Alice: Madness Returns Hands-on Preview
We spent at least an hour with a couple of levels of Alice to get a good feel for the controls, style and combat of the game. As with the first game, Alice has many weapons at her disposal, from the iconic butcher’s knife to a giant hammer to a ranged weapon. The latter two can be upgraded by collecting the teeth that spill from defeated enemies, crates and other features of Wonderland. For example, we were using a giant croquet mallet in the Queen of Hearts' domain, but a weird hobby-horse in another level.
As well as these two melee weapons, there's also a shield device (a spinning parasol), a button to change your attack focus and a jump button; we resorted to button-mashing for the first few encounters. Even when we became more used to the controls, the Xbox 360 controller we were using felt like it was a button or two short. For example, to reflect a fireball hurled by some kind of multi-baby-headed monster required us to focus our attention on him with LSB and then hold LT and X simultaneously. However, X used on its own performs a melee attack with the butcher’s knife.
Similarly, ranged attacks were tricky as you need to tap RB to enable the ranged weapon mode and then use the thumbsticks to aim (while standing still) while firing with RB. If we were hit, the ranged cursor would disappear, leading to confusion concerning whether we could run away, or whether the ranged weapon mode was still enabled. However, the build we were playing wasn’t final, gold code, so there’s time for this glitch to be removed at least. Similarly, some of the automatic camera positioning in secret areas clearly needed polishing too.
We can’t deny that when we’d got the hang of combat system, the game was pretty fun and looked suitably spectacular. Alice whirls and weaves around the horrific-looking enemies, slashing and smashing as she goes. While the actual mechanics of the combat system aren't all that revolutionary - some enemies need to be hit on the back, and will conveniently bury their sword in the ground and spend a few seconds heaving to get it out, for example - there’s a solid balance between enjoyment, challenge and eye-candy.
Speaking of eye-candy, there’s plenty on show. While the Unreal engine might not be as cutting-edge as others out there, it does a fine job of presenting the weirdly warped Wonderland. Each realm looks and feels different, with more and less emphasis on certain aspects of gameplay depending on your location. One level was more about bashing through enemies, while another was more about jumping between platforms and shooting.
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It’s a boon that Madness Returns isn’t too harsh on noobish platforming skills (for us, anyway). Miss a jump, and you only restart back at the beginning of that platform sequence. However, die in combat and you’re typically sent back to the beginning of the level. From the early preview build, either death meant that we had to go to all the secret locations we’d found and re-collect the memories or clues. The ability to shrink plays a part in finding these - in the same way as the Spirit Guide mode in Prey, shrinking reveals hidden platforms and clues daubed on the walls. It can also give you access to hidden areas via small keyhole-shaped doorways.
Alice: Madness Returns looks like a competent platformer with a few twists, even if we quickly got used to thinking: ‘if stuck, shrink.’ While the combat system could be a bit more elegant, at least it was challenging, and the visual style of Wonderland is enough to make it a game worth looking out for.
Alice: Madness Returns is being developed by Spicy Horse and will be published by Electronic Arts. It will be released on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 on 17 June 2011 in Europe. The release date for other territories varies.