American McGee's Alice

Review by Old Rooster
January 2002

"How Do You Know I'm Mad?"

"You must be, or you wouldn't have come here," replies the Cheshire Cat to Alice's query. One of the most interesting and intriguing efforts of the last two years to bridge the gap between action and adventure gaming is now available at "bargain bin" prices (for the PC version) in most stores. While playing Alice, I thought of several rather disparate titles: Sanitarium, Rayman 2, MDK2, and even The Longest Journey. How did this strange game develop?

In an interview for the Prima Strategy Guide, American McGee, an ex-id designer, says that "I chose Alice because the characters and environments really spoke to me. In them I saw the chance to do something unique in a game, and to really expand the current genre." McGee approaches Alice from an adult perspective, not the Disney version. Indeed, he believes Lewis Carroll's efforts were only secondarily children's books and were intended, in large measure, as a commentary on politics of the time. Whatever the rationalization may be, the resultant game delivers, for the most part, quite nicely on his intention to be different, creative and expansive.

"Poor Dear, After All These Years" —Asylum Nurse

Set in Victorian England, ten years after the escapades of Carroll's fictional Alice, our "adventure" begins with the horrifying circumstances (note the M rating) leading to the death of Alice's parents and her institutionalization as a "troubled and difficult patient" who "clings precariously to life" (Dr. Wilson's Casebook). Her remaining possession from the fire, given to Alice by a kindly nurse, is a scruffy white rabbit, which acts as a "sentinel" to Alice's deepening dementia.

Dr. Wilson, of course, doesn't realize the comatose Alice has started upon a mental quest (real? imaginary? both?), which reminds somewhat of the story in Sanitarium. Late one night, Alice is summoned by the hurrying White Rabbit to revisit her old haunts in Wonderland. Matters have deteriorated considerably over the last decade, with an evil twistedness (literally and figuratively) pervading the land of previously more benign characters—dominated by the formidable Fat Chick, er, I mean Queen of Hearts, a truly psychotic ruler who gets off on torture (again, note the M rating).

Playing as Alice, third-person style, your job is to put things right, not only for the sake of Wonderland, but also for your own mental health. You'll explore such "delightful" worlds as the Village of the Doomed, the Fortress of Doors, the Vale of Tears, Looking Glass Land, the Land of Fire and Brimstone, and Queensland (not the one in Australia!).

How Is the Game Set up and Managed?

The interface, controls and manual for Alice are, overall, above average. If you're comfortable with the likes of Tomb Raider or Heavy Metal: FAKK2, you'll have little trouble plunging (or, rather, jumping) right in. Controls are configurable and work smoothly. Health ("level of sanity") and ammo ("strength of will") bars are on the perimeter of the screen, with a targeting reticule included to assist in weapon ("toy") aiming. Footprints are helpfully included when you look down while on the threshold of a jump, showing where you're likely to land from that position. This is most useful, given the frequency and repetitiveness of these maneuvers. Swimming and vine-climbing are also present, as is a "call up" of the Cheshire Cat for hints (often ambiguous). Weapon selection and control can be sluggish at times. The following camera is outstanding, rarely putting you in a dead-end position.

How Does it Look and Sound?

Graphically, Alice is one of the best-looking PC games of the last two years—a showcase for the Quake III engine, surpassing even FAKK2. With superlative lighting effects, huge and intricate levels, and lifelike character animations, the gamer is pulled inexorably around the next corner to view more of this bizarre and twisted world. On my PIII 450, with 128 MB RAM and a 32 MB video card, the game ran beautifully.

Music and voice acting are exemplary. Reminding at time of the themes from Disney World's Haunted Mansion attraction, the eerie renderings of Chris Vreenta (founder of Nine Inch Nails) help set the tone for this deteriorated Wonderland. Voice acting is equally superb, with the actor portraying the Cheshire Cat deserving of a "PC Game Emmy."

How Does the Game Play?

It's a good thing the 15 levels are so different, large and stunning, since you need to like, or at least not mind, jumping. You also will be involved in considerable killing and, an action gamer favorite, "circle strafing." Indeed, it's fortunate the ingenious level design and graphics make it so hard to leave Alice's world, since it is with essential gameplay I have some real concerns.

First, the pedestrian, minimalist nature of jumping and switch pulling may speak to McGee's desire to "expand the current genre" and "be accessible to a wider market," but let me respectfully suggest that "wider market" has a gameplay expectancy beyond what we find in Alice. After the first third or so, the play mechanics become dull—only pulled along by graphic and level design anticipation. In this regard, Rayman 2 and MDK2 did the play bit better and are better games overall.

Another area of concern relates to the novel but anemic weapons/toys and related combat. From selection (slow) to usage (quite slow), you often can't react in time to sudden onslaughts.

And the last, perhaps most telling, disappointment is what Alice could have been. Imagine if this world became that of a true adventure game—such as the universe of April Ryan in The Longest Journey—filled with true character interaction, conversations, meaningful puzzles, and a complete storyline. American McGee's stated goal of having a "great story" is the least accomplished of his objectives.

"Knowing Where You're Going Is Preferable to Being Lost" —Cheshire Cat

Now, lest I sound overly hard, I should say that gameplay dullness aside, the title is entertaining, with such characters as Card Guards, Mad Hatter's Automatons, a teleporting Duchess with a pepper shaker, a Jabberwock, and, of course, the levitating Queen with her nasty talons. Your friends the Cat, the White King, the March Hare, and Bill McGill are also good to have around. Weapons range from the default blooded butcher's knife (toned down in the Wal-Mart version) to Jacks O' Death, Demon Dice, and a Blunderbuss.

With dozens of characters and weapons, as well as twisty-turvy levels, it's unfortunate that the "filling of the pie," so to speak, wasn't nearly as enriched as the surrounding "crust," particularly from a story perspective.

Is the Game Fun and Recommended?

American McGee's Alice is a fine game but not an outstanding product when appraised in overall terms, and particularly from an adventure gamer's vantage point. The graphics, aurals, levels and characters all enhance the likelihood of your visit to Wonderland being entertaining—for a while. However, with McGee's willingness to be generic with gameplay and story, we are ultimately let down by excessive and pointless jumping, poor combat, and a rather empty, noninteractive narrative. It's a very pretty and novel game but also flawed, I'm afraid. My "thumb-up" rating is due largely to the graphics, acting, and level design. If you approach it with that expectancy, you may well be pleased.

What I Liked the Most

The novel gameworld and levels; stunning graphics; wonderful voice acting.

What I Liked the Least

Scripted, very basic storyline; too much jumping; awkward combat/weapon scheme. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Rogue Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 2000

Available for: Macintosh Windows

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System Requirements

PC:
PII 400 (PIII 500 recommended)
64 MB RAM (128 MB recommended)
16 MB OpenGL capable video card (32 MB recommended)
580 MB free HD space

Macintosh:
MacOS 8.6 or later
MacOSX compatible
400 MHz or faster
128 MB of memory
4X CD-ROM drive
Hardware 3D Acceleration required (ATI 128 or later)

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