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Alice: Madness Returns hands-on preview

Back in 2000, American McGee's Alice made American McGee's really-fun-to-say name an essential entry in every PC gamer's lexicon, and in just a couple months, Alice: Madness Returns will finally leave the realm of possibility and enter the realm of in-front-of-me-for-as-many-hours-in-a-row-as-it-takes-me-to-beat-it.

Back at GDC, EA showed off Queensland, one of the later domains in the game, and because doing things in order is so un-Alice, a pair of representatives stopped by last week to show us the first of Wonderland's six domains (unfortunately, American himself is busy living in The People's Republic of China).

Above: Suck on it, creepy teapot thing

I'll let our earlier preview fill in most of the details of Alice's return, but, in short, ever since her family died in a house fire when she was a child, Alice has had a bad case of the crazies. Eleven years after her first self-reflective trip to Wonderland, her subconscious has returned in search of answers (and bloooood).

Madness Returns begins in London, and Alice returns to the sooty city after each of her excursions to Wonderland. There, the story is advanced as Alice moves between 'triggers' which plummet her into the fantasy world. Of course, as the game progresses, the line between the two levels of reality begins to blur. A spinning top is not yet confirmed.

Wonderland partially appears to Alice as the whimsical land it ought to be, but from what I gathered, most of it is as morose as expected from McGee. In her first trip back to the demented land of teapots and smiling cats, which I got to play a very brief segment of, Alice lands in Hatter's Domain, which alternates between whimsical and violent. Regardless of any area's specific theme, the game is beautiful all around.

Above: This is not the part of the game I'm talking about, but it does illustrate that it's pretty

Combat is much more heavily emphasized in Madness Returns than it was in the original, but before drawing blood with Alice's implements of death, I had to master the game's primary mechanic: platforming. I scooted around awkwardly at first, as it seemed that Alice had only one degree of forward motion - a full run. That's odd for a game which requires precision platforming, but I got used to her impatience quickly, and it helps that she's able to triple-jump and briefly float with the help of her dress. I escaped several near-plummets thanks to her mid-air acrobatics.

Still, I did quite a bit of plummeting at first, but that was mostly due to lack of experience. As it's near the beginning of the game, the main path wasn't too challenging, and after a bit of fumbling, I figured out how to keep Alice's feet on solid ground (floating in the sky). The secret areas, which house goodies like memory triggers which offer insight into Alice's past, however, are much harder to reach, and were often only accessible via invisible, moving platforms.

So how do you know where to go when the platforms are invisible? A swig of your standard 'Drink Me' shrinking potion - which Alice holds an unlimited supply of - not only makes her small enough to fit through keyholes, but reveals secrets, such as the locations of hidden platforms and arrows which point to locations off the beaten path.

Above: This also is not the part of the game I played, but it does communicate that this section of the preview is about platforming

As I pushed forward, the platforming puzzles became slightly more complex, though, again, Hatter's Domain is the first of the six domains, so the game was still teaching me the ropes, and the most I had to do was open steam vents and use them to propel Alice to the correct platforms.

As I made may merry way through the exterior sections of the clockwork steam-powered Hatter's Domain, I noticed I that was collecting teeth. An EA representative explained that the teeth can be put toward upgrading Alice's weapons, of which she has four (excluding a neat teapot launcher I played with in Queensland): the Vorpal Blade, your must-have Lewis Carroll dagger; the Hobby Horse, a slow but powerful mace; the Pepper Grinder, which acts like a Gatling gun; and the Mechanical Bunny, a remote-detonated clockwork bomb.

Above: The looks-far-too-heavy-for-those-skinny-arms Hobby Horse

Each weapon can be upgraded four times, and aside from the Vorpal Blade, which naturally has to look like the Vorpal Blade, the weapons undergo significant visual changes as they're upgraded. I wasn't so worried about all that, though - what I wanted to know was why the hell I was collecting teeth. No luck - I was told I'd have to ask American about that one. So, uh, American, why was I collecting teeth?

We may never know. Anyway, the weapons aren't all immediately available, but thanks to a little debug tinkering I was fully loaded and ready to bash the brains out of some fairytale creatures gone awry.

Attacks are simple to execute, but the combat is definitely not easy. On the Xbox 360 controller, each of the face buttons corresponds to a weapon, and Alice is free to attack with anything in her arsenal without the need to 'switch' between them. She can also lock onto enemies, and use a teleportation dodge maneuver which reduces her to butterflies and reforms her a few feet away. Dodging isn't easy to master, but it's very useful, especially when an enemy's weak point is on its back.

Each enemy requires its own strategy. The lowest level grunts can be attacked head-on, but stronger enemies can't be killed unless a vulnerability is attacked, or a specific weapon is used. Some of the Card Guards found in the Queensland domain, for example, need to be knocked down then bashed with the Hobby Horse to be dispatched.

In Hatter's Domain, or at least the beginning of it, the least-pleasant miscreant Alice encounters is a one-eyed teapot which must be stunned and stabbed in the pupil. Actually, make that second-least-pleasant; the least-pleasant creature I encountered was a Corruption-engulfed doll. The Corruption, by the way, is the icky black stuff spreading across Wonderland and making everything... icky and stuff.

Above: This isn't the Hatter's Domain either. If you couldn't tell,we weren't given very relevant screenshots

While bashing away at one or two enemies with one-button combos is no hard task, when three or more varying baddies come at Alice, the battle becomes exponentially hectic, and as some enemies require more complex methods of murder, which you take out first becomes very important. I found that wiping out the grunts while dodging the higher-level beasts worked best, as being interrupted while attempting to stab something in the back was frustrating as hell. If things aren't looking good, however, Alice does have a trick up her sleeve - when her health is low, a manually activated last-ditch effort turns everything all horror grainy, increases her strength, and gives her a chance to regain some health as she beats down enemies.

And, lucky for Alice, she's not entirely alone in Wonderland. The Duchess rewards her for peppering snorting pig's snouts scattered throughout the world, and the Cheshire Cat is, of course, back to give Alice cryptic hints. In combat, however, it's Alice vs. everyone.

Above: You again

That's all I saw, but we'll have more (hopefully with relevant screenshots!) as soon as American and team are ready to divulge it, or when the game is out (June 14th); whichever comes first. And we'll do our best to figure out what the deal is with the teeth. My best guess involves dream symbolism. Ever had your teeth fall out in a dream? That sucks.

Of course, maybe sometimes teeth are just teeth.

Apr 8, 2011

Associate Editor, Digital at PC Gamer