We go hands-on with Alice: Madness Returns, the very long-awaited sequel to American McGee's acclaimed Alice title!
It’s been a rather long time since the PC-only release of American McGee’s Alice, the original twisted take on the Lewis Caroll tales that took us on an adventure through a more macabre wonderland than ever graced the pages of the novels. Over 10 years in fact, long before filmmaker Tim Burton decided to try his hand.
Now in 2011, we’re finally going to get another taste of the cake so to speak, with Alice: Madness Returns due to hit PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in a few short months. Much has changed and evolved in the third person action/platform genre since Alice last graced our screens and the bar has been continuously prodded skyward by the likes of Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed and God of War and even franchises such as Super Mario, Prince of Persia and Tomb Raider continue to advance.
So having seen only a brief controlled demo and small snippets of gameplay in trailer-form for Alice: Madness Returns up until this point, we were very interested to get some proper hands-on time and find out for ourselves, how well it was actually going to play. It’s plain to see that the game will pack some serious punches in the art, style and storyline departments, but in terms of actual gameplay, at face value it appears as though it could be just a simple jump and shoot exercise.
Fortunately, we’re happy to report that in the sections of the game we played, with the assortment of weapons at our disposal, Alice: Madness Returns does seem to offer the kind of diverse combat and control mechanics that contemporary gamers would expect.
The game is of course, a continuation of the themes in the original, only Alice is now older and the land down the rabbit hole is even more twisted, surreal and of course, gruesome than before. The levels of the game are split up by what the developers refer to as domains and each have their own distinctly-themed environments and inhabitants -- reportedly 150 different non-player character creatures, spanning around fifteen hours of gameplay.
We kicked off the demo armed to the teeth with an assortment of thematic weaponry. The Vorpal Blade kitchen knife is still the go-to slashy melee weapon, then we had a chain-gun like pepper grinder and a grenade launcher-esque teapot cannon as well as a hobby-horse, wielded like a warhammer, a shield-like parasol for projectile defence and an exploding clockwork rabbit-in-a-top-hat as a deployable bomb.
Alice herself also has several abilities. You can perform a double-jump to reach higher ledges, hold the jump button mid-air to glide over distances and there’s a quick dodge ability to use in combat where Alice splits up into dozens of butterflies and reforms several feet away in the direction of your choice. Also on offer was what seemed to be an unlimited-use shrink mode that permits you access to small nooks and crannies into secret areas and also heightens your perception allowing you to see hidden ethereal-platforms and markings scrawled around the place with more clarity.
Finally, there’s what is referred to as hysteria mode which is a last-stand ability that Alice can only activate when her death is imminent. When in this mode Alice is invulnerable and her usual disenchanted expression turns into a maniacal grin, the colour also dramatically drains from the world leaving you to carve up your opponents in a monochromatic massacre highlighted with only the red of their blood.
All of these aspects together make for a reasonably rich combat experience at you combine them as necessary based on the opponents you presently face. With such a variety of enemies, there’s many different tactics to strategise and deploy which keeps things reasonably fresh and interesting with each battle.
There’s of course more of the modern “gotta catch em all” elements of the genre in-store too. The collectable teeth are the in-game currency scattered around the lands and can be spent on upgrades to the weapons in your extensive arsenal. Bottles will unlock the obligatory bonus content, such as concept art and the like and memory pick-ups will fill in little extra bits and pieces of the back story as you progress.
There are two immediately noticeable shortcomings however. Firstly, there’s the slightly clunky camera system that seems to have your best interests at heart, but doesn’t always show what you need to be looking at without a lot of manual intervention. Secondly, there’s the checkpoint save system, which compared to the previous PC game that offered old-school quick-save functionality can often see you repeating annoyingly large sections of game should you fall before the next auto-save.
Another weak point is the overall graphic fidelity and tech of the game. Alice is Unreal Engine 3 based but is a bit behind the curve in terms of straight-up technical looks. However, what it does lack in that fidelity it does make up for in ambitious design. The environments we played through and the others that you can see featured in trailers and screenshots are chock full of trippy, surreal goodness. Couple that with the twisted storyline and you have a game that doesn’t necessarily need all the cutting edge trimmings, tweaks and tessellations to woo the player artistically.
It’s definitely not the kind of game for everyone, but for fans of the genre and certainly anyone that loved the original American McGee’s Alice, Alice Madness Returns certainly looks as though it is going to be one worth playing.
For more details on the game, check out our recent interview with American McGee himself here on AusGamers.