Home > gameplay, newschool > Waking Nightmare (Part 2)

Waking Nightmare (Part 2)

February 29, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Disclaimer: This is not a review as such, but it does talk about various elements of a recently released game. If you’re particularly averse to spoilers, or really looking forward to Alan Wake’s American Nightmare you might want to come back once you’ve played it for yourself.

To be brief (and diplomatic), I am disappointed, although I understood before I wrote Part 1 that I’d have no one but myself (and Remedy) to blame if this happened. I’m also a little bemused, primarily because I’ve spent more time trying to figure out exactly who the target audience for this game is than I have playing the game itself. Of course, its reviewing reasonably well so I understand I may be in the minority here, but to me this felt like Alan Wake with all the interesting elements removed (albeit with the remaining ones polished to a mirror-like sheen). Or, to put it another way, it felt like I was controlling Max Payne as he wandered through a poorly written chapter of the Alan Wake story.

Alan Wake

Essential tools of the writer's trade. Apparently.

Alan was a much more relatable character in the first game. Lost in a dark forest, possibly going mad, desperately trying to rescue his wife – these are understandable challenges and motivations that help me care about him as a character. The fact that he’s a writer and not a cannon-toting superman made combat situations genuinely threatening and uncomfortable, and combined with the slightly clunky movement mechanics to create a convincing feeling of Wake as an everyman out of his depth. A big contributor to this was the relative powerlessness that comes from not knowing where your next flashlight battery is coming from, or if you have enough ammunition to reach the safety of the next floodlight. This ever-present threat, and consequently the tension, is conspicuously missing from American Nightmare, for two reasons:

First, ammunition and resources are ludicrously abundant. In addition to automatically changing all ammo in the level around you to match the guns you’re currently carrying, Remedy introduced cabinets generously scattered throughout the levels that completely refill all your resources. The combination meant I really didn’t need half of the ammo I found, and ultimately was able to use the ‘apocalyptic overkill’ strategy for most combat situations without fear of what was around the next corner.

Second, the gameplay has been tightened up considerably – Alan is now much smoother to control both in movement and aiming, making it easier to manoeuvre and to switch between targets during firefights. While this is obviously a good thing, when combined with the super-stocked arsenal, it makes Alan feel like a traditional video game hero – slick, overpowered and disappointingly two dimensional. Admittedly, while this results in much less tension in the combat, it does make it a lot more fun, and allows the game to throw more enemies at you early (both in numbers and types), creating a greater variety of action than the first game achieved. Since the first game was successful more so because it was interesting, atmospheric and unusual than because it was ‘fun’, this leads me back to the central question – who is this new instalment aimed at?

Alan Wake

He's running while he decides which of his many super-weapons to use on them.

There is a plot based explanation for the changes, but the game doesn’t quite pull it off. This time around, Alan is trapped within an episode of Night Springs (which he apparently wrote) and is battling to overcome Mr. Scratch, the villainous doppelgänger revealed at the end of the original. Rather than running for his life, afraid and in constant doubt if what is happening is real or imagined – American Nightmare’s Alan feels instead like a confident detective on the trail of a killer, and seems to be the only character who has any idea of whats going on. That Alan seems to understand the rules of this universe, and instinctively knows what to do (well of course I need to find a Kasabian CD and play it in the vicinity of an oil derrick so that a falling satellite will destroy a wormhole – it makes so much sense) doesn’t help to align me with Alan’s plight – instead of being motivated to uncover the mystery in order to help him, I feel like the character I’m playing is holding back story information from the person playing him – sounds novel in theory, but in practice turns out to be undesirable.

The most disappointing decision in this setting revolves around the environments – with a slim justification in the story, there are several areas in the game that are revisited over and over again, with only minor variations in the objectives and dialogue. Given that one of the consistent complaints with the first game was that the reuse of a few settings dulled their effectiveness, the idea of tackling this problem by deliberately repeating it seems a strange one. Its especially risky given the related decision to scale down the plot elements in favour of action, because there’s much less story to create the level of player engagement required to forgive this kind of lazy level design.

