American McGee is not well. Anyone who takes the surreal, twisted world of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and turns it into an even more surreal, twisted version of itself can't be sane. But, whatever is going on inside his head, one can only hope it never goes away because that cranial cart wheeling has created one of the most unusual and spectacular games ever.
Although some detractors may feel the game's environment took all the developer's time at the expense of gameplay, one can contend that the environments provide a unique and original space necessary to experience the game. In case you haven't heard, American McGee's Alice was developed by Rogue Entertainment, best known for the Quake expansion pack Dissolution of Eternity and the Quake II mission pack Ground Zero. The game, based on Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass, is published by Electronic Arts and uses the Quake III engine, two facts that only close inspection will reveal. The Quake III engine has been bent and twisted in such a way you won't even notice it since you'll be so engrossed in the environments it has created.
The game begins with an intro of a peaceful Alice asleep in her bed, clutching her stuffed rabbit (that rabbit is important, as those familiar with the story already know). Her real cat, skittish as cats tend to be, knocks over an oil lamp during a nightly romp and, before you know it, the house goes up in flames. Alice manages to escape, but only after failing to save her parents from the inferno. Things take a turn for the worse as we find Alice's new home is inside an asylum. She's still clutching her rabbit, but stripped of all emotion and severely damaged emotionally by her inability to save her parents, her demeanor has taken a downturn. Something or someone calls her, asking her to save them. She has no choice, and leaves the asylum to begin a journey to cleanse Wonderland of the evil plague induced by the Red Queen.
You control Alice from a third-person perspective and the beginning of the level serves as a pseudo-training period, beginning with Alice falling through a swirling maelstrom and landing right smack in Wonderland. The White Rabbit is there to greet her and beckons her to follow. Of course, he's in a hurry and can shrink to fit into a mouse hole. Unfortunately, Alice can't, so her options are limited, setting up her first task -- find a way to follow him.
Before embarking on your quest, take some time to look around -- the architecture is immediately spectacular with Tim Burton-esque angles and buildings. The attention to every detail is apparent from the hopping rooftops of the mushroom houses, to the giant, lazily rocking castle floating in space. From the chessboard universe where Alice spars with evil red pawns and knights and is helped by malevolent white ones, to the textures used to bring them all to life. Every item in the game world, whether large or small, has personality that significantly adds to the immersion factor. Grandfather clocks sway back and forth, and whole rooms stretch and fall away, floating in violent, swirling vortexes and chessboard universes hovering in space. For those who take the time to notice, little surprises are everywhere -- the gate you looked through is seen from the other side as the entrance to the castle. The game never gets boring and always surprises and amazes with attention to detail. There is some minor puzzle solving, but nothing more than a pedestrian challenge.
None other than the Cheshire Cat guides you along, complete with a grin that makes you expect to see an empty birdcage and a feather sticking out of his mouth. He appears suddenly, offering cryptic and arcane advice at certain points throughout the game, then disappears just as quickly before you get the chance to ask him what the hell he's talking about. In fairness to the feline, what he meant usually becomes apparent right after he fades. You will meet several other friendly characters, an aspect that makes you feel as though the world is actually inhabited, not simply a wave of bad guys constantly attacking for no apparent reason. Speaking of bad guys, unique is the only way to describe the playing-card soldier baddies of lore who are playing cards with a head, arms and legs; flying militant ladybugs that drop bombs; floating, screaming, robe-wearing skulls (for lack of a better name); and chess pawns with eyes. Even on the medium setting, these guys are no slouches and you'll want to keep a close eye on your health.
The sound is spectacular yet subdued. If you are familiar with the soundtrack that accompanies Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, you'll have an excellent idea of what awaits you here. A brooding, haunting melody (created by former Nine Inch Nails member Chris Vrenna) escorts you throughout the levels. You'll probably find the soundtrack eliciting a more visceral response than the game itself. Sound effects are no different; used sparingly makes them so effective. The creaking of the rocking castle. The hissing of the gas collecting esophagi. The slow, deliberate ticking of the grandfather clocks. Every sound adds as much to every object and environment as the architecture.
