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American McGee’s Alice

That this 11 year old game still manages to effectively disturb despite suffering from several key signs of ageing is a testament to the distorted and deranged vision of Wonderland that American McGee’s Alice presents. A pack-in DLC with Spicy Horse’s Alice: Madness Returns last year, it’s encouraging to find thought and effort afforded to what amounts to an EA “Project $10” purchase incentive. When annexing multiplayer modes or single player content is the precedent, I welcome the fact that Alice: Madness Returns remains entirely intact whether the disc is new or used, bought or rented. While it’s wholly possible to ignore the presence of Alice’s prior adventure into Wonderland, I was glad to have the chance to play it before embarking upon the most recent chapter. 

PC versions often have the upper hand in the battle against the the ever-marching passage of time. Psychonauts and Beyond Good & Evil, for instance, still look incredible on PC due to the inclusion of higher resolution textures than were used for the original console versions. In the case of BG&E, the PC version was used as the basis for last year’s HD re-release. That’s also the case here, and the results are surprisingly good. You’re not going to mistake the game for its successor, but nonetheless there’s a sharp, vivid look to the environments.

The telltale flat textures, blocky geometry and pointless dead ends of games circa 2000 are a surefire indication that what you’re seeing on screen is comfortably more than a decade old. Lambasting the graphical prowess of this game in particular, however, is the sort of over-critical navel-gazing that should be left to one side. For all those extra pixels that modern games provide, Alice proves that she has the smarts to know that its art design – rather than Liquid Light™ or any other pseudo-scientific insult – that’s the key to age-defying good looks. There’s a vibrancy to the distinct areas that Alice traverses throughout the five chapters – from the recognisable hedge maze to unnerving flesh-clad walls and the wonderful chess battlefield.

It didn’t take more than an hour into the game’s seven hour length before graphics became a minor concern, dwarfed by the world and the story being told through it. We join Alice some ten years after her second adventure in Wonderland (told inthe 1871 story Through The Looking Glass) and Alice’s situation has become dire. Institutionalised for the past decade and suffering from the guilt of losing her family to a tragic accident, Alice has become catatonic and cut herself off from the world around her. In order to regain her sanity, Alice has to battle through the now hostile and dying Wonderland to confront the Red Queen.

If that sounds familiar it’s because American McGee’s twist on the Wonderland that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll to you and I) created is very much consistent with the original vision. The twist comes from the destruction that Alice’s mental well-being has wreaked. I was strongly reminded of the story told in Tim Burton’s interminably dull 2010 film. In that version of the tale, Alice is again tasked with saving Wonderland (and by extension herself) from the Red Queen’s armies and her champion in the form of the Jabberwock(y). Whilst I can find no link between the two, I did find an interesting interview with film producer Scott Faye on American McGee’s blog.
The Jabberwock represents the most significant threat to Alice in both game and film, but the similarities are deeper still. In Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, there are references to and explicit inclusions of playing cards and other traditional household games, whilst in Through The Looking Glass chess forms the basis of the entire book. Tim Burton made the battle between the White and Red Queens’ armies a hybrid of these themes and, likewise, American McGee draws from both sources for different sections of the game, the enemies and the weapons. My only lament is that I would have loved to see some attention given to Lewis Carroll’s oft-overlooked work as a mathematician at Oxford.

American McGee’s Alice sits much more favourably with me than the film of ten years later in no small part due to its place as a sequel to the original works, rather than a retelling. In this respect it works incredibly well. I always felt that the existence of Wonderland in Alice’s head was implicit in Carroll’s works in a similar way to the Chronicles of Narnia, but much more strongly indicated. I liked that this sequel did not try to continue any sense of mystique in this regard; it is made clear to the player that this is Alice’s inner turmoil and that she is fully aware of the situation. That allows for some really strong imagery in the final area as Alice climbs through the aforementioned flesh-walls of her own body to reach her broken mind. This proves to be the most disturbing section of the game, as it should be, but it also highlights the weaknesses of many 3D platformers from that era – camera and controls.

Honestly, the camera is on par with most 3D platformers of the previous console generation that do not have Mario in the title. It requires a lot of micro-management and patience when manoeuvring it around, but at least it doesn’t resort to the sort of perspective switching that resulted in me running the wrong way in the sequel, Alice: Madness Returns. Again in contrast to the sequel, American McGee’s Alice has a ported-from-the-PC manual save system that helps overcome the camera-exacerbated difficult platforming. Familiarity with Bethesda games will be at ease with the need to save every few minutes, and it really is strongly advised.

The biggest camera issues, however, are apparent during underwater sequences and boss fights (largely omitted from said sequel, thankfully). The camera will frequently become stuck on the geometry or on the water’s surface, obscuring the viewpoint and leaving Alice at the mercy of the deadly Snarks that are inevitably swarming around her. The one place that the camera is taken out of the equation to excellent effect is the chess-styled battlefield upon which Alice finds herself in the middle of a war between the White and Red Kings. This entire level is fantastic to behold, and, unlike the mini-games in Madness Returns, these sequences slot seamlessly into the game and task the player with moving Alice across the chequered floor in the pattern of the chess piece she has replaced.

Boss encounters suffer badly from the player having to constantly fight the camera as well as the enemy. This, however, would be much mitigated by a decent combat system, which Alice does not have. Melee fighting boils down, rather fittingly, to something akin to Battle Chess, whereby Alice stands toe-to-toe with an opponent and they trade blows until one or t’other keels over. Any form of block or dodge are noticeable by their absence any make melee an incredibly frustrating proposition. Fortunately there are much-preferred ranged options in Alice’s arsenal that should be employed. Even then, combat is not without issue due to a cross-hair that behaves like a mouse pointer. It’s tough to explain, but feels like using a controller to pan across planets in the Mass Effect 2 mining mini-game. I solved this by using the jacks, which auto-target enemies while Alice bounces a small rubber ball by her side – another nice touch.

If I sound negative towards American McGee’s Alice, then let me dissuade you of that notion. Certainly, it suffers as a port of an 11 year old PC game, but beyond that it is a game that presents a wonderfully well-paced psychological tale. One that is unsettling in its derangement of the familiar world it inhabits. It is also, in my view, slightly better than its sequel.

Addendum:
Sadly, American McGee’s Alice is a pretty tough game to find these days, with no presence on PC download services as far as I can tell. Honestly, the easiest option is to pick up a new copy of Alice: Madness Returns on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or on the EA Online Store (the Steam version doesn’t appear to contain American McGee’s Alice) – that way you’ll get two games for the price of one.

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