The issue is exacerbated by the quality of the writing, which oscillates wildly between genuinely clever and absolutely awful. Mr Scratch’s monologues from phantom tv’s are the most engaging part of the game – he’s a genuinely dark, unsettling and well written character, and he provides the major driving force keeping you interested in the story. Sadly, his appearances contrast starkly with Alan’s conversations with all the other npc’s, which are, frankly, awful. A ‘herbal suppository’ joke in the first five minutes of the game throws any pretence of atmosphere out the window, and it never really makes it all the way back. The occasions when it comes close (such as a drawn out encounter with Mr Scratch in an abandoned drive in theatre) are unfortunately bookended by stilted, awkward conversations with other characters that do little to advance the story, but a lot to erode any lingering scraps of immersion.

Ultimately, my major criticism here is more about questionable decisions than questionable writing. I feel like I was right in the middle of the target audience for the first game, and for me, this episode wilfully strips away most of the elements that set the first apart from the crowd, while taking one of the major flaws and deliberately designing it into the experience, without making sure the story and character elements of the game are strong enough to make it work.

Say what you will about the increased action focus to make this episode more appropriate to an ‘XBLA’ audience (why the method of delivery necessitated this focus change I don’t know) – its not the prevalence of action that lets American Nightmare down. Its the fact that it doesn’t even try to aspire to the same standard of writing for the story that it has. While the first was a character based mystery/thriller game with lashings of action, this instalment feels like an action game with a thin layer of substandard Twilight Zone dialogue layered on top. If you’re in it for the action, its polished and quite a lot of fun, but if like me you’re looking for more of what made the original so interesting, you may need to look elsewhere.

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  1. March 1, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    Darn. It looks like this was more of a money grab though, so hopefully the next one will go the opposite direction.

    And I just have to share this because it’s pretty relevant and it’s a great talk:
    http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1014889/Evoking-Emotions-and-Achieving-Success
    Founder of Frictional Games (Amnesia) talking, amongst other things, about how powerful stripping “fun”/”good” gameplay mechanics can be.

    • March 1, 2012 at 8:41 pm

      I don’t know if I’d call it a money grab, as such – the writing is terrible in places, but overall it doesn’t feel rushed out or cheap, it just seems like they took it in a direction that doesn’t at all align with what the first game used as its points of difference, and the results suffer for it (in my opinion – I’m yet to read anything that really agrees with what I’ve said here, or at least anyone else that feels as strongly about it).

      I’d be very interested to hear what the approach for a full fledged sequel would be – its possible this ‘mini game’ – for want of a better term – might have just been trying to spin off another type of experience, using the same characters and world. Certainly the appearance of a ‘Horde mode’ style additional game type suggests thats what it might have been. That bit isn’t bad – if you remove all expectation of story or meaningful character interaction, the action is actually pretty enjoyable.

    • March 1, 2012 at 8:42 pm

      Also – thanks for linking in the Thomas Grip video – very keen to check that out, I’m a big fan of what Amnesia did, and really looking forward to seeing what they do with A Machine for Pigs

    • March 1, 2012 at 9:16 pm

      One more – found this chap (link below) who notes a lot of the same points on Alan Wake that I did, but still enjoyed the overall experience much, much more than I did. I suspect it really comes down to what you’re hoping to get out of it…

      http://edgeoftheinternet.net/2012/02/26/alan-wakes-american-nightmare-does-a-wonderful-job-fixing-things-i-dont-care-about/

  2. March 2, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    Maybe “money-grab” was too strong.. I meant more like, made as a sort of side project, and meant to have a wider appeal, which I suspect is to help build up funds for the next full game rather than to really expand the story/world.
    Although, on a side note, I do think it’d work really well for a franchise like Alan Wake to be released in smaller bits. While playing it I kept thinking it’d be really cool if it had been released in a serialized format, like the tv shows it emulates. Don’t know if any one else would like that though..

    Thanks for the link to the other review, I’ll check it out.

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