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Alice: Madness Returns preview: Pretty weird


Ten years after the original American McGee's Alice debuted -- ten years! -- its sequel is nearly here. With its June 14 launch just over a month away, I accepted an invitation to dive into its fractured Wonderland and play through the first of its five chapters. Although a decade has passed, it felt like I'd never left.

While the core game design hasn't changed much -- platforming interspersed with combat -- Alice: Madness Returns is harnessing today's tech to convey a visual spectacle that's closer to McGee's original concepts than the first game could get at the time. It's also capitalizing on some new design ideas dreamt up by its imaginative designers at Spicy Horse.

Gallery: Alice: Madness Returns (5/12/11) | 5 Photos

The game technically begins with Alice journeying out into the real world of London on an errand, only to wind up chasing a white cat which (of course) leads her back to Wonderland. This segment's all set-up for her journey back, so while it's playable, there's virtually nothing to do or interact with. Still, it's pretty -- in a dark way.

It's when Alice returns to Wonderland that the game truly begins. I actually spent a few minutes simply running around the initial area she landed in, just admiring the scenery, the effects ... the twisted beauty of the world.

As for the actual feel of the game, I was surprised with it after seeing how far the visual elements of the series had come. Frankly, the controls and Alice's movements are a little out of sync with the game world. Her running seems off, jumping is a bit too stiff and there's a general lack of a solid connection between her and the environment that troubled me about the first game. All of the requisite moves are there -- double jumping, gliding, locking onto enemies and hitting a button to dodge their attacks -- to make it seem like a more platforming-heavy equivalent of, say, Darksiders, but there's still some fine tuning to be done, for sure.

That's not to say I wasn't surprised in a good way by its new gameplay mechanics, which mostly come into play during combat. The first and most obvious additions are new weapons. In the chapter I played, I obtained the Pepper Grinder and Teapot Bomb -- the former working as a ranged Gatling gun, the latter can be thrown and remotely detonated, and even used as weights in platforming puzzles I'd encounter later on.

The grinder is powerful, but "heats up" fairly quickly with use, so it's best fired in short bursts. It also looks really ... unusual to see this kitchen staple being used as a thunderous weapon by the petite Alice. Then again, Wonderland is all about the unusual.

Early on, I was introduced to a new enemy -- the "spoil" is made from black goop and is, quite literally, spoiling the game world. I couldn't help but think of Epic Mickey every time I saw the stuff or encountered one of these enemies; there's a strong similarity between the spoil and Epic Mickey's ink, only here it can't be cleaned up.

As I made my way further into the chapter, the world began to crumble away, introducing some more challenging platforming and putting Alice's ability to shrink at will to work. The world is filled with hidden platforms that can only be seen when she's tiny, with a ghost image of them lingering momentarily once she returns to normal size. These paths are sometimes the only way to progress, but more often are used as the means to reach secret areas hiding collectible memories and ... teeth.

Teeth are used as currency for upgrading Alice's weapons at certain points in each chapter. Her butcher knife, the Vorpal Blade, can be made to deal more damage; the Pepper Grinder, once upgraded, fires longer before overheating; the usual stuff, only paid for in teeth.

These upgrades came in handy as I got closer to the end of the demo and further into the kettle-themed realm of the Mad Hatter. Enemies here include teapots that sound like possessed stallions and creepy little men wielding forks and using lids as shields. Both have their weak points: the teapots are dizzied by attacking their lone eye, but only when it's open; the Hatter's minions telegraph their strikes, so they can be dodged, leaving them open while their forks are stuck in the ground where Alice was milliseconds before.

If this all sounds kind of fantastic, well, it is. Despite my reservations about the game's controls and general feel, I have to say that its atmosphere and cleverness are mightily impressive so far. If Spicy Horse can get the controls under ... control, a trip through the looking glass is going to be a much more inviting proposition.

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