American McGee's Alice review
Whitewashes mediocre gameplay with relentless production quality
How does one go about expanding on a well known classic? Insert a dash of Silent Hill into the world!
If the first thing you think of whenever the name Alice pops up is Alice In Wonderland, then that's awesome... I mean, if the first thing that pops up is that chick from that godawful anime Bakugan, then you might need to have your head examined... but yeah, Alice In Wonderland is something we've all experienced in some form over the years, whether it be the original book written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the Disney animated adaptation, one of the weakest levels in the Kingdom Hearts series, the live action adaptation directed by Nick Willing, or the live action sequel of sorts directed by Tim Burton. But what about this one? Well, a lot of people who played video games back in the year 2000 and maybe a couple of years since would've played this, but everyone else? Probably not, but I'm not going to lie - I don't blame them. It's not that this game is bad or anything, but this is one of those games that father time wasn't exactly kind to. It just doesn't have the edge that many games – old and new – have, and it's that unwillingness to go beyond the beyond or at least try to be fun that hurts the game in the long run.
So Alice was sleeping soundly one night when the house suddenly lit on fire. She survives, but her parents die. This leads to her losing her mind, and she's sent to an insane asylum. In order to reclaim her sanity, she has to go through Wonderland, which has become dark, twisted and evil under the rule of the Queen Of Hearts, and get it back. It's a reasonably good concept, mostly because it makes for a nice twist for the brand name. I mean don't get me wrong, Alice In Wonderland can be scary, but only very mildly at best and because it's so trippy – I, myself, haven't tried this yet, but I heard if you watched the Disney movie adaptation while on acid, it's supposed to be really, really trippy, and pretty freaky – but this one goes the extra mile by including a lot of dark elements, like death and psychopathy. Sure, the books and movies had their moments, but never to this magnitude.
It's a bit of a shame that the actual words don't tell the story – alas, there are only minimal amounts of dialogue and barely any room to tell the story, but this is where the visuals tend to tell a deeper story, describing this Wonderland as a dark and foreboding place, not allowing any intruders, unless they want to be hung and/or shot by the firing squad.
It's backed up by a legitimately creepy atmosphere... well, it was creepy back in 2000 and 2001, but not quite so much in 2011. Either way, it's full of grim and depressing colors to at least set the mood for those who are deaf. But it's not all grey and brown - there are also some greens in the forest and some reds for blood and the queen herself. On top of that, it's not just some dark castle with a fair amount of gothic architecture - like I said, there's a forest, and there's also the mechanical hell that is the Mad Hatter's asylum, among some other environments. So there's a fair amount of variety in the environments, but what really rocks the house is the lighting - it's not the best in the world, but it's all done in a way that adds to the atmosphere. Then there are the character designs - those of you who are familiar with the old designs will be pleasantly surprised by how distorted and jagged they ended up becoming. The Cheshire Cat, for instance, is completely skinned, and Alice's innocent-ish design is pretty ironic when she's carving up a bunch of the queen's soldiers. Of course, by today's standards, this is pretty tame, especially with games like Dead Space running around, but it has a lot of heart, and that's what'll get you somewhere in my books – heart.
Technically speaking though, this was considered fantastic back upon release. It blew everyone away, utilizing the Quake 3 engine with finesse and a lot of attention paid to ever so intricate detail. It's just a shame that monitors bigger than 1024x768 tend to pixelate the textures and make it look dated, but hey, that's just my fault for playing it on a 1920x1080 monitor. But that doesn't really hurt the game too badly – Deus Ex is my favorite game, and god, its graphics aged poorly, especially up on a 1920x1080 monitor – it's just a case of tolerating some pixelation here and there, or having a smaller monitor. Sure, there are games like Crysis and Final Fantasy XIII that boast picture perfect graphics, but for the time, Alice managed to impress people.
Sheesh, I think that's enough about the graphics. The game has some top notch sound design too, so let's talk about that next. The soundtrack has this haunting atmosphere to it, managing to suck you into the game and give off the impression that Wonderland has most certainly seen better days. If the graphics haven't done you in, the soundtrack will. It just provides a hell of a lot of ambiance that will keep you on your toes. Nothing here is memorable, but it doesn't need to be – it knows that it's all about portraying the atmosphere as opposed to providing catchy beats, and I applaud them for that. The voice acting is alright, but there isn't much of it there, though the Cheshire Cat is definitely one you'll remember in the long run... he just has that Hannibal Lector quality to him.
