Alice's doll-like face and striking green eyes aren't the only things that will captivate your attention in Alice: Madness Returns. Like its PC predecessor, American McGee's Alice has been distorted, but the Wonderland that exists in Alice's mind is as disturbing as it is beautiful. At an EA press event during the week of the Game Developers Conference, we were able to play through a part of Queensland, which occurs late in the game, to get a feel for how the controls work. It wasn't easy, especially because it was three-quarters of the way through the game, but with God mode on and access to all the weapons, we got to face some new foes and experiment with our arsenal of deadly kitchenware.
Queensland might be familiar to those who have ventured here before. Alice had to make her way through the rundown castle, with fallen columns and cracked flooring. We got a sense of just how deserted this place was from the torn reddish curtains that dangled along the walls and were highlighted by the warm rays of the sun. We were told that there are six different domains in the game and that Alice will be traveling back and forth from London to Wonderland to uncover the mysterious death of her parents 10 years prior. You'll once again be able to summon the Cheshire cat for hints and come across familiar faces, like the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit.
In this section of the demo, after coming across a lovely pink flower, Alice was able to shrink. This gave her the ability to see things that she couldn't normally see in her normal form, such as platforms. Using this ability, Alice could also see the scrawled clues and messages that insane children had left behind with chalk. With her triple jump and floating abilities (that leave behind a stream of beautiful blue butterflies), she could make her way across the chasm without much difficulty. But once we arrived on the other side, we were greeted by card guards and a couple of other enemies that took some experimentation to destroy.
The card guards can be attacked with your vorpal blade; once they fall over, you can finish them off with the deadly hobby horse, which is essentially a heavy club. There is a stronger-looking card guard that is also armed with a hammer and is vulnerable to your pepper grinder ranged attack. The pepper grinder has a free-roam option so that you can move the cursor yourself, or you can keep it in auto-lock mode. You'll find that Alice is well equipped this time around, as she also carries a teapot cannon that lobs deadly grenades. Using the right trigger, you can fire a stream of (pepper?) pellets with it or use the B button to place a bomb on the ground to distract the guard. Your bombs are disguised as mechanical bunnies with top hats. You can place these top hats anywhere and press B again to detonate them, which stuns the guard long enough for you to run over and stab its vulnerable back. Another burly black creature with multiple porcelain-doll faces and legs needed to have its shield taken down before we could actually hit it. By holding A, you can whip out your umbrella and reflect the projectiles that the creatures are tossing at you and send them back at the creatures. Some of the tougher creatures have weaknesses that you'll have to exploit to dispose of them, so it's not as easy as just hacking and slashing your way through the scenes.
Alice eventually made her way into the garden where she recovered another lost memory from the gazebo. As you go through the game, you'll pick up audio clips from the past or watch them unfold via a Victorian paper theatre. It's these moments that eventually lead Alice to some sort of epiphany and help her recover the memories she has repressed. Through the garden, we eventually came face-to-face with the executioner, who--under normal circumstances--would have probably been the joker; instead the executioner was swinging a huge scythe and had tentacles coming out of its eye sockets. There was nothing we could do at this point as Alice fled from the madman, though she found her way to a white cake that read, "Eat me." After taking a bite, she transformed into a towering giant, and with a smirk, she squashed the surprised executioner beneath her enormous foot and walked off.
The visuals left a lasting impression. The art direction in Alice: Madness Returns is stunning, from the well-crafted environment to Alice's signature outfit. Her red dress pops out against the sepia-toned environment, and you'll notice that your surroundings, along with the enemies, are all accented with the same shade of crimson. At any point in time, you can easily step back and spend some time admiring the scenery as the choice of color against the earthy hue of the background makes for a nice painting. Amidst the gorgeous background, the gameplay was challenging, but we were told that the difficulty ramps up throughout the game at a steady pace and shouldn't have a steep increase until you get closer to the end. American McGee did mention that fans felt the combat was too flat in the first game, which is why it gave Alice more weapons to play with, as well as a variety of enemies that have weaknesses you need to find.
Once you get the hang of the controls, Alice can deftly dodge attacks with the right bumper and chain attacks with her weapons. Switching weapons is only a matter of pressing the corresponding button, so it never feels like there is any delay when you want to change your strategy. We look forward to seeing more of the game, and it's not far away now because EA has announced that the game will ship for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on June 14.