American McGee's Alice
The idea behind American McGee's Alice is a flat-out brilliant one. In the time since Alice last visited her fairy-tale dreamworld, Alice has been rendered broken and mentally disturbed following the deaths of her parents in a fire. Wonderland has been turned inside out, the rules of time-space have been all but abandoned, and the tyrannical Queen of Hearts has built a bloody regime based on the slavery, torture, and none-too-pleasant deaths of Wonderland's inhabitants. Now, psychologically shattered, Alice finds herself back in Wonderland as the people's champion, and the prospect of taking one more hardcore trip through this shattered looking glass with a maniacal, knife-wielding Alice seems way too cool to be true.
And, unfortunately . . . it is too cool to be true.
While the graphics are awesome, the levels are frequently brilliant, and the whacked-out character design is perfectly suited to Alice's Adventures in Hell, this is an idea that deserves more than an overly simple third-person platform shooter. This Alice is far more suited to a role in a grand graphic adventure, and the game stands as a shining example of how high-concept gaming art coupled with low-concept gameplay makes for an interesting paradox - you'll want to see it all, but you won't really want to play it all.
The control scheme is hyper-simple, set up to play like a third-person version of Quake Lite or Unreal Jr. You use your mouse to aim and turn Alice around, and use the keyboard to run, strafe, change weapons, and leap about the scenery. Alice's handling is loose and floaty, however, so you'll find yourself leaping where you don't expect, gliding into spots you didn't mean to get into, and drowning in puddles of water that should have been easily escapable. The mouse and keyboard commands are entirely customisable, so you can pretty much mimic any of your favourite first-person shooter setups.
And really, that's about all there is to it. Alice runs, leaps, and shoots at spear-wielding Jacks of Spades, giant toothy toadstools, and an assortment of other bizarre Wonderland baddies, occasionally coming across a new weapon (like the imp-summoning Demon Dice or a pack of 52 razor-sharp playing cards with built-in homing mechanisms). Most weapons have two modes of operation: a primary fire, and a secondary fire. Your stats consist of two bars - a red one for health, a blue one for magic/ammo - and the only items you pick up are glowing polygons secreted in the death throes of your enemies that refill one or the other or both. While it ensures you won't be frustrated for lack of ammo, it effectively removes any incentive to poke around Wonderland to uncover secrets. You'll also run into a "puzzle" here and there, but they're usually extremely simple (go to this room, then go to this room, pull a lever or two, come back). The game is long, granted, with 15 enormous areas to explore, but by the time you pass the forest beyond the Pool of Tears you'll have grown tired of hurling kinetic croquet balls at your foes and hopping around on giant leaves with pre-programmed paths, and find yourself wishing there was more to it than this. It's fun, just not for all that long.
It's the sights, sounds, and concepts that are the big draw here - and they are, in fact, quite the draw. The characters are haunted, horrible, and somehow still likeable, their bizarre dialogue voiced with deadpan creepiness, even if the game is haunted by the occasional volume level or stutter glitch. The sound effects consist mostly of standard shooter noises, and the incidental and ambient music is appropriately atmospheric and dark, and sits unobtrusively in the background.
The game employs the Quake III graphics engine to its fullest potential - the worlds that Alice leaps around are stunning, mind bending, and unbelievably cool. Awesome moments come frequently in Alice, but it's all just a beautiful wrapping for an alarmingly mediocre third-person platform shooter that, in the end, all boils down to this: if Alice had a different graphics set or was based on any less cool an idea, there wouldn't be much incentive to play.
File this under games that should have been more. I wanted to absolutely love this Wonderland trip, but it's hard when Alice's gameplay just isn't nearly as deep as Alice's psychosis. American McGee's Alice is all ideas and eye candy - delicious, cyanide-laced eye candy, embedded with LSD-tipped sewing needles.
