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by Electronic Arts

This may be one of the most disappointing games of the year. Unfortunately it got a ton of hype, so understandably we expected something a little out of the ordinary--especially from a game that takes for its background the bizarre world of Lewis Carrol's Alice. If it had just presented itself as the workaday (though graphically innovative) platform jumper/shooter that it is, well, maybe we'd not be feeling such a letdown. But we are, and that's because--though the game sometimes looks amazing and contains some very sharp level design--Alice’s gameplay and story do not impress us at all.

Everything you’ve heard about how wonderful the game looks is true. The Alice team has driven the Quake III engine to new heights, and it displays more curved surfaces than an episode of Baywatch. Though the palate runs toward the dark, most of Alice’s characters and environments are original and visually arresting. Be prepared to see stuff you’ve never seen in a game before. I guarantee you’ll spend at least some time just gawking--but only some time, because while the initial levels of Alice truly push the Quake III engine, as the game progresses the levels become an awful lot more ordinary. As you near the game's climax, in fact, you'll find yourself running repeatedly through the same hedge maze and castle corridors.

Level design can also very clever, as befits a game bearing the imprimatur of American McGee, ace level designer.  Setting the game in Wonderland has allowed the Alice team’s imaginations full rein, and they’ve taken advantage of it. But again, the levels vary in ingenuity. When you’re leaping across a chasm on flying tiles or floating on a leaf down a stunningly rendered stream (the water effects in Alice are just devastatingly cool) whilst holding off attacking insects, you'll think that maybe the old platform genre has a few new tricks left in it. On the other hand, when you're saving-and-loading for the umpteenth time on some gear jumping level . . .

Unfortunately, it seems that the main reason for playing the game is to look at the graphics and admire the clever level design, because Alice’s gameplay and story itself are pretty weak. The bottom line is that Alice is a very minimalist action game cum shooter—gameplay-wise, it reminds me of nothing so much as Crusaders of Might and Magic. Imagine my dismay when I fired up the game and was met almost immediately by—you guessed it—a jumping puzzle. OK, I thought, that’s maybe some ironic reference to how unoriginal most action games are. But then there was another, and yet another, and you know what? Alice is mostly about jumping from platform to platform in 3rd person view.  Now I don’t deny that this can be fun, especially when coupled with the aforementioned originality of some of the levels, but it also gets old in a hurry—like in five minutes. When you consider that this game has been touted as the coming out of new “game god” American McGee, it’s a bit of a letdown to experience gameplay as utterly derivative as this.

In fact, gameplay is clearly the odd man out in Alice. Not only is it unoriginal, it’s pretty spare. For instance, there’s no such thing as an inventory in Alice. You do have an arsenal of weapons, but you’ll never need to carry around a rope or a key or some bottle caps. That’s because the game is so linear that any time you find something significant, you’ll be ushered into a cutscene in which some NPC will tell you what it’s for and what you’re to do next. The game also has a strange tendency to leave you without clear-cut goals until you stumble across the right item or room. For instance, early on you’ll be asked to gather the ingredients for a potion. You’ll arrive in a builiding where the ingredients are in plain sight, but you won’t be able to do anything with them. Can’t pick them up, can’t put them in inventory, can’t mix up potion. And you think, OK , here’s the stuff. Now what the hell do I do?  Well, you run around aimlessly until you set into motion the scripted events that allow you to make the potion. Not exactly deep gameplay. Other than judging distances for jumps, there’s very little thinking required in Alice.

Which might be OK if combat were as fast as Quake III’s, but it’s not. While some of Alice’s weapons are imaginative and have interesting effects, they are also surprisingly sluggish.  If you’re expecting Quake III Arena meets the Mad Hatter, forget it. Combat consists mostly of sneaking up on brain-dead enemies and getting in a good bit of damage (the jack bombs are devastating at this) before they come runnng willy-nilly after you. Combat just isn't very challenging.

The game’s narrative is also very simple. As you might expect, you play the role of Alice. After your return from Wonderland, your parents die in a fire and you get to hear their screams as they perish. This, we are never allowed to forget, has made you CRAZY. While you’re passing the time in an asylum, an emissary from Wonderland lets you know that the whole place has gone to hell. The Red Queen has become a tyrant, and you’ll have to put things straight by killing her. The game is made up of Alice working her way to Red Queen by meeting characters from Wonderland and getting quests from them that always end with a Big Fight With a Boss. Then it’s on to the next one. Boss Fights? Hey, now there’s an original notion. Though some have mentioned the game's "compelling story", there's actually scarcely any story at all, and what there is is conveyed almost entirely by cutscenes. While you're playing the game, you'll come across virtually no references to the game's putative story. If you're expecting any adventure game elements, look elsewhere. And if you're expecting a long game, get a copy of Baldur's Gate or something. You can work through Alice in 15-20 hours easy.

Perhaps most problematic is the game’s use of Wonderland. Look, Alice in Wonderland is one of the most beloved of all children’s books, a work of infinite linguistic ingenuity, and a true family classic. It’s also a sometimes disturbing and creepy account of a young girl’s psychosexual development as written by a pedophile. Hey, that’s weird enough, and is actually a lot deeper and darker than the game Alice’s Wonderland. The Alice team seems to have thought Wonderland would be more “edgy” if everyone was mean or crazy, and if Alice dressed up like a Wednesday Addams/Winona Ryder circa Beetlejuice clone. It's like they took Moby Dick and turned it into a bass fishing game--but with really evil bass.

As you can see, we're not real big Alice fans. You might be, however, if you can afford to drop $50 to wonder at uber-state-of-the-art visuals and if you enjoy platform jumpers. Though we've been tough on it, Alice isn't really a bad game--it's just a mediocre one. And after all the hype, that's just not good enough.

Rick Fehrenbacher


Ups: Sometimes amazing graphics and original level design.

Downs: Run-of-the-mill 3D platform game with mediocre shooter element; lame story, short.

System Reqs: PII-400, 64 MB RAM, 16 MB OpenGL video card.


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