Alice: Madness Returns‘ title is apt for several reasons. It is the sequel to American Mcgee’s Alice that came out in 2000. Since then, designer: American Mcgee has not had any other major successes. With the game: Bad Day in LA, one of the most universally reviled games to be released. With Alice, it is his return to his most successful brand. While Madness Returns is fortunately not as bad as previous endeavors, it could have been better.

The story takes place shortly after the end of the first game: Alice has been released from the insane asylum and now lives in an orphanage. She is trying to forget about Wonderland and is seeing a psychiatrist. However she starts hallucinating and returns to Wonderland to see it being corrupted by a strange force. Over the course of the game Alice has to figure out what is happening to Wonderland and try to keep a hold of her sanity and what’s real and what’s not.

Helping to pull the player in would have to be the visuals. As far as art design goes, Madness Returns is one of the best looking games I’ve seen in 2011. The environments in Wonderland look amazing and do a lot to showcase the damage and beauty of the world. The plot of Alice trying to regain her sanity in an insane world is an interesting one. With all that said however, the gameplay is not as inventive as the world.

Alice’s gameplay is split between combat and plat forming with light puzzle solving, which is the same split seen in the first game. If you remembered the first game, the plat forming was very loose, and it was easy to misjudge jumping distances. For Madness, it feels like the designers over compensated when trying to fix that complaint. While jumping is still loose, now Alice can hover and basically do 3 mini jumps in mid air.

Combat has become more third person action based and overall is better than the first game. Alice has 4 weapons to use along with a dodge and a block. Enemy types are split between small, medium and large which the larger enemies are more along the lines of mini bosses. While Combat is a step up from the first game, it is several steps down from recent action games which I’ll be coming back to very shortly.

Puzzle solving revolves around opening up doors and paths using Alice’s “shrink vision”. While shrunk she can see invisible platforms, clues on walls and hidden paths. Each chapter features a puzzle or scenario type unique to it which is the best parts of the game. However, probably coming second in strange complaints to my problem with Saints Row The Third, Alice suffers for being too long.

The main problem with the game is that the game is very repetitive. Puzzles, obstacles, and enemy fights repeat a lot. For example, every chapter has a section where Alice has to go down a slide avoiding obstacles, with the slide appears to be the same one each time. Alice’s entire move-set with exception to weapons, is all introduced within the first chapter, leaving the designers with 5 more chapters to fill.

I lost count of the # of times where I had to use gusts of wind to navigate across a big room. Sections where Alice must navigate invisible platforms in shrink vision must pop up at least 10 or more times per chapter. Except that there is no discernible difference in testing the player.

All the huge environments, while pretty to look at, leave the game space very wide. It gets to the point of being a chore to navigate with so much of the content recycled. The developers tried to give the player reasons to explore with collectibles scattered around, but none of them do anything to serve the game play. Challenge rooms which can increase the player’s health are unneeded, as I had more than enough health to beat the game without going through them.

With so many repeating sections, the game feels bloated. Especially if you were to compare Alice to Mario Galaxy or other current gen action adventure games. Mario’s move-set is also limited, but the designers were able to come up with all sorts of challenges and mechanics around them. Whereas Alice just repeats the same areas over and over again. A similar complaint can also be said about the combat system.

Combat also suffers several issues. Battling small enemies isn’t a big deal, but mid and large enemies require spending several minutes dodging their attacks and repeating the same process each time. Alice’s defensive moves are a dodge and block ability, with certain enemy attacks are best avoided using one or the other. The strange issue is that the designers made it so that you can only block attacks when you use the lock on targeting. The problem is that locking on zooms the camera in making it impossible to track enemies to the side or behind Alice.

The challenge rooms which have Alice fighting enemy groups larger than the regular game are just an exercise in frustration because of the combat system. Since locking on exposes your back to constant attacks, it makes fighting larger enemies a major hassle. Alice can upgrade her weapons over the course of the game, but upgrades only affect damage potential and nothing else.

Alice is not a bad game by any means, but it feels over done. After the credits rolled, I saw that my total play time was just less than 10 hours. Looking back, if I were to just count the unique areas and obstacles, my play time could have been half that. Another disappointing area is the lack of boss fights, each chapter hints at a battle with one of Wonderland’s residents, but nothing happens. There is only one boss fight in the game and even that doesn’t feel like anything more than just another regular battle.