Product: American McGee's Alice
Developer: Rogue Entertainment
Leave it to Shiny Entertainment to create the most bizarre 3D real-time strategy game ever. With its striking visuals, addictive gameplay, and offbeat humour, Sacrifice is definitely going to turn a few gamers' heads.
In Sacrifice you take the role of a powerful wizard helping five bickering gods battle for control of the land. Players start with an altar, which acts as their home base. The object: protect your altar and destroy your opponents' altars.
You won't have to go it alone, though, as you will be able to summon an army of minions to do your dirty work. The collection of creatures available depends on which of the five gods you are serving. Wizards siding with Persephone, goddess of light, will have Rangers and Druids to do their bidding, while those fighting for Charnel, the god of death, will have access to Scythes and Locusts. Each creature comes equipped with unique abilities, such as healing or invisibility, and as your character increases in level, more powerful beings become available.
Like other RTS games, Sacrifice requires you to harvest resources, only instead of wood or gold, your wizards gather mana for spells and collect souls for summoning. As summoned creatures die, their souls wait to be collected by their former owner. Enemy souls can also be converted by summoning a creature that sucks out the enemy soul with a giant hypodermic needle and carries it back to your altar.
As with most Shiny games, Sacrifice shows off the developers' technological talents as well as their warped sense of humour. Wizards range from Medusa-like snake creatures to a gnome riding a one-legged beast, and the minions look like demented Muppets in a Tim Burton nightmare. The 3D engine is capable of rendering scores of objects simultaneously while automatically adjusting itself to maintain the best possible frame rate. Sacrifice is definitely not your typical RTS game.
Developer: Shiny Development
Giants: Citizen Kabuto
One of the most clever and innovative games in a long time, Giants: Citizen Kabuto takes you on a long strange trip indeed . . . and has nearly every-thing you could want in a game. This real-time strategy challenge is hilarious, has a wonderful story, looks and sounds great, and best of all, puts you in the shoes of a 30m monster, crushing or eating everything in your path.
Giants: Citizen Kabuto takes place on a fragment of a planet called the Island, where three groups (well, two groups and one behemoth) are fighting for domination. Developed by Planet Moon, which is made up of ex-Shiny members responsible for games like MDK and Earthworm Jim), Giants contains beautiful graphics, tons of action, and bucketloads of humour.
The single-player experience seems to be of the third-person action/adventure variety with various missions to complete for each of the playable characters. Mulitplay, on the other hand, is a Tribes-style team deathmatch with the base-building elements of an RTS thrown into the mix.
The Meccs have access to an arsenal of weapons, such as the Peashooter and the Shotgun That Acts Like a Rocket, and are equipped with jetpacks for flying around. In multiplayer mode, the Meccs must defend a base, but must first capture Smarties and have them build it. The Smarties must be fed and this is accomplished by killing Vimps (the Island's version of cattle) and returning to the base with meat. As the base grows, the Meccs will have access to a greater variety of weapons and special backpacks, including one that lets a Mecc disguise himself as a bush.
The nymph-like Sea Reapers are armed with swords and a collection of bows, including homing and sniper bows, and have a variety of spells at their disposal, including Teleport, Cloak, and the fireball-like Cluster spell. The Reapers can also summon tornadoes and various creatures, like sea monsters, for massive amounts of destruction.
Kabuto, meanwhile, is the master of brute strength. Towering over the land, Kabuto can pick up his enemies and choose to eat them, hurl them across the Island, or impale them on one of his spikes for later use. He is also armed with a few mighty roars and can smash his enemies with wrestling-style body slams. By eating Smarties, Kabuto is able to give birth to offspring, which he can then command to fetch Vimps for his eating pleasure.
The graphics are a sight to behold, with beautiful sky effects, smooth animations, and humorous character designs. And while the voices were not implemented in the beta version, the music by Mark Snow of X-Files fame was excellent and fit the atmosphere perfectly. The control is fairly simple and handles like most third-person shooters although, with several hotkeys to learn, it can be a little complicated at times.
Product: Giants: Citizen Kabuto
Developer: Planet Moon