Unfortunately, as excellent as the presentation may be, the gameplay isn't exactly mindblowingly awesome, or even all that good for that matter. It's actually a rather straightforward affair, consisting of platforming, puzzle solving and shooting, but without the heart and soul. It's all basically manufactured so that they could justify it being a game when they could've – and should've – released this as a movie.
Platforming is easy as pie... or is it? Well, the basics are there – jump across gaps or up ledges too high to walk up. One thing this game does that I haven't seen much of in other games is give you a good idea of where you'll land when jumping. See, before you jump, when you're standing still, you'll get to move this silhouette of Alice's feet, and when you choose the spot, just jump, and you'll automatically jump there. Of course, you have to time it so that you land on the platform if it's moving. After a while, though, it's gone and you'll need to jump without the help of this system. Okay, I understand if it was to try and increase the challenge, but if that was the case, then why have it in the first place? Without this feature, platforming can be a bit tricky, as you have to estimate how far you'll jump and if you'll make it or not. At least Alice is able to grab onto ledges if she's close enough. Oh, and thank god for the nifty quicksave/quickload feature that was implemented, or else, I'd have a bit of trouble finishing the game. It just feels like the keyboard and mouse weren't meant for 3D platformers because you can't gauge your jumps properly with the WASD scheme nearly as precisely as you could with the analogue sticks found on the PS1 and N64 controllers (well, until the N64's starts flailing about). 2D, yes, but 3D? Nah.
As per usual for platformers, you'll encounter puzzles. Unfortunately, they're sparse in number and feel like dumbed down Tomb Raider-esque switch puzzles where you must press switches in a certain order – that, or some silly collect-athon. Pretty typical stuff for platformers, and nothing here is anything special. You've probably done this a million times. There IS an interesting idea to be found, though, and that's in the chessboard level where you're a chess piece, and must abide by the rules of chess, meaning as a bishop, you can only move diagonally, and as a knight, you can only move in an L pattern, but you can jump over your other pieces. It was nice to experience something different, even it was just chess, because everything else in this department is typical and nothing really exciting.
Now, throughout the review, you would've seen two different bars on the sides of the screenshots. They're important. One of them shows how much health or “sanity” you have left (of course, we don't want Alice dying on us now, do we), and the other shows how much ammo or “will” you have left. Pretty self explanatory from there on – and if you need a refresher course, using weapons consumes ammo, and killing enemies can give you a refill – so let's move on to the combat.
Whenever locked into combat, it plays out like a third person shooter, but Alice doesn't have any guns; she begins with a knife, and then her arsenal expands to toys, like a deck of cards, an exploding jack in the box, a croquet mallet, and demon summoning dice to a name a few. To begin with, combat is actually good, as you're forced to strategize a bit. Throwing cards at faraway enemies before engaging in melee combat is all good, but then you get the ice rod at about the halfway point, and if the name doesn't describe it all, then I will – it'll freeze enemies. It's easy to abuse until you're out of ammo, but as dead enemies leave refills, plus your ammo refills slowly as you're up and about, well, the combat stops being fun. The strategy is all gone; all you're doing is running and firing relentlessly. It ends up becoming a snoozefest as you kill enemies with ease. Bosses aren't much better – it's just a case of circle strafing and collecting refills so you can dominate with ease. Yawn.
Alice could've been a fantastic game, but unfortunately, good presentation does not necessarily a good game make. The gameplay had limitless potential, but it was always wedged between being nothing special, and “well, at least it's trying”. Fun isn't a feeling that you'll experience all that often here, especially since keyboards and mice are not very good with 3D platforming, and with the lack of will to excel and ascend beyond the beyond, Alice just isn't that impressive. It's certainly one worth playing, but don't expect a mastetpiece... in fact, that might be my problem. I came in expecting a masterpiece, as many review sites have given this game 8's and 9's, yet here I am, giving it a 6.5/10. Oh, and I used to love this game as a child. Oh nostalgia, you crazy fool!
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