It feels like the art team and story writers wrote a check that the designers couldn’t cash which is a shame. A more focused title dealing with exploring Wonderland and the line between fantasy and reality could have been interesting. In the end, Alice: Madness Returns is about 4 hours of great gameplay, all wrapped around filler.

Josh Bycer

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It has been awhile since I’ve had a good old fashioned rant about the industry. Recently the Spike VGAs have been more than adequate fuel for the fire for commentators about the show. Today’s rant comes from the show but not about the show itself. During one of the many trailers, there was buildup regarding a new game from Bioware which fans would assume meant a new RPG. However, the actual announcement was for a new Command and Conquer: Generals sequel and that it’s being done by a studio which is now known as Bioware: Victory. This is another example of publishers going for uniformed branding with their properties… and I hate it.

Branding is important in any industry, from mega companies like Nintendo, to even someone like me trying to establish his own brand. Brand recognition is worthwhile in the consumer industry as it allows people to know about a product by the company it comes from. There are preconceived notions about quality that come from a brand. Those notions are why many gamers will buy a game that has the name “Blizzard” stamped on the box without a second thought.

Now of course one product does not make a brand and it requires the company to have built up a little history first. Brand loyalty is the ultimate goal behind a brand: having a consumer buy your product or support you based on previous efforts. Very few video game companies have reached this level of loyalty as it requires a lot of work and delivering on quality products time after time. The worse thing any company can do is misuse their brand as it can appear to be a violation of trust by the consumer.

There are two sides to the misuse of brands, first is with the success of the company. Unifying game companies under a single popular brand helps with short term popularity, or with letting a new development studio share the wealth. This is what I’m thinking as to why EA renamed the studio Bioware: Victory. The problem with this mindset is that it makes it harder for individual studios to shine and they lose their identity. How many mainstream gamers are going to know the difference between multiple studios with Bioware in their name?

When Irrational Games had their name changed to 2K “something” (I honestly can’t remember what it was.) The change made it hard for gamers to know that they were the developers behind the excellent Freedom Force series. The other problem is the phrase “putting all your eggs in one basket”, what happens when a popular brand loses its luster and the smaller studios no longer have that brand as support? Game credit and recognition are vital in this industry, if a studio keeps having their name changed due to branding, it makes it harder for gamers to follow the studio and support them.

When it comes to successful series, most of you probably know the name: “Call of Duty”. I’m curious though, how many people, both gamers and non gamers, know that at least 3 different studios have worked on the series? The studios were Infinity Ward, Treyarch and Sledgehammer Games.

Moving on, the other side of branding has to do with failures, and how branding can hide them. This point in the article is where my inner cynic takes over. Another way that publishers can use a centralized brand is to make it harder for negative recognition to happen.

Brand recognition is a double edged sword: good recognition will get people to support your products easier, bad recognition will drive them away regardless of the product. We’ve all read about the things that game companies do that drive away users: DRM, spotty support and so on. Negative brand recognition is a necessary evil as without it; companies that do harmful things to the industry could get away with it.

If a publisher has 5 or 6 smaller studios under its belt, each with the same prefix, would a casual or mainstream gamer know the differences between each one? One of those studios could release multiple horrible games without any signs of improving. Most people wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from the other studios and that would give that one troublesome studio a safety net to continue putting out products. Now in this scenario, the overall brand won’t be hurt too badly, if the other studios release quality games which would cancel out the negative impact. Now of course this is all here-say at this point in time and as I said earlier, this is the cynicism part of the post.

In most consumer driven industries, the most popular brands stay in the forefront, and smaller ones get absorbed and renamed. During my time at Comcast, I heard numerous stories about cable providers I’ve never heard of, who were bought and renamed Comcast to keep the brand unified. However, there is a major difference between the video game industry and other consumer driven industries. There are no pre-defined definitions of quality. Meaning, there is no de-facto perfect FPS, or RPG. No company can say that they make the best FPS and that you should only buy their games.

Just looking at the FPS genre for example, I could drone on about the variety of the genre, from Bioshock to Stalker. Because of the variety of content, it makes unified brands unwarranted due to each company having their own unique voice. We have seen amazing games from 2nd and 3rd party developers: Naughty Dog, Insomniac, Team Ico, Hal Laboratory and many more. We all have our favorite studios and condensing them all under a few banners would undervalue their contributions to the industry.

As the cost of creating retail games rises, publishers are looking to reduce risk and costs by drawing inspiration from other industries. Improving productivity and organization with better structure are noble goals, but it’s a good idea to remember that the developers behind the product are as important as the product itself.

Josh Bycer

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