American McGee's Alice Preview
We take a nearly complete version of Alice out for a spin.
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We're not entirely sure what inspired American McGee to take Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and craft it into a dark and twisted 3D action-adventure game. It could have been divine inspiration, a lost drunken bet, or just plain boredom with the typical action fare. Whatever the reason behind McGee's unique take on the world of Alice, it's very clear from our early hands-on time with the game that this is one of the most unique and intriguing games to hit the scene in quite some time. Anyone can tell from a quick glance that Alice is a visually stunning game; in fact, it makes most other 3D games look plain or boring by comparison. After digging into the story, the gameplay, and the atmosphere in the game, we've come away with the feeling that Alice is a game people will be talking about for a long, long time.
Due to ship in early December, Alice was about 90 percent complete at the time of this preview. We were assured by EA that the game's content was entirely in place. All that remained was more play testing and tuning. Essentially, we looked at near-final code. Certainly the game seemed to be in good shape - we never ran into any performance problems or crashes, and the levels were perfectly linked with no missing cinematic sequences or transitions. With the exception of a few movement and control oddities, Alice manages to impress in every important aspect. The level design, story, puzzles, weapons, and foes are all very strong in this game, as is - generally speaking - the gameplay. Though it isn't quite the perfect action-adventure and is definitely not your run-of-the-mill first-person shooter, Alice is simply an extraordinary game.
This third-person game wastes little time in letting you know that the theme is dark, creepy, and sinister. After losing both of her parents in a fire when she was a little girl, Alice checked out of reality and checked into an asylum, which is where we meet her when the game begins. She's older now, and although she sports the familiar blue and white frock, she has a few touches that make her seem quite a different person from anything Disney - or even Carroll - imagined. From the skull broach that holds her white bow in place, to the high-heeled Doc Marten's boots, to the sullen, haunting green eyes, Alice is a very distinctive and memorable character.
Back to Wonderland
Alice's journey back into Wonderland begins unexpectedly and deposits her in a dreary, foreboding shadow of the enchanted world she remembers from her youth. While she was gone, the Red Queen enslaved the denizens of Wonderland, ruling them all with an iron fist. As you might expect, the overall goal of the game is to free Wonderland from the clutches of the evil queen, and the only way to do that is to kill this nasty woman.
After landing in Wonderland, Alice comes back into contact with her old companions - the white rabbit and the Cheshire cat. The rabbit - as is his habit - bolts away almost immediately, shrinking down and vanishing into a tiny crevice. Thus our heroine faces her first major challenge: how to shrink small enough to follow the white rabbit and figure out what needs to be done. The Cheshire cat, who is one of the flat-out coolest-looking characters we've ever seen in an action-adventure game, will follow along for the ride. He doles out advice and wisdom from time to time, whenever Alice reaches a key point in the game or a particularly challenging puzzle. You can also summon the cat at your leisure and receive advice on whichever obstacle you happen to be facing. Of course, this is a feline who is not known for his direct (coherent and helpful) responses, so his feedback sometimes makes the situation even less clear than it was before.
Though the overall story of "kill the queen, free the kingdom" is quite simple, the characters and settings Alice stumbles across throughout the game are both fascinating and complex. The Cheshire cat is full of complexities, of course, but the rest of the characters are equally engaging and well designed. The gruff little dwarf, the wonderfully animated chess pieces, and even the minotaur-headed turtle in his underwear (trust us) all contribute to the incredibly rich fabric of McGee's Wonderland.
The enemies Alice encounters contribute even more to the atmosphere. These foes range from the basic card guards, which are quite beautifully rendered, to musket-toting army ants, wailing spirits, lava monsters, Alice-eating mushrooms, and porcelain-masked spiders. The cavalcade of deadly creatures in this game, in fact, is extremely diverse and challenging. And although Alice will throw familiar foes at you throughout the game, new and unfamiliar types of opposition face you in almost every new area in the gameworld.
The Power of III
One of the game's greatest strengths is its incredible attention to detail. Not only are the levels themselves lovingly crafted using the Quake III: Arena engine - which has never looked better (more on that later) - but the creatures within the levels are incredibly detailed and well animated. The grim death of a card guard cut in half, for example, is one of the most rewarding animations we've encountered in any action game. The ants have an array of animations unto themselves, each movement more fluid and impressive than the last. And like the beasts she fights throughout the game, Alice is extremely well animated and lifelike in her movements. Aside from an odd jumping movement, all of Alice's actions and reactions are superbly rendered.
The game's complexity and attention to detail carry over from character design to level design, which is where Alice really shines the brightest. There's really no getting around it: Alice will make you reevaluate the quality of level design in every other action or action-adventure game you have ever played. In fact, to discuss the level design in the game you really have to discuss the overall visual design of the title, which is among the best the gaming market has ever seen, in any genre. Partly because the designers did not have to follow any rules whatsoever as they created a twisted, insane 3D world, and partly because the designers are very talented, Alice serves up level after level of stunning graphical beauty and conceptual quality.
