Early Hours with…

American McGee's Alice

Tom's Comments: When did first person shooters become platform games like we play on our console systems? I guess I'm a little slow to pick up on this sort of thing, because Alice is clearly a running and jumping platform game in which the combat is rarely more complex than the act of jumping on a turtle's shell. It is even more linear and not quite as attractive as the latest platform games for the Dreamcast. And the game world, which I had hoped would offer a dark and demented take on Lewis Carroll's vision, is sadly conventional.

And on your left you'll see...

Five worlds into the game (each consisting of a few levels), I've come across nary a fork in the road; it's as linear as a Disney ride, with absolutely no sense of exploration or choice. There's a powerful feeling of being guided from point A to point B, with enemies X, Y, and Z placed very intentionally in your path. This is partly due to the fact that the Quake III engine mainly does tunnels, but it's also clearly a design decision. It's as if the developers didn't want you to miss anything they've created. "Hey, look at this weird thing we made!" American McGee's Alice seems to say. "Check this out over here!" it calls out, or "Don't miss this cool thing!" You can hardly blame the devlopers for wanting to showcase their work, but Alice feels more like a guided tour than a game.

The stuff Alice has showed me so far is, well...interesting, I suppose. But in interviews and previews, American McGee has hinted that his game would be a darker modern take on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland stories. The premise is that Wonderland, which exists in Alice's mind, has gone all wrong after she suffers a horrible mental trauma and tries to commit suicide. But Wonderland is already supposed to be a world gone wrong. It is the other side of the looking glass, where everything is twisted backwards and upside down. How are you supposed to make the odd even odder? In Carroll's terms, how do you make the curious even curiouser?

As curious and as curious

Not like this. I've seen nothing even remotely disturbing in American McGee's Alice. Alice herself seems a very proper young girl, polite in the truest English sense of the word. She is well-adjusted and kind, traipsing about on quests to help a gnome make a potion or a turtle find his shell. As presented here, the world of Wonderland is not only as interactive as a Disney ride, but just as subversive. This is mainstream level design. There's nothing here you couldn't see in FAKK 2, KISS: Psycho Circus, an Abe's Oddworld Adventure, or even on your typical Playstation platformer. There's lava and an ice world and glowing mushrooms that bounce you like trampolines. Oh, look, the grandfather clock has an eyeball for a pendulum. Hey, whaddaya know, Alice has a little skull on the bow at the back of her dress. Gosh, the card soldiers spurt blood when you cut them in half. Ooh, the Rabbit died. Whoa, that little schoolboy has calipers clamped on his head. Houses built at skewed angles and a conventionally strange touch every twenty minutes does not make for a disturbing game. Like linear level design, it's another tough challenge for the developers: when all games are weird, none of them are weird.

The character animation is very good. Alice rocks back on her heels when she talks. She explains that she wishes "to become about this big" and then she holds her finger and thumb about an inch apart in front of her face. She's awfully cute. But her control is twitchy and abrupt. She takes dainty little steps, fitting for a young girl in a blue dress. This gives her a herky jerky movement that makes some of the running and jumping difficult, not to mention trying to circle strafe around a giant ant and smack him with your knife. The Cheshire Cat appears from time to time to offer some "no duh" advice, but he's a wonderful design and voiced beautifully with a flinty English calm, like Terence Stamp holding a shotgun at his side and giving some thug a gentle talking to. Chris Vrenna's music is sinister and playful, very much like the excellent soundtrack to Monolith's first Blood.

Might as well jump

So far, so good. I can live with linear games and conventional level design. But let me tell you why I hate American McGee's Alice so far. The main challenge of the game is twofold: limited ammo and jumping puzzles. This means a lot of saving and replaying. I suspect I'm about half way through the game and I already have fifty saved games on my hard drive (taking up 75MB of hard drive space), not because I'm an overcautious player, but because I have yet to find a section that I would enjoy replaying. Once I make a jump or a timed rope swing or kill an enemy and replenish my ammo, I'm loathe to do it again. But Alice will fall and die and run out of ammo frequently and suddenly. She might be swept back to the beginning of level or dropped at the bottom of a difficult climbing sequence. For a linear game, American McGee's Alice offers loops, setbacks, and dead ends at nearly every turn.

Alice features a clever little jump targeting mode that shows you a pair of feet where the character would land if she jumped at a given moment. This looks like it will be a great help early on, but then you hit the really tricky jumping puzzles. Jumping on ice. Jumping on rocks in a fast river. Jumping over lava. Jumping when you're being attacked by things you can't see. Jumping on moving platforms. Getting knocked off moving platforms by dangling obstacles. This is how you will spend the bulk of your time in American McGee's Alice.

It's worth noting that I've also been playing Rayman 2 on the Dreamcast lately. Perhaps the comparison is unfair, because Rayman 2 is very nearly a work of creative genius. It is continually presenting me with new ways to play, new situations, new environments, new paradigms. The way to make a platform game -- or any game for that matter -- is to present the player with paradigms and then break them. As you play Super Mario Brothers, you can only jump so high. But then you eat a mushroom and you can fly and it becomes a completely different game. In Alice, the paradigm is established early, often, and iron-clad. And so far the game world just isn't interesting enough to sustain this kind of homogeniety.

Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Rogue Entertainment
Genre: Platform game
Requirements: P400, 64MB RAM, 16MB OpenGL compatiable video card, 580 MB hard drive space
Expected street date: now

December 7, 2000

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