The control scheme, familiar to those who have played Quake III or Unreal Tournament or any of about a hundred other similar games, defaults to the "WASD" control scheme and works well. Control is smooth and responsive with the only exception being jumping and climbing. Alice tends to have a delayed response when jumping and that leads to plummeting into a swirling vortex.
Additionally, climbing up from a hanging position is somewhat of a chore with repeated key-presses required to get Alice to perform the action. You can't shoot when hanging, but you can be hit, so get to a standing position fast. Climbing and swinging on vines, on the other hand, is easily accomplished using the "Enter" key for climbing and the W and S keys to swing back and forth.
Weapon selection is as unique as the game itself. Alice picks up a knife early on, but soon comes across a staff that shoots bolts of energy, playing cards that can be hurled individually or in groups of four, dice that emit a deadly gas, a watch that stops time and, my favorite, jacks that assault enemies with multiple hits. Even the knife is a very effective weapon; the alternative fire throws the knife to hit distant enemies without using your magical energy, important since taking them on exclusively hand to hand will quickly put you down. Other weapons have an alternate fire option that uses some magical energy. Since Alice has only a limited supply, you'll want to pick up more of it when you get the chance. Defeating your foes and collecting their meta-essence regains health and energy. Get all you can -- the longer you take to collect it, the more it decays until it disappears altogether.
Unfortunately, multiplayer isn't supported, without any indication of a future patch, but I'm keeping my hopes up. Deathmatching as the Pawn, White Rabbit or Jack of Spades would warrant the purchase price alone. Unfortunately, without a multiplayer component, the game doesn't offer much replay value. Once you've been through it, you'll already know what lies around each corner and the surprises from the first time just aren't as effective a second time.
The documentation is also a bit disappointing. A sparse guide explains the keys, interface, loading, and saving conventions. Manuals should be complete (as this is), but should also be written to accommodate the novice as well as the seasoned gamer. This manual assumes a certain level of familiarity with the genre that isn't necessarily possessed by all gamers. Also included is a very interesting casebook illustrating Alice's external manifestations of her delusional journeys through Wonderland by means of entries written by her asylum caretaker.
Finally, the game ran well, even on a lowly 450 MHz Pentium II with a Riva TNT2 Ultra video card with no slowdowns or choppiness. Quick loading was practically instantaneous and kept the gameplay moving. The Quake III engine really shines in this regard.
Ultimately, American McGee's Alice leaves good impressions, even with some minor negatives: difficulty in hoisting Alice onto ledges from a hanging position, occasional unresponsiveness as far as the jumping is concerned, fluctuating difficulty in some places, and one ultra-irritating jumping puzzle. However, these concerns are so minor when compared to the splendor of the game's universe, you will gladly overlook them in order to see what bizarre setting lies beyond the next portal. It's safe to say that the adventure is a must buy and will most certainly be a contender for game of the year honors.
Graphics: It's the Quake III engine bent and twisted in such spectacular ways that you'll forget what was used to create the game to marvel at the creation. It's ironic that showing creative engine use causes you to forget all about it.
Sound: Chris Vrenna may not have been the main man in Nine Inch Nails, but his eerily haunting soundtrack sets the mood perfectly, bringing the whole game experience to another level, becoming an integral part of the game.
Enjoyment: What's not to love? The Dr. Seuss-ian environments are incredible and diverse, the music is perfect, the enemies are unique and creative, adding up to a complete package. Some minor control issues and questionable puzzle solving serve as temporary distractions, but the overall game is so well designed these can be overlooked.
Replay Value: There are some structural differences between difficulty levels. On a medium difficulty settings, Alice jumps from floor tiles as they disassemble and reassemble, but on the easy setting she walks across the floor with no jumping required. Most other differences are in the form of less and faster-decaying meta-essence released by enemies. Enemies aren't any harder to defeat, nor do they appear to come in higher numbers. The main reason to play again would be to take the time to examine the environmental details missed the first time through, not to actually experience the game a second time.
People who downloaded American McGee's Alice have also downloaded:
Alone in the Dark 4: The New Nightmare, Alone in the Dark, Blair Witch Volume 1: Rustin Parr, Alone in the Dark 2, Alone in the Dark 3, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (a.k.a. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone), Agharta: The Hollow Earth, Drakan: Order of the Flame
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