Hitman isn’t the only game I pay a lot of attention to. I take great interest in the gaming industry and am a fan of many franchises. I enjoy taking part in unique experiences and try not to get boxed in a single genre. I also love exploring the legacy and culture of video games and frequently play catch-up to learn about older titles. This is how I’ve grown to love American McGee’s Alice – a horror-themed 3D action platformer loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s creations. The game has never received a sequel at the time I first played it and a continuation wasn’t even planned. This has obviously made Past White truly saddened as they carried on without a hint of hope towards either an Alice 2 nor Hitman 5. Both of these are titles which will be discussed in this piece as, even though very different, present similar flaws in execution. Join me, as I will tell you a tale of missed opportunities and misunderstandings in this “what the hell has happened here?” type of article!
First though, we have to get at least a basic overview of the victims of our analysis. I highly recommend you play some of these games for yourself (and trust me, you’ll know which ones I’m talking about). Unfortunately, this particular one isn’t available digitally and pretty tough to get a hold of otherwise but I trust you will manage. After all,
“Only a few find the way, some recognize it when they do, some don’t ever want to.”
American McGee’s Alice has been released in 2000 by a company called Rogue Entertainment. The game’s title was branded with its creator’s name – Mr. American McGee – but this choice was made by the publisher – Electronic Arts – to differentiate the franchise from other works based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This version of Alice was unlike any others. It definitely did not look even remotely similar to Disney’s. It was dark, edgy, almost putrid. Madness has been presented as a realistically scary concept instead of rooting itself in goofy clumsy characters. Alice was also the first Electronic Arts game to have received a rating of 18+ or, in case of American territories – Mature. The letter M was previously given to such titles as Mortal Kombat, DOOM or Resident Evil – all of them thematically far from a colorful world of Wonderland. That is because this Wonderland also was not full of joy. It was a place of misery, created in the protagonist’s mind.
Taking place after the events of both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlands and Through The Looking Glass; American McGee’s Alice shows us the continuation of Alice Liddell’s life. The brunette (yes, Carroll’s Alice was, in fact, brunette!) is a troubled young lady introduced to us in a short FMV scene. From said scene we can learn that she is the last surviving member of the Liddell family as her parents and sister died tragically in a house fire presumably caused by their pet cat. This traumatic experience has lead to Alice blaming herself for the fire and become mentally unstable causing her to get locked away in Rutledge Asylum under the care of Dr. Heironymous Q. Wilson. We can find his notebook in the manual of the disc release of the game (remember game manuals?! Also, don’t you find weird that the other series in focus also has a casebook written by someone calling themselves a doctor?).
Alice was comatose for almost a year. She’s been recovering from her wounds quite well but she’s delirious, has severe memory issues and responds poorly to outside stimuli. Her only possession is a toy white rabbit which she deeply cherishes (more similarities between the franchises!? What are we going to do?!). As her physical and mental state were both in a dangerous territory, Dr. Wilson has decided to use her for the final evaluation of his experimental serum. But not before testing it on other patients. Alice has heard their agony-filled screams many times at night and began putting blame on herself for their pain and mistreatment. She was seen as completely insane and with little chances of getting back into society. In truth, Alice was alive and well, only on a different plane of existence. She was stepping into the backdoor in her own mind – the only home she was left with: Wonderland.
In there, she has lived accompanied with creatures like Cheshire Cat or The White Rabbit. She began drawing those characters in the real world as well and Dr. Wilson noted that the cat in her doodles is barely like any cat he has ever seen. Alice was muttering words and describing places which could only be of Hell. The experimental treatment has begun and soon the girl was acting either dormant and still or belligerent and destructive. She now has willingly been taking her next doses, presenting the staff with even more images of nightmarish places filled with abominations. She spoke tales of chess, rabbits and tea parties. When there’s no pencil in sight, she turned to poetry instead. She started mentioning particular details: a blade she’s supposedly carrying, a place called the Fungiferous Forest and a demon by the name of The Red Queen. Dr. Wilson soon realized that it’s Wonderland Alice was stuck in. The Red Queen was the one who has bound her there and will only let her escape once the girl slays her.
“I wait for the day when she claims victory over the Red Queen and her minions, when Wonderland will be restored.”, he claims. “Perhaps by this Alice will cure herself, regain her balance and leave this place of her own volition.”
This is how the backstory of Alice paints itself in this version of her adventures in Wonderland. Although the tale of the game itself isn’t very sophisticated and comes around to a classic “do this, get that” idea of video game objectives, the writing is still absolutely amazing. And you only need one character to prove it. The Cheshire Cat.
Of course, The Cat isn’t the only character with outstanding lines. All of them speak in distinct patterns and have unique personalities attached. The supporting characters are all native creatures of Wonderland. We briefly see The White Rabbit, The Catterpillar is a major figure in the quest, The Mock Turtle is a helpful ally, The Duchess is one of the first antagonists Alice has to face and even the fabled Jabberwock appears acting as the protagonist’s Pyramid Head. And those are not the only familiar faces either.
Alice herself isn’t the naive, clumsy cliché girl protagonist we’ve been taught to expect. She is fierce and determined even though she realizes the risks (“I am destined to battle The Red Queen. The outcome is uncertain.”) but also has visible character flaws. She takes blame for every bad thing that happens around her (“Everyone I love dies violently. I’m cursed. Why go on? I’ll just hurt others.”) and ends up being quite rude to others that try to guide her on the right track (“Or, perhaps, there’s more than one way to skin a cat… if you pardon the expression.”). Her wits and drive definitely make her a likable and somewhat relatable character and you end up rooting for her not minding all of the horrible mutilations she commits with her range of weaponry.
And those are many. You will need to use your whole arsenal to deal with variety of enemies placed in clever positions throughout the levels. This game is brutal, especially on higher difficulties. It knows it offers a Quick Save feature and makes players use it frequently as it does not checkpoint at any point except for major location changes. It also doesn’t matter that the enemies all drop Sanity (health) and Will (mana) refills (Meta-Essence). They hit hard and later encounters often have to be played strategically to balance Alice’s HP and MP. A great example of that is the first boss battle in fact. The Duchess hits like a truck and even though refill pickups are dotted around the room, you don’t want to run through them once you end up without a Will to fight. You are better off leaving them until you need to get back your Sanity instead. This can lead to Vorpal Blade kiting and sniping battle pretty quickly as you dodge The Duchess’ projectiles and worry on survival until the pickups respawn. The Blade is the only weapon which secondary projectile attack does not use mana. This makes it a reliable tool to switch to on the fly even in later parts of the game. American McGee’s Alice does a fantastic job in making you want to use all of the weapons available. They all have two types of attacks and serve different purposes. They are also amazingly balanced. Some have homing projectiles but are weak so you might want to leave them to deal with more annoying yet more fragile enemies whilst using a higher speed projectile weapons for more dangerous opponents.
