new, fantastic material from the Old Gods
+ Mr. Scratch, during the first half of the game 

- Mr. Scratch, during the second half of the game
- The NPC's are nothing short of annoying leftovers
- Dull level design, as opposed to the good work on the enemies
- Despite a great initial position, the story is boring, needlessly confusing and obviously a lesser focus point than it should be, or could've been; its short length might even be a relief
- The remaining rough edges of the controls present themselves in Arcade Mode

< 8.0 >

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