reviews\ Dec 10, 2000 at 7:00 pm

American McGee's Alice - PC - Review

So speaks the Cheshire Cat in American McGee's macabre variation of the tale of Alice in Wonderland.  Although Alice did have her enemies and trials in the original Lewis Carroll stories, American McGee takes the world of Wonderland to a whole new level. Portraying many familiar places and characters from the original stories and adding more than a few of its own, the player is introduced to a land where things are anything but a pleasant fairy tale.

Upon first glance, some might wonder if American McGee's Alice is simply a shallow attempt to take a familiar children's story and turn it into a shooter with a mere setting change. This couldn't be further from the truth. This game creates not just a new setting - but also a whole environment from visual to visceral in which the player, familiar with the stories or not, is treated to a gaming experience inarguably different from any previous.

The intro movie quickly brings you up to speed on just how and why Alice has "gone through a few attitude changes" since you might have heard of her last. You learn at the inception of the game that Alice was the sole survivor of a fire that consumed the lives of the rest of her family. The trauma leads to grave mental illness  - so much in fact that she is institutionalized and she rescinds from society. Her sole companion: an old battered stuffed white rabbit, Alice's connection to the Wonderland of her childhood and her bridge to the dark Wonderland she is to be plunged into.

Greeted bruskly by the ever time-conscious rabbit and then more formally welcomed by the now mangy and quite gleefully sinister looking Cheshire Cat, your quest begins. The Cheshire Cat is worth mentioning as an excellent and unique concept in Alice. Aside from his strangely suave appeal, the Cheshire Cat serves as a charming companion and tutor during many key points in the game. It might be hard to imagine for some, but despite the fact that he looks rather mangy, has an earring, and dons the trademark luminescent eyes and smile (with the addition of a smug grim and plenty of teeth), you might wish you had a cool cat like him around the house.

 The game play in 'Alice' is predominantly action. After all, Alice has a whole lot of demons to rid herself of (both physically and mentally). Health levels are measured as “Sanity” levels and there are meters for both life force and magic force. Life force and magic force can be restored in the form of jewel-like crystals that Alice may find along the way or in the form of “life-essence” surrendered by slain enemies. The bigger the enemy, the bigger the jewel will be. Another “jewel” of a find; Alice may come across items which transform her briefly into a more demon-like being which wreaks even more havoc upon the foes who have the misfortune to be within her grasp.

The enemies are sometimes specific variations of the original Alice stories, such as the Card Guards, the Tweedle Brothers, Centipede, and of course, your arch nemesis - The Queen of Hearts. Other enemies, although not familiar, are rendered with detail and are definitely not like anything you've seen before. For example, the detailing and modeling of common ordinary insects into full size foes (they would be that big if you’d had a sip of a shrinking potion) was impressive. With bomb/acorn dropping winged bugs and fully uniformed “army ants” you’ll never look at your garden the same way again. The variety is consistent throughout the game: Although you might see some foes more than once - each level has a slightly different creature to add to the mix.

 Over the course of the game Alice will collect 10 weapons of increasing potency. Some examples include your more typical vorpal blade, a demented jack-in-the-box/grenade, some quite nifty jacks which surround your enemy, and demonic dice which summon demons to your command. Some of the weapons are dependent on magic levels while others are melee weapons. These weapons can easily be shuffled or summoned by number keys.

The adventure aspects of the game include puzzles, fairly linear quests (like the collection of potion components), jumping and climbing, and other thought-out feats of agility. The Pale Realm, which included marvelously crafted white and red chess pieces, includes portions where Alice must take the forms of various pieces and maneuver the board in order to proceed. For the most part, the adventure aspects remain unintrusive to the forward progress of the game - but there is just enough to remind you that this is after all based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - not a mindless massacre.

There are a wide variety of settings and unique level designs to be experienced while playing this game. Each level design is noticeably different from one another - evading the sometimes monotonous tones of some action/arcade titles. Some are fascinating to look at and have a very M.C. Escher-like feel. It's hard to get bored or use to any particular method of approaching this game when it seems like every time you learn the rules - the rules change. Whether Alice is a giant or as small as a mouse, the variety of levels are impressive. Definite compliments go out to the originality and effort that went into creating the many faceted levels/worlds that make American McGee's Alice a cut above the rest.

 American McGee's Alice also offers something for those who ache for a little philosophy to go with their carnage. Alice doesn't completely disregard the intellectual side of things, opting to add some deeper meaning to Alice's struggle against the denizens of the malformed Wonderland. The game uses familiar characters such as the Cheshire Cat and Caterpillar to reveal that it is Alice's own self-torment and guilt over her real-life tragedy that has transfigured Wonderland into the hell that it has become. It is her mission to overcome her guilt and self-pity in order to restore sanity to Wonderland - and as you would conjecture - to restore her own sanity.

As a side note: For those who have read and enjoyed the books - it is completely evident that the creation of the game did not get any of its information from the Disney version of the story. The anecdotes and words of wisdom spoken by many of the characters will make you "curiouser and curiouser" to go back and revisit the books yourself.

In conclusion, American McGee's Alice delivers a truly immersive game which defies comparison. Whether or not you've read the books - it doesn't take long to be lost in the addictiveness and atmosphere of the game. So hurry up and follow the white rabbit - "You're Late!"

 American McGee's Alice is rated M for animated violence and animated blood and gore.

Game Play (9): Certainly the first fear in encountering such a graphically intensive game is the fear that game play smoothness will be sacrificed for "looks." No need to worry in this case. My system matched the recommended requirements and with only a few exceptions of gameplay slowdown, even at the highest possible detail, I experienced a flawless ride down the proverbial rabbit hole. There are very few controls in the game and they were extremely easy to learn and to customize to personal preferences.

Graphics (9.5): Alice has taken the Quake III Arena Engine and given it an increased depth and scope of color. Alice is rendered smoothly from her blue dress (somewhat reminiscent of our own recollections of the story with the addition of some arcane symbols), to her vivid green eyes. The M rating is vividly illustrated in the detailed and grotesque deaths of many of her foes. As previously mentioned, you won't soon forget that ominously glitter of the Cheshire Cat's eyes and smile. The coloring and depth of the Pale Realm left an impression I won't soon forget.

Sound (8.5): Voice casting was done very well for this game. Alice has a pleasant and soothing accent as a lovely contrast to her deadly purpose and hard-edged attitude. The Cheshire Cat also has quite a unique, somewhat sinister voice to match that wickedly toothy grin. The original soundtrack was suitably matched to the somber and dark atmosphere of the game although not drawing too much (perhaps too little?) attention to itself. 

Difficulty (9): The game options allow for four levels: Easy, Medium, Hard, and Nightmare. Each seems to be logically scaled for the novice to advanced gamer.

Concept (10): An absolute original! As previously mentioned, American McGee’s Alice goes above and beyond the typical game in its genre – providing a gleefully wicked, intelligent, and dark twist not only to a familiar fairy tale but also to the action/adventure category itself. Whoever thinks that there’s no such thing as an original concept in the gaming world hasn’t played this game yet!

Overall (10): Kudos to a truly original and fascinating new idea in the gaming community. Anyone can make a dark atmosphere and tough characters - but Alice is a wonderful and WITTY adaptation of a familiar story into an intriguing and addictive action/adventure experience.

Installation: Easy. Alice delivers a truly complex and impressive game - recommending 620 MB hard drive space and also saving some room for saved games.


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