Remember how I mentioned the game plays off the Quick Save feature? It isn’t afraid to be difficult or even straight up unfair at times. Everything leads you into dangerous situations, even The Turtle takes you through every single bit of every single room in the underwater section just so Alice can get her toes bit by a few piranhas on the way. Her tools of the trade aren’t the only aspect with variety. Much care have been put into the design of enemies as well. Both visual and gameplay. The opponents are threatening. They not only do loads of damage. They look ferocious, too. From classic Card Guards to flying beetles, ants and even demons – each enemy is distinct in their looks, animations, sound effects and actions. The game places them in locations unfavorable for the player for an even bigger difficulty curve. The beetles hover around Alice dropping explosives during a semi-automatic leaf-riding section. The ants can easily pick her up and throw her off great heights. The Boojum are often encountered in already tough platforming levels and their one screech is enough to fling Alice off her course.
This title understands pacing. Not just in storytelling but gameplay-wise, too. It isn’t just wave after wave of opponents to beat. For example – after an enemy gauntlet, we are presented with a pure platforming level. Then, an intense boss battle followed by a story cutscene. Speaking of platforming sections… American McGee’s Alice isn’t as unforgiving as it may appear. It offers some help in form of a visual representation of player character’s jump length and hidden pickups. One of them can temporary turn Alice into a demon-like creature and up her damage output. Interestingly enough, Alice does cry in pain every time she uses said pickup, further signifying how terrifying and agonizing this experience is for the protagonist.
The game makes great use of the theme it carries. Every single detail makes sense in the world. You could already notice that as soon as I mentioned Sanity and Will. The environments are beautiful. They still manage to carry the feeling of Wonderland albeit broken and deranged. The motives such as clocks, chess and mirrors are used for minor puzzles dotted around the levels and the game makes a great deal out of everything appearing dangerous and eerie. Major antagonists are introduced well before their respective boss battles and the player learns to despise them. Not only because we are told that some of the characters are villainous. The environmental storytelling does its job, too. The Jabberwock, for example, uses Alice’s greatest fear – fire – to hurt her, and the battle with it takes place in a burned building. We can also see Mad Hatter’s twisted creations and realize for ourselves why he must be stopped. If American McGee’s Alice can portray simple roses or chess pieces as life-threatening danger, it must be a sign that it is doing it right.
I cannot stress enough how important it is that it does things right. The game deals with themes of depression, trauma, delusions and extreme loss of sanity. It never makes a single joke out of mental illness and it never glorifies it, instead treating it with utmost respect. It uses imagery and atmosphere to make its statement on the importance of mental health and I honestly think it’s doing a remarkable job. It is mature because it has to be. It doesn’t simplify or disregard Alice’s issues. It takes its themes and runs with them and it is exactly why I fell in love with it.
As you can see, a bunch of aspects featured in American McGee’s Alice mimic the ones of my absolute favorite franchise of all time – Hitman. I fell in love with Hitman because of its maturity. I adore how it shows death in a different sense that we’re used to in media. Yes, it is still a silly video game about putting laxatives into the virtual food of polygonal figures but it’s so thought-provoking in its narrative and atmosphere. That I believe I have proven in my previous pieces. Silent Assassin is the greatest example. 47’s moral journey is the point the game is centered around. Pairing that with religion, guilt and arising sense of revenge in our protagonist is absolutely brilliant in my opinion. Playing Silent Assassin and noticing those tiny changes in Mr. 47’s behavior is a thrill as the experience gets enhanced, the tension gets higher and peaks when the player returns to the Gontranno Sanctuary for the very last time. Same can be said about Contracts in particular but there are definitely some of those moments also present in Codename 47 and Blood Money.
Time has passed as I was lurking the online forums hoping to see a glimpse of another entries in my favorite franchises. The rumors were spreading and thriving, as it happens so often on social media. 2009 brought us a vague announcement of “The Return of American McGee’s Alice” complemented by a steampunk-inspired concept art. But it was the next year that officially announced the sequel to Alice’s adventures.
Alice Madness Returns – claimed the title card at the end of a dark and moody CGI trailer. First interviews with the series creator also have started to appear. American McGee spoke highly of the fans of the original Alice, saying that the game became sort of a cult classic in a sense and definitely assuring that the team is going to do it justice with the sequel.
“This is a natural sequel, a narrative sequel to the first game. So we get back in there and people who know the first game are going to have a lot of reward in terms of seeing locations that they may have seen before, characters that they knew from the first game.”,
he said setting up a framework for Alice’s return to madness. It appeared that the creator is on the right track when it comes to analyzing the success of his product and wants to play off those even further:
“The first Alice was actually EA’s first M-rated game. We are trying to seek common horror — not that it’s simple or expected, but instead of being that in-your-face cliché horror, we’re trying to go for a much more psychological, deep, disturbing horror. The kind that would juxtapose something like the blood and the teeth and this beautiful girl to try to create — that is a dissonance that you’re trying to pull up.”
“Whatever she sees or experiences in Wonderland has to be derived from something that she might have seen or experienced in real life.”
The team, albeit a completely new one, knew what they had to do. According to American McGee, the basics of Alice was to create a solid platformer with memorable art and story. The latter was accomplished thanks to R.J. Berg who was confirmed to be on board with Alice Madness Returns as well. This focus was what guided the development of the sequel: American McGee wanted to create a satisfying platforming experience in a gameplay sense but also to be on par with storytelling, art design and puzzle elements. This image of Alice Madness Returns ended up rooted in fans’ mind during an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit:
“The first game is often knocked for being both too difficult and too simplistic. It’s sad to hear when people loved the game but were unable to finish it because it impossible to get past some stage or enemy. Fortunately, we’ve made sure to address all those issues with the new game.
The first game was much like I imagined it – but I never expected the sort of response I received.”
