Review : American McGee's Alice

It's been years since Alice first tumbled down the rabbit hole

MacNN Rating:


Product Manufacturer: Westlake Interactive

Price: $49.95

The Good

  • Surreal, mind-boggling environments; creative weaponry; an engaging blend of action and adventure.

The Bad

  • Not much of a challenge for skilled action gamers; Mac OS X version lacks polish due to bugs in the new OS.
It's been years since Alice first tumbled down the rabbit hole into the majestic, mysterious world known as Wonderland. No longer a child, Alice is summoned to return to the world of endless possibilities, only to find a Wonderland corrupted to its core. The evil Queen of Hearts rules a land cluttered with sadistic card guards, demonic fire imps, and ferocious army ants. Alice must reverse the chaos, restore her sanity, defeat the Queen, and return Wonderland to its former self. Welcome to American McGee's Alice.

A third-person, 3D action/adventure game, Alice holds some unique twists on what would otherwise be your average 3D action game. For instance, most weapons are powered not by ammo, but meta-essence—the life force of Wonderland. In other words, weapons are loaded and ready to take out evil creatures as long as sufficient meta-essence is still available. Every enemy drops a dose of meta-essence once it dies, and some of the weapons—such as Alice's venerable blade—require no meta-essence to use. A liquid-like blue bar on the right shows your remaining meta-essence, while a red bar on the left shows Alice's remaining sanity; if it falls to empty, then Alice goes insane.

Unlike many other modern 3D action games, Alice weilds no pistols, shotguns, or rocket launchers. Her weapons comprise childhood toys, such as a deck of cards, a handful of jacks, and a croquet mallet. The deck of cards, thrown in quick succession, slices enemies in two. The jacks pummel the enemy with hit after hit while you keep the crimson ball bouncing. The mallet, while handy as a melee tool for beating enemies in close-range, carries a secondary attack that has Alice hurling a glowing croquet ball with deadly accuracy. Other weapons, including a Jackbomb (think Jack-in-the-box), Demon Dice, and Vorpal Blade, carry equally menacing threats.

The game's weapons are unique and an excursion from usual action game fare, but they come somewhat 'toned down' for broader market appeal. Most projectile weapons provide auto-aim capabilities, and an omnipresent blue target provides ample help for those that don't. The result is combat that is repetetive and lacking in difficulty for hardcore action gamers looking for a challenge. Strafe left and right, keep Alice pointed in the general direction of the enemy, and make sure to pick up meta-essence from enemies as they die: the combination is repeated time and time again throughout the game, and such dismal gameplay opportunities are only kept alive by spectaluar scenery throughout and interspersed adventure-like puzzles. The combination can be extremely fun for those who enjoy simple jumping and climbing puzzles interspersed with combat against the Queen's horde of foes.

There are plenty of bright spots to focus on, however. The game leads players through a surprising array of seemingly unrelated worlds, such as the Vale of Tears, Mushroom Forest, and the Land of Fire and Brimstone. Each world, traversed by running, climbing, rope-swinging, and swimming, present curiouser and curiouser objects and environments, such as clocks that bend back and forth, rooms that swivel, turn, and pulse as you travel through them, and mysterious gardens where ants carry Civil War-era pistols and lady bugs attack with explosives from the sky. As expected, Alice shrinks and grows at certain points throughout the game, and the story is lead along by in-engine cutscenes often featuring a helpful and wonderfully voice-acted Cheshire Cat. The use of an enhaced Quake III: Arena engine means that Alice is a serious contender for the most visually stunning game of the year, while its musical score—consisting largely of toy pianos, sleigh bells, and jagged violins—aid in the immersion of a nursery rhyme feel.

For some, the best news about Alice comes in its system requirements; "Mac OS X-compatible" is such a rarity with such a young operating system, that Alice is one of only a handful of commercial games released with Mac OS X compatibility. The game is released as a Carbon application, meaning it can run on both Classic and Mac OS X systems.

Although Aspyr should be commended for their early adoption of Mac OS X, the decision didn't come without its consequences. The Read Me included on the Install CD outlines a number of known issues when running the game on the new operating system, all pertaining to issues that "should be addressed in a future update of Mac OS X." Issues include in-game cutscenes that disappear when using an ATI video card (although sound and subtitles remain) and bad flickering when using an NVIDIA video card. The result is that users will have a much more enjoyable experience if they're booted into Mac OS 9, otherwise known to OS X users as "the dreaded Classic."

Once running in Mac OS 9, the game plays spendidly. Our 400 MHz Power Mac G4 with 384 MB RAM—a minimum speed processor for the game—performed more than adequately with typical settings of a 32-bit, 800 x 600 resolution. Our ATI Radeon no doubt aided in providing a smooth framerate and a beautiful display of an American McGee Wonderland. Performance was adequate when played in Mac OS X, but it was impossible to ignore the loss of video during frequent in-game cutscenes. We knew that much would be missed if the entire game was played that way.

Technical issues aside, Alice stands on its own merits as a fantastical adventure into a beloved childhood story-turned-nightmare by level designer American McGee, best known for his work with id Software on Doom II and the Quake series. Although the delivery is skewed by uninteresting combat encounters and unique but unsatisfying weapons, the game has undeniable appeal for its mind-boggling environments, wacky characters, and a story befitting of the Lewis Carroll classic. Those looking for an excursion from the norm won't find a better choice than American McGee's Alice.