Alice: Madness Returns was released one month ago and it is another long-awaited follow up to American McGee’s Alice (2000), one of this editors all-time favorite PC games. Of course, we were eager to give the new Alice game a complete play-through and we will give you a game review as well as a performance evaluation focusing on 3D Vision and the PhysX effects.
Besides being able set higher minimum framerates (by editing files), supporting widescreen and super-widescreen resolutions, PhysX effects and 3D Vision, certainly differentiate the PC from the Xbox 360 and Play Station 3 versions and it may be the reason to buy the PC version. Above we see the screen fill with debris in ever increasing amounts as the giant Alice stomps her enemies and obstacles.
American McGee who designed the original game returned to design the sequel after EA partnered with McGee’s studio Spicy Horse. His Alice is a third-person action game released for PC in 2000. McGee’s game was set after the events of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and featured a much darker, cynical and older Alice in an alternative universe after her entire family dies in a fire leaving her with survivors guilt.
The sequel continues on with our heroine’s journey though madness with a now 11-year older Alice who is out of the asylum and living in a London orphanage under the care of a psychiatrist who specializes in hypnotizing his young patients to forget their childhood trauma.
Alice is sent to the pharmacy (chemist) for medications and wanders off after a white cat and then tumbles down a rabbit hole back into Wonderland. We get the amazing juxtaposition of the black and white images of Victorian London contrasted with the colorful world inside Alice’s head that parallel her dark journey through insanity with little hope of defeating her childhood demons.
However, all is not well in Wonderland nor in Alice’s world
Alice: Madness Returns is an even darker and moodier game than the original. It deals maturely with one of the most taboo of subjects; abuse of children and the subsequent victim’s guilt. As in the original, the level design is top-notch and the artwork is spectacular. For the first Alice game, Electronic Arts licensed Ritual Entertainment’s Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K. engine, which is in turn is based on the modified id Tech 3 engine (Quake III). For this one, the modified Unreal Engine 3 is used to provide the incredible visuals.
Alice: Madness Returns is set in an amazing world but apparently retains the same issues as the original game – it is ultimately “hack and slash”. It was refreshingly different that children’s toys were used as weapons but original ideas are repeated over and over (and over) and over and there is no sense real of progression. Alice may get an early upgrade on her Vorpal Blade but the player won’t notice any difference other than it takes less hit points to dispatch an enemy. The animations and the PhysX effects are especially nice, however.
Just as in the original game there are some great things; and also some boring things repeated over-and-over. Still there is that sense of exploration that urges the player on and on - just to see what is next because of the outrageous artwork and imaginative level design. There is an anticipation created while playing to see what is around the corner. Unfortunately, there are some bugs in the PC version - like getting stuck and having to restart from the checkpoint. And some textures are pretty low resolution but the overall art is excellent and very few set pieces are reused.
Alice: Madness Returns, like the original, is a “platformer”. It is a third-person view jumping/puzzle platform game and some of the jumps are quite difficult and there are time-limited runs where you must complete a sequence of precise jumps – or you must start over (or even die and go way back). Lack of anytime save is frustrating for a PC gamer and it reminds this editor of the jumping/puzzle games of the original Atari and Nintendo platforms; sidescrollers like Miner 2049-er, Castlevania, Mario, Sonic and even later 3D platform games.
In the scene below, Alice can only see the platforms while she is small but she must run through it large; worst of all there is a countdown timer where she must quickly jump to platforms that become invisible again and soon disappear completely.
There is even a side scrolling section that pays tribute to the more difficult of the older platform games. Unfortunately, the controls may now turn 90 degrees so you that you now have an outside third person view; worst of all, the controls are imprecise, and in some cases, the devs didn’t bother to rename the remapped PC controls (from “X” to “Space”).
Probably most irritating is that you get to repeat variations of the same mini-game many times and each time they get a bit harder; for example, jumping between the fire-breathing dragons, the wasps shooting arrows while platforms move up and down to crush the slightest deviation from the only correct path.
Platform games are games with high degrees of frustration built in and they also reward the player with a great deal of satisfaction in completing a goal or in completing a level. In this sense, Alice: Madness Returns succeeds. If you look at it as a shooter or as an action shooter, it fails although there are really excellent fights and you must master your weapons and controls (of which auto-targeting is sadly also imprecise). And the fights are visually enhanced by the use of PhysX as you can see below and the accompanying audio effects are also excellent.
With a few rare games like Crysis 2 and Duke Nukem Forever, using Nvidia’s 3D Vision helps the aiming and jumping of the player due to the addition of correctly added “depth”. Unfortunately with Alice, this player had to turn off 3D Vision for many of the long jumping sequences; it was difficult enough to make them in 2D and the added illusion of depth sometimes conflicted with the imprecise jumping controls and more often Alice would fall to her death.
Fortunately, switching between 3D Vision and regular 2D is accomplished with the press of a button on the emitter and on the glasses and once the jumping sequence is completed, the game quickly returns to 3D for the even more extraordinary 3D-enhanced visuals.
In the above scene there is a nearly endless set of jumps that must be made to each white pad all the while avoiding the red creatures; the blue pads are jumping pads and you must become really expert with “floating” Alice to the next safe location. Of course, everything is in motion – up, down and sideways.
This editor got so frustrated with the imprecise controls that he edited the games configuration files to loosen up GravityZ (default is 750) – a big advantage if you have the PC version; it is quite easy to edit the files. Perhaps the PC version is best played with an XBox 360 controller; this editor used the keyboard plus mouse.
Alice: Madness Returns is a fairly difficult game even on ‘easy’ as there are a multitude of enemies that mob you at once. Unless you master the controls and find the enemy weak spots, you will be replaying some of the boss battles over and over. After that, you will often meet the boss again with the added difficulty of also dealing with respawing NPCs.
In the bottom picture, these Bolterflies have a nest that you need to quickly find and eliminate before you are overwhelmed. Fortunately, Alice’s weapons get better as they are upgraded by finding “teeth” by breaking containers if you explore (which means facing even more challenging jumping).
In the above scene, Alice is being mobbed by bolterflies. The “nest” to the right must be destroyed or they will keep on spawning. And you will have to face this exact scenario many times and really search to find their well-hidden nests. Destroying the nests is spectacular with PhysX effect causing it to explode and fly apart! You have to think quickly – or you will restart from the checkpoint.
Alice is a game that this editor both loves and hates. If you love jumping platform games with a great story plus spectacular artwork and level design, then Alice is heaven (with the weakness of being repetitious and ultimately hack and slash). If you miss anytime save and hate having to memorize an exact sequence of precise moves with an imprecise controller in a changing 3rd person view, it is absolute gaming hell.
Fortunately, the PC version allows for some nice tweaking of the configuration files that can allow the player to have a little (less) challenge and still enjoy the story and watch the many (many) hours of artwork unfold. If you are very good and just run through the game, it can be completed in a dozen hours. It is much longer if you take time to explore.
One of the most irritating things about Alice is that the developers left the PC game capped at 30 frames per second which is OK for the XBox 360 and PS 3 but awful for anyone with a fast PC. It is easy to remove the cap but you must be careful to not remove smoothing entirely or the framerate will bounce from over 100 FPS down to 30 or so in heavy firefights with a lot of PhysX and it will not be smooth,
For playing the game practically, 60 FPS was the ideal cap; for benching, we removed it completely. See the next section “tweaking the game” for instructions on how to remove or adjust the framerate cap while still keeping the framerate smooth.
There is a real balance of frustration and accomplishment completing a chapter in Alice: Madness Returns for this editor; in this way, it is very much a true successor to American McGee’s Alice.