The comments have already noticed the fact that this difficulty is a big part in what made American McGee’s Alice such a memorable and thrilling experience. None of us were expecting that the creator’s words were to end up being a double-edged sword, however. Or, I guess, in this case, a double-edged blood-sprayed Vorpal Blade…
CGI trailers tend to be misleading, although they often give out a fair assessment of the product’s atmosphere and general theme. This, as well as the fact that Spicy Horse – the studio responsible for Alice’s sequel – has hired Ken Wong to direct the art style of the game, cemented the idea of a dark, mature title. Why was Ken Wong such a big deal? He was previously a fan of the original American McGee’s Alice and was so inspired by the art design that a fanart of the protagonist appeared in a doujinshi fan book. From there, he was contacted directly by the series’ creator himself to work on returning Alice to her state of madness. Weirdly enough, however, albeit still quite beautiful and unique, the environments shown in the first gameplay trailer weren’t even close to moody scenes featured in those three CGI teasers.
Here, we can catch a glimpse of the cutout animation style that was then used in the game itself to deliver greater story aspects. Speaking of story, this framework is also being set – Alice is heard having a conversation with, presumably, her psychiatrist whom we’ve not heard of before, admitting that she is trapped inside her own mind once again. The trailer shows us major locations featured in the game before shattering the screen as our protagonists mentions Wonderland being destroyed.
This wasn’t the only gameplay trailer however, as we can easily dig up a video full of beta content. This, in addition to analyzing concept arts and going through leftover files of Alice Madness Returns, can give us a pretty good idea as to what the game was going to look like if not for various cuts and changes. Before we can take a look at those however, let’s see how the final product turned out, just so we’re on the same page.
From the very first seconds, the tone is already quite different. We are introduced to Wonderland by Alice herself during one of her many sessions with a man whose voice we’ve heard in the trailer. Doctor Bumby guides her through a peaceful day spent having a tea party with The White Rabbit before the world starts shifting and disrupting its balance. Alice wakes up in Bumby’s office in London and we hear a sad violin soundtrack accompanying this Victorian setting. In addition to the main Wonderland portion of the environment, we can also run around the English capital city itself, although it appears merely as filler content between the five chapters of Alice’s adventure. Yes, the game is split into five different chapters, distinguished by five major Wonderland locations. Each of them is approximately two hours in length and every time, Madness Returns throws the player back to London to present a quick inside into the life of actual physical self of Alice Liddell. Unfortunately, there isn’t much gameplay during these parts. They all come down to mindless running through linear levels with few instances of “interactions”. I say that in huge quotations as said “interactions” are simply boxes of text featuring Alice’s thoughts.
It’s a shame that London isn’t used for any meaningful gameplay segments. The feeling of melancholy is captured perfectly. The art style and the choice of colors represent exactly the mood I’d imagine in a Victorian London setting. Conversations we can overhear mostly during our first visit could have easily be improved upon to paint a better picture of how the outside world sees our protagonist, though. There are bits of dialogue that touch on said subject and honestly, I was expecting there would be more emphasis put on physical Alice in addition to the expression of her mental self. Especially because there is one surprisingly clever detail never clearly explained in the story and it’s a real treat for the player once they piece it together themselves. I’ll give you a hint – it’s about Alice’s hair length.
As it is, England isn’t seen much and isn’t very memorable – a missed opportunity considering the ending which heavily revolves around merging the physical and mental interpretations of reality. We do see the London streets gradually twisting around Alice and the same thing is true for Wonderland but those changes are never as drastic as to be notable. In fact, those scenes are so forgettable I catch myself thinking “oh yeah, that happens” every time I replay the game.
How does the game play, you ask? It is as close to the original game as it is far away from it. The framework is quite the same. That, once again, being a 3D action platformer with puzzle elements. It features a storyline revolving around a troubled young woman dealing with mental issues and finding her solace in escapism. Much more focus was put onto combat this time, as the game borrows heavily from titles such as The Legend of Zelda and incorporates a lock-on system to compliment much faster pace of enemy engagement. You can see how Alice Madness Returns wants to be a hack’n’slash in addition to all of the other genres it tries. Unfortunately, if you decide to cram all of the video games inside one product, none of it will end up competent and this is the main issue with this sequel.
Every time I play Alice Madness Returns (and I truly wish this is the last time I had to), I start it off thinking that it can’t be as bad as I remember it. The first few chapters aren’t horrible, albeit they definitely overstay their welcome. The problems start arising as the game progresses though and you notice small annoyances, non-polished mechanics and segments which are straight up lacking any meaning or content in the long run. Those, unfortunately, include most of the present storyline.
Remember how I mentioned that American McGee’s Alice grounds itself in the most cliché of “go and do that thing cause you are the hero” video game logic? The sequel does it to extreme by making the protagonist do chores for side characters in order to “progress”. Again, I use that word in huge quotation marks as it never feels that way. The first couple of chapters are waves of fetch quests, often asking the player to receive three items or rescue three characters. Honestly, if I wanted to go on such a quest, I’d just pop in any game in The Legend of Zelda franchise instead, as the experience Alice Madness Returns offers in this regard isn’t the most exciting or, again, remarkable.
Let’s stop wording things nicely – major portions of Alice Madness Returns are straight up boring. There are long gameplay sections with no story progression, as the player runs around from person to person. None of them say anything meaningful or further the plot. They simply give you another random objective so you can traverse further into the world. There are no satisfying conclusions to conflicts, either. There’s a suspicious lack of end chapter bosses even though certain characters are clearly set up to be large-scale antagonists. Dormouse even goes as far as to say “Battle time, missy!” before a massive robot rises in front of Alice and is immediately shut down by The Mad Hatter. This happens multiple times throughout the game, too. Chapter 4’s The Executioner would be a perfect late game boss if only you could actually fight him head on. In place of this imaginary encounter, Alice promptly states that the opponent is too powerful to combat him and the conflict is resolved later in a short cutscene. Thankfully, an ending boss does exist and I’m not going to lie, the fight is quite clever thematically, but at that point, the player simply expects more.
Maybe it’s for the best that we didn’t get those big boss battles though, as combat in Alice Madness Returns is a bother. The enemies are varied but they often only have one way of dealing with them until you get your next weapon or upgrade after which it feels as if you are simply swatting waves of flies. Weapon array has greatly diminished. Instead of presenting you with a new toy to play with, the game wants you to spend imaginary currency to improve said toys. Those tokens being teeth; a common dream sign often interpreted as an extreme symbol of fear. The sequel to Alice still plays fairly well with the themes it features, but strays further and further from the original concept of Wonderland, instead focusing on the concept of memories. Those are mostly prominent in the storyline itself as well as the title’s collectibles.