Beginning with the lavishly demented opening scene, Alice's levels are both intricate and challenging. These include the castle-like Fortress of Doors, an outdoor setting controlled by militaristic ants, and an entire world populated by chess pieces. All of the levels look great, thanks to a combination of the powerful engine under the hood, the spectacular textures at work, and the amazingly intricate architecture in place throughout the game. Most of all, however, Alice stands out because of its brilliant use of color - and in some cases, the lack of it - which creates an atmosphere refreshingly different from the "19 shades of brown" we're used to in the typical shooter. And anyone who doubted the Quake III engine's ability to render gross, pulsing tongue-like objects will become a believer after playing Alice.
Only once in our time with the game did we feel that a level had any major flaws. And even then we got the impression that it was because some element of the game mechanics was not tuned properly. The offending stage was an outdoor setting in which Alice has to ride a leaf down a winding river. The river is littered with waterfalls, dangerous thorns, and other obstacles, to say nothing of the dive-bombing insects that pester her along the route. The problem is that it is next to impossible to stay on the leaf, and when you fall off of it, you inexplicably cannot climb back on. In some spots this is fatal as a giant fish emerges to swallow Alice whole, while in other areas it just gets annoying. Aside from this one level, however, Alice is nearly all gold in the level-design department.
To Kill a Queen
On her journey through Wonderland, Alice will come across ten different weapons to use against the Red Queen and her forces. Each is based on a different kind of toy, and each has two forms of attack. For example, the croquet mallet can be used as a melee weapon or as a ranged weapon that shoots rebounding croquet balls at distant foes. Similarly, the icewand can act as a very cold version of the flamethrower or can become a defensive weapon that produces a protective wall of ice. The basic weapon is the vorpal blade, a knife that can be used in melee combat or can be thrown. Once thrown, the knife will reappear in your hand after a few seconds. Our favorite weapon in the game thus far is the jacks, which swarm around the bad guys while a little red ball bounces up and down next to Alice.
The ammo for every weapon is the same, which is a nice touch. Basically, every creature that dies in Wonderland gives up its life essence. Alice can gather this essence - which appears as a floating red jewel - and use it to heal herself and replenish her weapons. Accordingly, a powerful creature yields a potent essence, while a simple, lowly grunt-type enemy serves up only a weak essence. Each time Alice picks up an essence, it adds to her level of sanity, which is her health, and her strength of will, which is the ammo she uses for her weapons.
Game controls are essentially the same as in a first-person game or other third-person titles like Rune. Alice can run, walk, strafe, and jump. She can also climb onto ledges and move up and down vines. Finally, she can use objects in the world, such as levers and switches. Despite the game's similarity to traditional action titles, however, Alice's control scheme has a few significant differences that set it apart.
For one thing, jumping in Alice is not quite like in any other game we've played to date. You can jump in the normal "run toward your goal and leap" manner, or you can perform an aimed jump at nearby locations that are level with or below you. The aimed jump works much like the system in Ultima 9: Ascension, where you place a cursor on your desired destination and simply hit the jump button.
The game's normal running jump looks and feels much different from the jumps in other action-adventure games, however, and gave us the impression that it was either unfinished or poorly implemented. Most times you get the sense that Alice is awkwardly gliding through her jump, and not just on the way down. She often gets stuck on rocks or other offending scenery, and she almost always scoots past her intended landing zone and into some sort of danger. Hopefully this problem is a fine-tuning issue and not a design decision, because it was the single most annoying thing we encountered during our time with the game.
Another minor issue was the use of boss monsters in giant one-on-one arenas. Truth be told, this tired staple of action gaming works fairly well with the story of Alice and the way in which the levels unfold. However, the slightly slower-than-average movement in the game and the unusual combination of melee and ranged weapons makes boss-monster combat rather challenging in Alice. The boss confrontations in Alice are not a bad thing, necessarily, but they didn't strike us as being very smooth, and they were somewhat disappointing in their familiarity, considering the incredible originality at play in the rest of the game.
Thankfully, not all levels end with a boss-monster confrontation. Throughout the game, you'll run into a variety of puzzles ranging from simple "retrieve an item" challenges to more complex pathfinding tasks. Though many of the puzzles in Alice are simple at their core, they are exceptionally well incorporated into the look, feel, and style of the game's many environments. For example, while in the chess levels, Alice will have to move like a chess piece to navigate certain areas. In another area, Alice will have to perform a deceptively simple series of jumps, but onto icy surfaces that can send her sliding to her death with the slightest misstep. There's even an Indiana Jones-like predicament involving sloping tunnels and a really big round rock.
Since the game was so close to completion when we wrote this preview, it seems fairly easy for us to predict how the game will shape up as it hits store shelves. Despite our gripes about the leaf-riding level and the odd jumping mechanics, this game could probably ship today and not run into many problems with gamers. The code appears to be rock-solid and well tuned, and the content is simply staggering. Through a combination of phenomenal visual design and well-developed characters and settings, Alice appears to be on a collision course with classic status in the gaming world.