Monday, July 30, 2012

Alan Wake's American Nightmare review

After I finished the extra Alan Wake episodes, my appetite was whetted and I decided to roll straight into American Nightmare. This is not a true sequel; to continue the TV series comparison from my previous Alan Wake reviews, American Nightmare is a lot like a spin-off movie. Longer than the specials and with some changes to the basic formula, it has it's own self-contained story that's canon and does advance the plot, but is not necessarily required viewing.

American Nightmare has two game modes: story and arcade. The basic gameplay is mostly the same as before, but with some tweaks and added features. Rather than describe the core gameplay again, I'll focus mainly on the changes in this iteration of the series. If you're not very familiar with Alan Wake you might want to read my original description of the game.

Perhaps the biggest change to the formula is the more open-world approach in the story mode. While previously Alan Wake had very linear levels, American Nightmare has open environments across which you travel back and forth to achieve objectives. The game is still linear though, with no side missions or optional objectives (with the exception of collecting manuscript pages), as a result the open world, and certain story elements that I won't spoil here, might come across as cost-cutting measures.

This may be the case, but personally I prefer to view them as an attempt to provide the player with as much gameplay as possible for the budget. The story mode took me around 8 hours to complete, which is a respectable run time for a campaign these days. Add to that the excellent arcade mode, and there's a lot of fun to be had for something that's not a full game. Besides, the story does a great job of giving you a reason to keep backtracking, and I found it interesting to see the changes each time I revisited a familiar location.

Speaking of the story, Alan now has a new nemesis: Mr. Scratch. He is a far more personal foe in that he's essentially an evil doppelgänger. It might be a bit of a cliché, but that's because it works, and I found it to be very well handled here. This is in no small part thanks to Matthew Porretta putting in a brilliant performance as the grim Alan and the morbidly entertaining psychopath Scratch. Oh, and I love how they actually say Scratch's name in the game.

The main plot seems a bit aimless on the surface, and arguably doesn't make much sense outside of the context of the Alan Wake framework; that is, it makes sense in that literary devices drive the narrative. Why a radio telescope? Because it's a good metaphor for trying to send a message from very far away. Remember that in Alan Wake, writing is Alan's weapon; it's the story being written that shapes the reality. The story needs to be dramatic, so dramatic things happen. Yes, it can be very abstract, in fact it could even be viewed as lazy game design - you need to play a music CD in order to have an asteroid knock a satellite out of orbit?

But that's missing the point. Alan Wake has always been about blurring the line between reality and fiction; in the story that manifests as Alan directing reality with his writing. In the game that manifests as the same gameplay elements that work for the game by making it more dramatic, make sense in the story for the same reason. Why is there an assault rifle leaning against the wall here? Because Alan Wake wrote it in to make the story more dramatic and give the protagonist, himself, and advantage. Because the Remedy put it there to make the game more dramatic and give us, the players, an advantage. There's no need to stretch credibility to try to set the scene; setting the scene is now part of the narrative.

Much of the real meat of the story is told in radio and television broadcasts. The player can stand and listen or simply walk past if he chooses, but I would recommend listening in as these are actually more meaningful to Alan than his interaction with the in-game characters, who are all strangers who don't do very much other than move the plot forwards and perhaps help us see how much Alan has changed. On the radio we hear familiar voices of Alan's friends talking about how they have dealt with his disappearance, an on the television we see Mr. Scratch taunting Alan and giving us a glimpse of the atrocities he commits.

I mentioned that Alan has changed. He's not wasting any more time asking questions and wondering what's happening, he knows what's happening and what he has to do. His time fighting the Dark Presence has made him harder, tougher. It's a subtle thing I think, but I appreciate it. Alan doesn't whine or complain, he just gets on with it, and I like that. That's not to say he's emotionally dead; he does talk about his past, his old friends, about what's happened to him. His own character, the mistakes he's made, are still central to the plot. It's just that he's accepted the situation and he knows his only option is to fight.

The changes to the combat are relatively small but have some rather significant consequences. First of all, your flashlight will not burn off a Taken's protective coat of darkness without focussing. This was a huge deal for me, as I had developed a habit of momentarily dazzling Taken with a burst of focussed light to slow them down, then burning off their darkness with regular light while backing away. This meant I almost never needed to change batteries in my flashlight. The new system is balanced somewhat as the flashlight recharges more quickly, and now that I've gotten used to it I think it's a change for the better. It feels more like this is how it should work, and it makes the combat more tense and challenging.

Health works differently too. Previously health would regenerate slowly, or more rapidly when standing in a "safe haven". Now Alan's health bar is split into three sections, as long as there is some health in the current section it will regenerate, but once the section is gone it won't come back until you reach a safe haven. This is complicated by the fact that safe havens are temporarily exhausted once used, so you can't keep running in an out of one during a battle. Altogether this creates a less forgiving health system, which again ramps up the tension and difficulty.

There's a much greater variety of Taken this time around. One type of enemy can transform into a flock of birds in order to confuse and flank you. Another splits into two smaller enemies when shot. There's a misshapen giant who wields a massive buzz saw, and a one particularly annoying specimen hangs well back and throws grenades with surprising accuracy. What's more, they seem to me to be more intelligent now. The Taken have always liked popping out of the woodwork behind you, but that was about the extent of their guile, and once they had revealed themselves they would pretty much just come straight at you. Now, however, they continually try to flank you, limiting your mobility and forcing you to keep splitting your attention between multiple vectors. You have to keep track of multiple targets at once, and it becomes a nerve-wracking balancing act of splitting your fire to keep them away and focussing it to take them out.