Don’t know about you but I do enjoy secrets and hidden rooms in video games. Everything to break through the monotony of a linear level design and make me feel as if the world is a lot bigger than in reality. Alice Madness Returns features a variety of collectibles, ranging from classic concept art unlockables, additional pieces of dialogue portrayed as the protagonist’s lost memories, bigger secluded areas which include challenges rewarding you with the game’s idea of TLoZ’s Pieces of Heart (thematically brainy though as those are vials of red paint used to turn white roses into red ones akin to the subject matter) and, of course, the pearly or gold variants of the game’s currency. Those are usually uncovered by peppering a Pig Snout – or, in simple terms, using your ranged weapon to activate a trigger. Again, I have to admit that I do like how Pig Snouts have distinct sound effects that help you with locating both them and the secrets themselves. There is also a shrink button which allows Alice to squeeze into tiny mouse or key holes to uncover hidden rooms. The game of hide and seek in Alice Madness Returns is rather impressive and even though I came close on every occasion, I still haven’t managed to 100% it.
The problems start arising once you notice how it disrupts the natural progression of the game. The shrinking ability makes you realize how many invisible walls are scattered throughout Wonderland, therefore breaking its illusion. You end up picking up so many teeth throughout your adventure that the game economy feels lackluster and it is revealed how short and linear the game becomes once you decide to skip going out of your way to pick up imaginary items. Which you are encouraged to commit to. The weapon upgrade “mechanic” is introduced as early as in Chapter 1. Here we meet up with our friends Quotation Marks once again, as it is simply boosting your weapons’ damage output and adding another attack to its “combo”. This allows the player to be able to press A even more times than the regular combat demands it. Not only the enemy engagements are quite boring to begin with and Alice does not have many tools in her arsenal to make them more interesting, the combat itself revolves around hitting a button… a lot of times. There are no multiple button combinations to test out player skills. Alice is equipped merely with her four weapons (two melee and two ranged), an umbrella used for deflecting projectiles and the most compelling of all – the Clockwork Bomb: a tool for both puzzle solving and distracting opponents. She also has an ability to dodge and you will be doing this as often as hitting A. All of this may be compared to the system popularized by the Batman Arkham series, but somehow even more simplistic in its execution. It’s mind boggling how a game heavily featuring combat makes it feel bothersome. Not only that, the player is required to fight as Alice’s sequel borrows from actual spectacle action titles such as Devil May Cry or Bayonetta by locking progression until you clear out a room of enemies.
The shallow nature of AMR’s gameplay only becomes more prominent because of its terrible pacing. The first three chapters drag on forever, featuring fetch quest after fetch quest. Those are filled with either basic platforming segments or lengthy combat sequences, none of them being particularly enjoyable. There is no penalty for dying so there’s never any feeling of danger. Not even from the enemies’ looks as it was the case in American McGee’s Alice. This time, the opponents are much more cartoony and even barely threatening on some occasions. There are also just a few variations of them if you really think about it as most of the basic melee enemies act in similar fashion and Bitch Baby is very close to being a rehash of a previous ranged baddy. I often point to the case of Menacing Ruins – an unfortunate name as its design is a bunch of smaller enemies mashed together and it takes a considerable amount of time to do its counterable attack… in a counter tutorial.
The other big portion of Alice Madness Returns is its platforming sections and those aren’t the best either. It can often be fiddly due to weird collisions, mostly seen once the game starts adding obstacles between the platforms themselves. The player character has an ability to clear long gaps thanks to multiple jumps, twirls and hovers but that also makes it hard to judge the distance you can actually reach. This, in addition to invisible platforms – the other downside of the shrinking “mechanic” – and many other gimmicks piled on top of each other creates a frustrating experience furthered by instances of fixed camera angles in certain rooms and the last big focus of the title…
I mentioned how the title wants to be many genres at once and does none of them well in the end. In fact, every time I play Alice Madness Returns, I think of other games I would rather play that do what Alice’s sequel attempts. I dream of those that do 3D platforming, cutout aesthetic 2D sidescrolling sequences, rhythm games, 2D shooting portions, ball rolling and barrel mini games, quizzes, chases, chess puzzles, sliding puzzles, actual slides, giant character setpieces, theme and glitches better than Alice Madness Returns does and I am sure I forgot at least one other gimmick. Chapter 2’s ship is slow and janky as the game wasn’t made specifically for it. Chapter 4’s chase levels are uninteresting as there are no obstacles in your way and the only thing you do is mash the dodge button to make it go faster. If you end up wanting to cram every genre into your product, you will never polish any of them. This is the reason as to why swimming sections in video games are so dreaded. Titles that feature them never focus on those segments specifically so the controls and physics aren’t designed to be used under special conditions. Chapter 4’s giant Alice level is a fine setpiece but it is boring and clunky and I think someone didn’t get the memo regarding rhythm minigames. Those are usually fun because the player hits buttons to the song’s rhythm, not seemingly at random. And don’t even get me started on the ball-rolling minigames in Chapter 5. The physics do not compliment such gameplay mechanics and neither the ball nor the camera want to do their thing. I truly wish there was at least an ability to skip those frustrating segments like you can do with chess or sliding puzzles. There is no penalty for skipping those, in fact, the game prompts you to do so. Why then does it require me to play through sequences that are clearly broken instead?
Once you make your way through the first few chapters, it does become quite apparent that the game was never truly finished. Chapters 4 and 5 are notably shorter than previous ones. Granted, this actually does Chapter 4 a favor as it feels better paced in result. Chapter 5 however features segments beginning and ending in an abrupt fashion and The Infernal Train is a set of huge empty rooms, cutscenes and loading screens. All of this for a major portion of the story being thrown at the player at the last possible moment instead of maintaining the tension throughout the entire adventure. In fact, the dialogue in early chapters sound like a filler, especially if you consider that most of it is trying to explain vague connections between level themes and the storyline. I already mentioned how the game strays from the subject matter of Wonderland and you can clearly see it in the environments. Granted, the art style is beautiful and if there is something positive to be said about Alice Madness Returns is that its world is simply gorgeous. The fairytale feeling is definitely there. The game is colorful and bright, the character design is clever and stunning (origami ants come to mind) and some portions even feel like the original American McGee’s Alice!
…That is because most of the title unfortunately doesn’t. Only Queensland, with its grotesque imagery truly makes the original Alice come to mind. Every other location is held together thematically by strings of dialogue hidden as glorified audio logs.
The biggest offense to that is my beloved Vale of Tears which changed from being desaturated and visibly miserable to cheerful and twinkly instead. Mad Hatter’s Domain still remains as a place full of half-broken machinery and robots. Chapter 2’s Tundraful is a stretched reference to Through The Looking Glass. Deluded Depths and its Barrelbottom makes you seem as if you’ve taken the wrong bus albeit the Dreary Lane Theatre is absolutely beautiful. Chapter 3 features Oriental Grove inspired by Asian territories… I guess because Spicy Horse was a company based in China. And Chapter 5’s Dollhouse is there because… porcelain dolls can be creepy? As much as I love the art design of all of these locations, there are way too far from the unique American McGee’s Alice aesthetic and come closer to Disney’s version of Wonderland – something that strips the character out of the series and makes it forgettable as a result.
