It isn't a huge secret that Lewis Carroll's Wonderland books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, have a dark subtext of insanity and violence. Since 1907, the year the copyright lapsed, various artists have freely retold Carroll's fable while elaborating on the story's intrinsic darkness. Now, thanks to Rogue Entertainment, Electronic Arts, and lead designer American McGee, gaming has its very own entry in this time-honored practice that suggests, "Alice in Wonderland is actually kind of creepy!" The resulting game is polished and often looks really great, but American McGee's Alice is undermined by straightforward, uninspired gameplay sequences that detract from its overall appeal.
In the game, Alice has lost her mind due to a traumatizing childhood experience. To reclaim her sanity, she must fight for it through the perverse Wonderland of her imagination. In this way, the game basically has the same plot as in games such as Sanitarium, as well as this year's disappointing Earthworm Jim 3D - but in Alice, of course, you play as a girl instead of a worm.
Powered by id Software's impressive Quake III Arena engine, the game's fully 3D depiction of Wonderland is definitely its best feature. Many of the levels, especially in the game's first half, are remarkably well rendered. Though the art direction relies less on anything very shocking and a little too much on depicting what's essentially a dimly lit version of the conventional surrealism found in most platform games, the results are undeniably slick. A few of the levels - most notably the White Queen's black-and-white kingdom and an environment that features a realistic, normal-looking house perched atop a hellish mountain of lava and rock - are great looking and very original. However, some of the other scenarios, like a sequence of giant, rotating gear levels, settle for just being great looking. It seems that the designers' inspiration dissipated a little by the later levels, as many of these are mostly made up of traditional castle corridors that are simply tricked out with the occasional cockeyed door frame.
The character design in Alice is even better than its environments. From the effectively flat-looking card guards (whom Alice can rend into two bloody halves with her trusty dagger) to the ugly, baby-tossing Duchess and the giant monster you'll face at the end of the game, every character in Alice is unreal; yet, thanks to the incredibly fluid animation, every single one is believable. The skilled animators who created the characters even managed to bring chess pieces to life. Alice herself doesn't even look much like you'd expect her to. She's a sullen, doe-eyed, realistically proportioned teenage girl. It can be fun watching this relatively plain-looking character running through the game's strange environments. Since you'll be staring at her throughout the entire game, you'll be glad to know that she's as fluidly animated as the rest of the characters.
The visuals are excellent, but whatever disturbing ambience Alice manages to create is due largely to the soundtrack by former Nine Inch Nails member Chris Vrenna. Among other things, it's a mixture of a toy piano, bells, and a girl's choir. It effectively punctuates - and often is all that keeps you reminded of - the atmosphere of dread the game strives for. The voice acting is also generally good, particularly that of the emaciated Cheshire Cat, who delivers his lines in the manner of Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs.
Though the sound and graphics are top notch, Alice unravels in the gameplay. It's a pure third-person shooter - it has none of the exploration elements traditionally contained in 3D platform action games such as Nintendo's Super Mario 64 or last year's outstanding Rayman 2 for the PC. However, what it does have in common with those games is lots and lots of jumping sequences. The third-person camera perspective is placed behind Alice, and operates like the mouse-driven free-look control scheme in any recent first-person game. The camera lags slightly behind Alice, as if it's always trying to catch up to your mouse movements, but fortunately your view never gets obscured, even when Alice's back is to a wall. Though there's a lot of jumping, the control is precise enough that it doesn't get cumbersome. There are even little footprint silhouettes that show you where you're going to land. Also, the quicksave and quickload features are almost instantaneous, which makes retrying missed jumps less of a burden. Add to that the fact that Alice can grab onto ledges if she just misses a leap, and you have a jumping game that's perfect for players who don't like tricky jumps.
Though there's an occasional simple puzzle to solve - one that usually involves flipping a few switches in the correct sequence - every level is an otherwise strictly linear progression from an attractive point A to an attractive point B. In theory, there's nothing wrong with this, as there are plenty of excellent linear shooters. But the problem is that the combat in Alice is simplistic and slow-paced, as if it's meant to be an ancillary element rather than the central activity. Though some of the weapons you'll find are interesting, like a fire-and-forget swarm of killer jacks, the enemy characters you'll face aren't very intelligent. Also, there are three types of power-ups available throughout the game that briefly transform Alice into a powerful demon, a fast grasshopper woman, or make her invisible, respectively. The special effects and animations that accompany each of these are interesting, but the power-ups themselves don't really affect the game in a big way, and they're rarely even important for completing a level. Overall, the battles in Alice never manage to create the sort of frantic tension necessary to maintain interest throughout an entire game. Fortunately, the graphics should be able to hold your attention whenever the gameplay itself fails to do so.
Alice is a fairly standard shooter wrapped in a very attractive package. It offers none of the complexity of a nonlinear 3D platform action game with vast environments, and it offers none of the fast, intense action of a first-rate shooter. And since it takes less than 15 hours to finish the game, it's also pretty short. Alice is completely linear, and it has no multiplayer option, let alone any additional challenges that would help keep you involved in the game after you finish the main quest. The only real incentive in revisiting the game is being able to see some of the impressive scenes for the second time. American McGee's Alice certainly looks good - but the creativity found in the graphics doesn't spill over into the actual gameplay. So while you'll undoubtedly enjoy the imaginative artwork, you might end up disappointed with just how straightforward the underlying game really is.