With the Taken posing more of a threat, it's good that you have more ways to deal with them. The game features far more weapons than before, some of which are much more powerful. I was impressed to find that every single one, from the humble nail gun to the combat shotgun, was satisfying to use in some way. There's also some degree of balance; the assault rifle uses up ammunition quickly, the crossbow is extremely powerful but has a very slow fire rate, the combat shotgun is fast and powerful but takes a long time to reload.

Weapons can be unlocked by collecting manuscript pages as you progress through the game, and once unlocked are available in arcade mode. Luckily you have now have a minimap that gives you a hint when there's a manuscript page close by, so hunting them down isn't too hard, and with the open world system it's slightly less distracting than it was in the original game.

There's now ammunition restock stations scattered around levels; these will fill you up on ammunition for the weapons you are currently carrying. They can only be used once every few minutes, but this isn't much of an issue in the story mode as there's no time pressure anyway. This is about the only change that I didn't think worked very well in the story mode, as I've always considered the scarcity of ammunition to be an important factor in a survival-horror game. However, given the problems of trying to provide a balanced supply of ammunition in an open world game with a large variety of weapons, it was probably a necessary compromise. At least this way you don't have to run around exploring if you'd rather just get on with the story.

The arcade mode does away with all narrative concerns and focus on pure combat. It takes the form of arenas with waves of enemies spawning in. Your goal is to survive ten minutes and rack up a high score. You have a combo meter that builds up as you kill Taken but is instantly reset as soon as you get hit. This means that to get a good score you need a lot of Taken so you can build up a combo so each kill counts for more, but you really do need to play a flawless game to avoid have your combo broken. It creates a fast, intense and totally nerve-wracking experience as you desperately dodge enemies while continually backpedalling, frantically firing and reloading, trying to make your meagre supplies of grenades last and trying to judge when to make a break for a safe haven or ammo station.

In fact, this is the scariest Alan Wake has ever been, as a single hit can ruin your chances of a high score, so the stakes are higher than they've ever been for the actual player. Here is where all the small tweaks to the gamplay suddenly come into their own. Safe havens and ammo boxes are a valuable yet scarce resource to be carefully rationed, weapons and ammunition are more important than ever, grenades are a life-line and without flares it would be impossible to spare the time to grab a box of ammo or use a restock station.

Worthy of special mention is the way that Alan turns his head towards the nearest enemy. It seems a small thing, but you soon learn to watch out for this tiny visual cue; hit the dodge button quickly enough and if you're lucky you'll have the satisfaction of dramatically dodging a rusty scythe or axe in glorious slow-motion as a Taken emerges from the bushes behind you. If you're unlucky you've dodged too early and left yourself open, and have to scramble desperately to create some distance and bring your flashlight around before it's too late. And when you're currently being chased by six or seven Taken, desperately reloading while you wait for your flashlight to recharge, only for Alan to turn to look at something off-screen... well, that's a scary moment, let me tell you.

I've always loved the combat in Alan Wake, as I've mentioned before it's easily my favourite third person shooter based on the merits of it's combat alone. In the Arcade mode, this has been distilled to a purer experience. As a good skill-based game, you can play it over and over without getting bored, perfecting your skills and chasing a high score. The only thing missing is a multiplayer mode; playing this in split screen with a friend would be awesome.

I'm a little unsure how to score American Nightmare seeing as it's not really a full game. I decided to give it a 9 out of 10, based purely on the fact that I really did enjoy it a lot. That's a very subjective score of course, but if you take it for what it is, a little more Alan Wake with a filler story but improved combat, you'll probably enjoy it too.

BOOM! Screenshot!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Alan Wake DLC review

It's been a long time since I played Alan Wake, so the ending was not fresh in my memory when I decided to finally try the two extra missions, or "specials" in keeping with the theme of television episodes. You might want to read my original post about Alan Wake (and perhaps my spoilerrific conclusion if you've played the game).

First of all, one of my main issues with the original game was the lack of answers given at the end. These two episodes help to address that somewhat. They're called "specials" for a very good reason: like a special episode on television, they add to the story without being necessary viewing. So while they do shine some light (ha ha) on what happened to Alan, the story is still far from over. Whether or not the original end was deliberately crippled in order to sell DLC, these do have a more satisfying ending.

The core game mechanics are unchanged, but that doesn't mean it's just more of the same. The setting is more abstract, which allowed the developers to do things that wouldn't have made sense in the original game, using the core mechanics in different ways to create new gameplay. For example, there's a section where you're facing huge numbers of the Taken, but scattered around are words like "Boom" that explode when revealed by your flashlight, so you need to manoeuver carefully to use them against the Taken in order to get through. It shakes things up and keeps the game feeling fresh, so even if you're playing this right after finishing the main game, you probably won't get bored.

This is also true of the environments. No longer limited by the original setting, they are now far more abstract at times. Just like in a dream, the individual elements are all familiar, but they just don't fit together the way they should. It is, quite literally, a nightmarish landscape. Again it keeps things interesting and different.

Whether it's a result of the development team having less narrative restrictions or more financial ones, the result is some added creativity in a game that was already quite original. The developers took what was already there and tried to see what else they could with it, with great results. I hesitate to try to give these DLC episodes a score, so instead I'll just say that if you enjoyed Alan Wake you'll enjoy these, especially if like me you were disappointed with the ending.

There is still the question about whether these should actually have been part of the main game or not. I'm going to say that they don't really fit the narrative arc of the core game as they occur after the dramatic climax. In fact I would say that they make more sense as the start of the next story arc rather than the end of the current one. But if you're playing Alan Wake for the first time, especially if you've bought the PC version or special edition bundles that came with the DLC, you might want to know whether to go straight from Alan Wake into The Signal. I think the best way to approach it is to see the end of the main game as an end-of-season cliffhanger, wait a day or so, then jump right into these episodes.