So what about the storyline, you ask? It’s nothing to write essays about, as I’ve already said. The major portion of the game revolves around fetch quests as Alice blindly trusts everybody even though she clearly knows better, questions their loyalty and they end up double crossing her every single time. The writing itself took a huge dip in quality. We could point at The Cheshire Cat during our look at AMA and we can do the same here, as I honestly have no idea why The Cat is even featured in the sequel. He serves no practical purpose and his quotes aren’t witty or smart. Some are repeats from the original game and he ends up stating the obvious on more than one occasion. Let’s compare some of The Cat’s quotes from the original game and its sequel, as I don’t think I have to say anything more once you see it for yourself.
As for the rest of the plot, Alice Madness Returns does the worst thing a sequel can do in my opinion. It is basically a huge retcon as it is revealed that the events leading to Alice’s condition actually happened quite differently. It also introduces an entirely new character which ends up being the original antagonist as well. This renders American McGee’s Alice meaningless, highly diminishes the value of the original game and thus, can be seen as almost disrespectful. I personally think this is the biggest crime the sequel commits, especially seeing how it had a chance to bring the series back to its former glory and present it to the new generation of video game enthusiast. What it ended up as was a half-broken lackluster forgettable product which did not have its own personality and instead was a subpar platformer with bothersome combat system and an gameplay identity crisis.
This is where we come back to the aforementioned beta as it portrays a much grander and fuller experience. Cut content would not singlehandedly save Alice Madness Returns but it would at least make it seem like a finished title. A lot of the problems definitely come from the fact that the development team working on the sequel was derived from people mostly new to the franchise, in fact, it was the same team which worked on American McGee’s Grimm – a fairly simplistic episodic title. A major portion of the Alice assets were outsourced and even then, the studio did not meet the deadlines and throughout the development cycle, the creator’s role in the project was slowly changing from actively working on the product to merely supervising. During another AMA session, American McGee says it himself:
“(…) we knew the game was uneven and bloated as we got towards the end of development. I asked for more time (a month or two) in order to trim and polish. That request was denied. I think if we’d been given the time we could have made the game an 80+.
Now, the reason I put “” around “blame” is that I can’t honestly blame EA for denying a request related to our team’s failure to deliver what we’d promised in the time we’d been given.
And yeah, we had internal problems. “Too many chefs” problem, “ambitions bigger than abilities” problem and more.”
The PC version got shafted as a result. An even bigger punch to the face is the fact that additional dresses (altering gameplay and absolutely gorgeous mind you) which were later sold as DLC, came with the PC version. They were just disabled and required simply changing the value of one of the strings from False to True. More importantly, though, instead of being properly optimized, the game got locked to 30 frames per second. The framerate can easily be unlocked by changing a few strings in the configuration file and the animations look and feel great once you do it but the screentearing is almost unavoidable.
“I didn’t personally lock the FPS to 30 on PC, but I imagine the engineers did that as a function of the console build being locked to 30 FPS and not having enough dev time to optimize the PC version in any way. We were pretty constrained at the end of the dev cycle”, the creator states once again.
All of that is still not enough to save Alice from herself as it seems like there was no clear focus for the gameplay. There was much more pressure put on the themes, the story and overall presentation which can be clearly seen in the final product. The plot is the main culprit here, as originally, it was much more fleshed out. If you remember, Alice Madness Returns was also supposed to be an M-rated title. Just like the first game. The team struggled with deciding on the level of violence they wanted to feature but the breaking point of the Mature rating was to be the plot itself. As it is now, the biggest reveal is only briefly being mentioned in hidden audio logs and the story feels like it’s missing at least a few lines explaining what has truly happened before the fire which killed the Liddell family.
That was indeed the case. Digging through the game’s files uncovers its true story. Not only it was supposed to be paced throughout the entire adventure, it was also to feature a lot more active involvement from the player rather than sections of walking simulator in form of the streets of London. Starting from the tutorial, which was meant to be a police escape, Alice would find herself most likely violently killing people in the real world whilst fleeing to Wonderland in her head. The beta trailer shows off these escape sections and various existing moments of the story point at this being the case as well. Specifically, Alice’s meeting with Doctor Radcliffe and most of her sudden faints. London itself was meant to be used for so much more. In the same video, we can clearly see Londerland coming to life and being actually playable instead of having its role stripped to merely last segments of the narrative. There were multiple characters scrapped during the development – namely someone called Jack and Mr. Payne, whom Alice mentions once and he’s never heard of again, as well as talking chess pieces – and, of course, the entire point of the overall story which would push the game to receive the Mature rating. [Spoiler warning – Doctor Bumby being in love with Alice’s sister which then led to his obsession, causing him to rape Lizzie and set the Liddell family house on fire.]
We can only speculate if that was done in order to keep the image Alice Madness Return was blessed with during its marketing cycle. As you can remember, the actual first gameplay trailer was quite different thematically from the three CGI videos. The horror inspirations were gone and with them, the uniqueness of American McGee’s Alice’s Wonderland was, too. Putting blame on the marketing side is what the creator has stated himself and this was the origin of controversies back in the day:
“What was frustrating was how EA Marketing interfered – telling STS [Shy the Sky – the company responsible for the first three CGI trailers] from the start that ALL creative direction and final say would come from them, not from us (the developer/creator of the story/tone). That resulted in trailers that were much darker and gorier than the game … and that was a calculated disconnect created by EA. They wanted to “trick” gamers into believing A:MR was a hard-core horror title, even though we refused to develop it in that tone. Their thinking is, even if the game isn’t a hard-core horror title, you can market it as one and trick those customers into buying it (while driving away more casual customers, like female gamers, who might be turned off by really dark trailers). It’s all a part of the race to the bottom EA, Activision and the other big pubs are engaged in. Expect to see it get worse before it gets better.”
He later apologized and backed down on his words, saying that “tricked” gives out a bad impression but it is not the only time he blamed the marketing side of the gaming industry for his misfortunes. In fact, American McGee’s Grimm would probably succeed in the creator’s mind if not for the way it was marketed and distributed. Same with the platform which allowed the episodic nature of Grimm – GameTap. The consumers are also to blame. “Games aren’t special and they aren’t exempt from the forces of that shape business and commerce.”, he has said on the topic of downloadable content in fully released titles. There are continued mentions of American McGee not believing that people will pay for entertainment, as his company’s focus was on creating Free 2 Play titles and it’s next (and only) major game was Akanairo – again, a title with amazing art style but not much substance gameplay-wise – before moving to mobile platforms and closing its doors with barely any explanation given in the second half of 2016.
