It seems that every other day I'm reading a new magazine or visiting a gaming site where reviewers throw around phrases like "instant classic!" and "one of the best games ever," as if they're obeying an industry-wide memo that only I seem to have missed.
The fact is, "instant classics" are rarer than the number of World Series won by the Chicago Cubs. That's one big reason most of the reviews I've read for American McGee's Alice bug the heck out of me. I won't deny that Alice is one visual feast of a computer game. I won't even argue with the hype that preceded its arrival. But there comes a time when you have to wipe away all of the pre-release salivation and judge a game on its actual merits. And when you do that, Alice barely stands on her own two little feet.
I don't know what game other reviewers have been playing, but it doesn't sound like the one I installed in my computer. Sure, Alice is interesting to look at -- in the same macabre way that Marilyn Manson is interesting to look at -- but it's missing the one ingredient that actually means something to most of us: enjoyable gameplay.
The game is a demented version of Lewis Carroll's already-demented novels "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass," with the premise that young Alice must rescue a Wonderland now overrun by the evil Red Queen's minions. Unfortunately, the levels are straightforward to a fault, and the game's "devious puzzles" are so devious that I hardly knew when I'd encountered them. The truth is there's very little real fun to be had in playing the game. Once you've seen Alice jump from point A to point B and hack up one of the bad guys, you've pretty much exhausted the variety of gameplay.
Say all you want about the derivative nature of the Tomb Raider franchise and knockoffs such as Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine (great game, by the way) -- at least in those third-person shooters you're presented with some of the best puzzles to grace the small screen since the heyday of point-and-click graphic adventures. Alice, by comparison, represents a demoralizing trend in computer gaming. Designers seem to think we'll happily dish out $40 for a game with all of the entertainment value of a Jar Jar Binks sing-along tape, as long as the graphics are really nice.
Part of the problem is in the game's controls. Like most third-person shooters, you can modify the configuration to fit your personal preferences. Still, I found my character difficult to maneuver in the many jumping sequences -- and there are many jumping sequences. This is somewhat offset by the presence of ethereal feet that show you where you'll land when you jump. Another problem is the lack of precise control over your actions. I had difficulty moving Alice to where I wanted her to go.
In terms of aesthetics, Alice is hard to beat. It uses id Software's Quake III Arena engine to render its impressive backgrounds and immerse you in Alice's dreary trek through Wonderland. It holds its own in the sound area, as well. The voice acting is substantially better than you'll find in many of today's games, with particular credit going to the portrayal of Alice. Maybe I'm just a sucker for a British accent, but I love the way she talks, even as she hacks the bad guys to pieces. The background sounds, including the soundtrack by Chris Vrenna (of Nine Inch Nails fame), are also noteworthy for the ambiance they create.
So it looks good and it sounds good, and it's fun in the sense that you get to take an interactive tour of a twisted version of Wonderland. It's not unplayable by any means, but somewhere along the way American McGee's Alice forgot that part of the formula for a great game is great gameplay -- and this one's the lesser for it.
American McGee's Alice
Developer: Rogue Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts
ESRB Rating: Mature +17