Before the latter happened however, there was another Alice-branded project in works. Alice: Otherlands was the name of a Kickstarter campaign launched in July 2013. The pitch was to gather enough funds to purchase an Alice movie license, in addition to creating a couple of animation shorts to present to the higher ups. Interestingly enough, the concept of Otherlands was originally for a third game in the series but Electronic Arts was not in favor of funding it. The next idea was to crowdfund the project (concept arts were presented and the game was to be a Massively Multiplayer Online title) and release it independently after getting the rights to the Alice franchise. That portion of the Kickstarter itself was successful – it has received $222,377 – but the game never came to be. In fact, this was the only aspect of the campaign which wasn’t rid of problems, as those were gradually rising until the breaking point.
In the end, only two out of ten animation shorts were created. “Somehow” the goal wasn’t high enough and the company had to spend 105% of the funds. Most of it was on physical rewards for backers, instead of the actual animations which were the promised product. There were long periods of silence and continues delays. The physical reward aspect was problematic and lead to being unsatisfactory for a lot of backers. The plans to buy rights to the Alice movie were unsuccessful and once the shorts came out, they were heavily criticized for the subpar quality. American McGee’s retaliation was to say “You don’t like the style of the Otherlands stuff? Don’t watch it.” and disregarding people’s complains by claiming that the original pledge was to pay for the film license. Once again, the blame was put on communication between the creators and the consumers and I suspect it will not be the last time it happens.
To finish this segment on a lighter note, let’s see what Alice Madness Returns could have been if not for many of its unfortunate cuts:
The beta trailer shows of sections of swimming in Chapter 2’s Deluded Depths as well as London police escape sequences and a playable Londerland. Concept arts present us with a bigger arsenal of weapons and combos, featuring a fan favorite Ice Wand returning from American McGee’s Alice. In fact, the weapons were to be based around Tarot cards and Alice’s dresses were to change color depending on the tool she was holding. This was later changed for her style to compliment the location she was in and the dresses themselves were an homage to fans. Since Alice fanatics loved to cosplay and draw the protagonist in various clothes, the creator also wanted to give them more material to work with.
Rabbit was to play a bigger role in the story, guiding Alice throughout Wonderland. There were clearer objectives given to the player both in Wonderland and London portions of the adventure. The locations were supposed to be bigger and more distinct, as the Oriental Grove had an East and West sections. A lot of memories were either removed or rewritten, same with multiple characters’ dialogue – most notably Cheshire Cat’s and The Red Queen’s. And of course, there were cut enemies and locations which did not appear in the final product. We do not know if the game would succeed if those were in place. Maybe it would still suffer from subpar quality and overextending it’s boundaries to every video game genre it can think of. And after following the series for such an amount of time and witnessing the return to Wonder-, Londer- and Otherlands, I honestly don’t think I still wish to know…
At this point, I am pretty sure all of you coming here strictly for Hitman content might have closed the page but if you are still here by some chance, we’re now onto talking about my favorite franchise of all time! …Unfortunately, that meant I had to dabble into the unspeakable as this time, we’re are taking a look at Hitman Absolution.
Just like Alice, the sequel was long overdue. I fondly remember my excitement every time even a slight hint to a mention of Hitman 5 appeared in the wide sea of the internet. Those were, of course, fished out by the most diligent of fishermen of the HitmanForum community. Lack of proper news led to overextending as much as it was possible and multiple actions were then required to stop rumors floating around the murky water. It was 2007 when Xbox Magazine published an article with a so-nicely-looking word and number combo of “Hitman 5” but after that, a silence worthy of the Silent Assassin himself was in place.
This might have been because of financial problems of Eidos – the published of many titles now known under the banner of Square Enix. That is because the Japanese company bought out Eidos after an unsuccessful attempt to restructure the business plan by laying off old Eidos management and making entry for SCi Entertainment – a British publisher responsible for, more notably, Rally Championship, Carmageddon and the Futurama video game. Their regimes did not go as planned and after cutting ever more losses – closing off Rockpool Games for example – they accepted an offer of over 84 million pounds and became a part of Square Enix.
It was 2009 when more rumors resurfaced. In an interview with Gaming Indians, Ian Livingstone – the appointed “Life President of Eidos” – revealed that Io-Interactive is actively working on three projects. Those being a sequel to a third person shooter Kane & Lynch, a fifth entry in their beloved Hitman franchise and, surprisingly, a completely non-violent kids game by the name of Mini Ninjas. There were also mentions of the story being partially related to the then-soon-to-be-released movie (funnily enough, this has happened on both occasions when a Hitman movie was coming out) and Rocksteady Studios helping with motion capture (a mistake made by an actor working on the project). 2010 brought us David Bateson confirming his role in the new installment and swiftly removing the statement from his website, more opportunities for the phrase “Hitman 5” to appear due to new people adding the title to their LinkedIn profiles, a fake trailer which was revealed to be an April Fools joke, a fake poster created for the artist’s portfolio and having nothing to do with the game itself (although looking at it now, some story/thematic connections can be made), Peter Peter confirming that Hitman 5 is, indeed, in the works as he has contributed his skills to the audio department of the game, more interviews with Mr. Bateson and suspiciously quick responses by the spokespeople of Io-Interactive and even more fake concept art and rumors!… phew.
But all of this wait was to be worth it as April 2011 was the birth of the greatest Hitman-related picture there ever was. And it was a photograph of caster sugar sprinkled donuts.
~ Nick Price, Io-Interactive, February 14th, 2011
Valentine’s Day could not get any better in 2011 but the fans were understandably suspicious. We have witnessed so many leads going nowhere. So many rumors and fake assets floating about. Why should we suddenly believe a random ad in, what ended up to be, the Sundance Film Festival catalog? Barcodes are quite common and the box of donuts has nothing to do with the bald assassin. Still, there was hope. And a handy tool known as e-mails. Not expecting anything to come out of it, a virtual letter has been sent to the project manager of an advertising company called Faircount Media Group.
“You are on the right track” was probably more than on the nose. Even more-so was an image attached to the e-mail. I think I can claim that this hand is probably the most famous of hands ever featured on the HitmanForum and what a handsome hand it is! …There’s also everything else beside the hand, like, for example, a giant barcode and a page straight from some sort of a script. Almost as if they are working for the CSI, the fans have started to grab every piece of possible data from this simple image. You don’t need any fancy IT-work however to notice the speaking character’s name in the script.
This is my last gift to you.
There are also mentions of a strange NECKLACE, the Hitman himself, a “beautiful girl”, a BAR CODE, of course and a key word “Gameplay” at the bottom of the page. What came next was (after an intense period of indescribable excitement) analyzing each scribbling and detail. That led to connecting Nick’s posts (“Interesting doughnut fact: In Denmark, we call this kind of jelly doughnut a berliner. They can be filled with jelly or custard. They tend to be covered in caster sugar and we hold contests where you have to eat them without licking your lips until youre done. Its surprisingly difficult but lots of fun.”) to the only text in the return e-mail’s body. “Greetings from Berlinale.” Another film festival. This time, held in, you might have guessed, Berlin.
The donuts were hinting at something else, mind you. Fat Thursday was coming up soon and with it, the Game Developer Conference 2011. Yet another big event and yet another photograph. Similar premise once again. Scribbles, barcodes, a storyboard featuring the Hitman insignia and, most notably, a glimpse at the famous hand. Feminine hands were about to click on the huge “ACTIVATE” button on the laptop screen in-front of them and I can only presume it was to fuel another wave of excitement on the HitmanForum.
Thankfully, not all of the fans have lost their minds at that moment. One of the yellow sticky notes shown on the photograph was full of seemingly random numbers. Those ended up to be coordinates leading to the Toronto Direct Energy Center. This meshed well with the other set of seemingly random numbers from the first picture as those were a Canadian phone number. Even more-so, the Direct Energy Center was a home to the 2011 edition of Comic-Con. I guess the track was right.
And so it was, another picture, right from the CN Tower in Toronto. No hand this time, but you might have noticed that each of the photographs shown had something in common. A barcode. The numbers were slightly changed in each one and after looking at them closely and comparing them to the original barcode sitting on the back of Mr. 47’s head we can deduct a date of June 7th, 2011. What else than the date of Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3! …But that was not it, as there was something more hidden in the shadows. The metadata guided the fans to another picture. Confirming for the last time that they are on the right track. Not a photograph this time, but a peak at what’s to come. A CGI hand! A moving CGI hand, as it was revealed by the first Hitman Absolution teaser trailer!
The first trailer for the game has indeed show up during the 2011 edition of Electronic Entertainment Expo. (My personal memory of it is that I was about to head to sleep after watching all of the conferences which was around 4AM my time and was checking the HitmanForum one last time. The trailer was just leaked and I managed to sneak a peak before it was removed. Best 4AM ever. Suffice to say, falling asleep failed after that.) It wasn’t void of controversy among the fanbase. The trailer documented 47’s infiltration of Diana Burnwood’s mansion, featured heavy focus on action although the overall atmosphere felt right for a Hitman title (at least in my honest opinion). Before all of that, however, a few concept arts came to the light of day. One picturing a rainy night, the other showing our protagonist leaping from a ship. A slew of media was thrown into the hands of the HitmanForum, as a few members already played Absolution during a community event in Copenhagen. The mission they experienced was “Run For Your Life” – the same one which was then shown behind closed doors during E3 itself. A consensus was made that the game has shifted into more of a third-person stealth action genre rather than a 3D environmental puzzle title the series was known for. New phrases appeared, wanting us to pay attention to them. Gameplay mechanics such as “Instinct”, “Point Shooting”, “Cover system”, “Subduing”. Names of “Glacier 2”, Tore Blystad, Marsha Thomason, Keith Carradine. Mentions of a more personal story, using performance capture technology to put emphasis on the human emotion, advanced AI, combining classic gameplay features with more modern additions to the arsenal and more. Hitman was back after spending five years in the hidings. He was new and fresh, developed on an original Glacier 2 engine which took all this time to be fleshed out. And yet the waves of excitement spreading across the HitmanForum have hit the shore and what remained of them became simply a muddy sand.
The fans were not keen to the approach presented by the title. Yes, it was dark and mysterious, akin to my beloved Contracts but maybe a bit too gritty for some, as 47’s facial expression brought a particular cat meme to mind. The Inception-inspired sound cue and what we’ve seen from the 90-second excerpt of the Run For Your Life presentation, paired with killing the character of Diana Burnwood and getting rid of David Bateson as 47’s voice actor (a “reason” given by the Lead Producer Hakan Abrak being the studio “creatively moving into another direction”) meant bad things for the series. Some wanted to justify the changes, others were enraged by them. Petitions were created to have Mr. Bateson back on board and were successful at that. Diana’s voice actress though – Vivienne McKee – was still gone. The credits were instead filled with “better known” names such as previously mentioned Keith Carradine, Marsha Thomason, Steven Bauer, Vivica A. Fox, Powers Boothe, Shannyn Sossamon, Jon Gries and others. Bad news also came for the Hitman soundtrack enthusiasts as it was confirmed Jesper Kyd will not return for Absolution.
A big concern was the freedom of choice, as the presented level was quite linear in its structure. Learning that Absolution will take place around the United States was a letdown. One of the important hooks of the Hitman franchise was that it featured multiple cultures and settings, giving out a feeling of traveling the world. The new gameplay features also seemed aimed at a very different target audience than the core Hitman fans. The Instinct especially was criticized for being an easy mode (or “noob gamer features” dubbed by some meaner fans), showing the players enemy paths and silhouettes akin to Batman Arkham’s Detective Mode. In truth, it was a substitute for the classic map screen, as the devs were of mind players need a good tool to deal with the AI advancements. The stealth aspect of the series seemed pushed to the side, as all of the materials presented a lot more action this time around and the developers cemented it in interviews. There were many mentions of how the player might feel overwhelmed and discouraged from the title if they cannot break that initial wall of learning the locations and game mechanics, so a lot of focus was put on creating a feeling of empowerment. The player needed to be able to get out of a troublesome situation, instead of having to restart the mission. In turn, the artificial intelligence got a huge boost, allowing non-playable characters to communicate between each other and react accordingly. Once the player enters combat, the enemy will try to flank them and do their best to contain the situation. The pressure has been put on improvised weapons as well, as tools and items are now scattered around the levels in more quantity than in previous installments. 47 can also take out NPCs with his bare hands, completely nullifying the need of weaponry. The comparisons to the 2010’s Splinter Cell Conviction were more than plentiful, as the fans drew conclusions based on the limited amount of content they were presented with. They also blamed Square Enix for this change in direction as this was the first Hitman title after the acquisition of Eidos and, in turn – Io-Interactive.
“That was only a small section of the game, showing this ‘hunter being hunted’ scenario that we’ve never done before. Throughout the game, things will turn into the more classic Hitman scenarios you remember from the past.”,
Tore Blystad said in his interview for Spong.com. Every time an action section was shown, it was immediately tried to be brushed under a rug with words of assurance. Some slipped through the cracks however:
“One of the things we are very focused on is to make the game even more hardcore in certain areas… but we believe that we have something for everyone – our spectrum is much broader than before.”
“This time it’s not hard to be a good assassin. Instead, it’s hard to keep the situation under control, and hold yourself back from going berserk. We’d rather try to tempt the stealthy players to go into a more action-oriented direction. “
Going onwards, the marketing for the game was all over the place. I specifically remember waiting for each and every Friday, as 2PM brought a new video onto the Hitman YouTube channel. This was part of Io-Interactive’s plan. A new community site was launched, called The Barcode Society, which featured a media vault and a developer blog. Unfortunately, as the fanbase already had an established outlet, the site was closed down and is often forgotten. Marketing practices were many, some more controversial than others, like the highly offensive Facebook app allowing people to tag their friends for an imaginary hit because of reasons such as “hairy legs” or “small tits”. The app did not even last a day before it got pulled.
Not all of the pre-release marketing was bad, though. Pre-order bonuses were, are and most likely always will be seen as damaging for the consumers and Absolution featured those as well in form of additional virtual firearms for 47 to play with. The good side of the coin was Sniper Challenge – a standalone semi-arcade title featuring a classic sniping hit on top of a huge skyscraper. A benchmark worthy of the fresh Glacier 2 engine. The game was graphically impressive, had solid gameplay and featured multiple objectives and easter eggs which unlocked content to use in Absolution. It also brought us my favorite of Mr. 47’s outfits but that is maybe a bit less important… I particularly enjoyed the Absolution companion mobile app as well, mostly for its lore content. Unfortunately, the lore vault was never completed and the app was discontinued.
Trailers continued to feature high action scenes and the bar was raised to the extreme once a set of new characters were introduced. Attack of The Saints was the classic Hitman fan’s biggest nightmare. It borrowed from flicks directed by Quentin Tarantino. Beautiful women dressed in skimpy nun outfits and carrying heavy weaponry wasn’t what the series was known for. Curiously, almost half a year before said trailer was released, Tore Blystad was asked this question during an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun:
RPS: Trailers. How hard is it to do a stealth trailer without making it really boring?
Tore Blystad: (laughs) It’s very hard. We have in-house group of people doing trailers and ideas, and it’s getting out to the PRs; “more action, you have to have these big set pieces.”
If Attack of The Saints proves anything is that they never figured out how to come out of this problematic situation. It wasn’t just the fans, either. After having spread to media outlets, they accused Io-Interactive of playing on controversies akin to how Rockstar does it with their Grand Theft Auto series. The marketing materials for Hitman Absolution were showing a massacre happening in an orphanage ran by nuns as well as oversexualized women dressed in tight outfits and yet the latter “wasn’t supposed to be a sexist trailer.” Apparently, the level the trailer was based on was later modified following the media outcry (albeit, a tiny bit too extreme in some cases). Whether that was the case or not, we may never know but the changes were obvious and many, as we will discuss later on.
“If we knew it would get such a negative reaction we would have done it in a different way.”
Let’s keep this quote in mind as we go forward and look at what Absolution ended up as.
Absolution released on November 11th, 2012 and I fondly remember the day when I had to call the post office for them to bring me that huge Professional Deluxe edition box as the courier “did not feel like it” that day. (If there’s anything good that came out of Absolution [disregarding Sniper Challenge, as even though it’s a great game, it was a pre-order bonus…] it would be the statue included in the Collector’s Edition.) It appears that the fans weren’t necessarily in the wrong in their assessment of the pre-release material. The title was definitely a step in another direction. It switched the core mechanics from, what has been previously dubbed as, social stealth – i.e. using disguises to gradually uncover more and more of the location – to a typical third-person cover stealth gameplay. There was no more of the sandbox-style design which was in its prime in Blood Money. Instead, the levels were shorter and a lot more linear. This might have been due to technical limitations of the seventh console generation. In addition, most of them did not have a target to eliminate. The goal was merely to get from point A to point B either without getting seen or after a terrible bloodbath as, yes, action was a viable option this time around.
Even though optional, using Instinct was encouraged as being stealthy rewarded the player with filling up the magical glowing meter which was a part of a huge Heads-On Display plastered on the screen. The only way to turn off those UI elements (without the use of mods) is to play on the highest “Purist” difficulty. This gets rid of every visual player feedback, such as ammo counters and suspicion meters. It also disables the tutorial at the beginning of the game even though the Purist difficulty is available from the start, leading more ambitious players (*cough* such as myself *cough*) to not have major gameplay mechanics explained to them until they released how much they needed them… having already played twenty hours of the game. Coming back to Instinct – it was quite unclear as of how much of it was “noob gamer features”, as it also offered interesting stealth mechanics. Our main hero could briefly hide his face to avoid being seen which I personally thought was quite clever and it is a shame it wasn’t reused in the 2016’s HITMAN. As obvious as it would be for 47 to cover himself facing situations he ended up in and how much I think it’s absolutely adorable, it is still a case of a panic button – something hardcore players disapprove of in fear that the franchise will turn to the more “casual” crowd of video game enthusiasts. It streamlined the gameplay, by allowing players to fix their mistakes. I personally think there is nothing wrong with giving different people different options, but maybe not if those options hold back the enjoyment of the franchise’s main fanbase.
Point Shooting – another feature of Instinct – was a big leap into the action-oriented gameplay as it allowed the player to freeze time for a brief moment, tag enemies and then watch how Mr. 47 eliminates them in a truly cinematic fashion. The game still featured highly scripted scenes such as the “Run For Your Life” helicopter setpiece even though it was promised that those would not be the case if a player chooses another approach. The tone wasn’t right to begin with. The atmosphere felt gritty and angry, akin to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. It was also filled with stereotypical crude characters. None of them were likable and there was no-one to really root for as the main damsel in distress was uninteresting and quite annoying. None of the characters were developed in any fashion and the title ends on the same note it starts meaning the entire adventure was meaningless. Every character in this game is simply flat. Even Travis and Dexter could be actually great characters if they had proper development. If characters are stuck in one place, it takes the story with it. Travis starts and ends in the same point. Dexter does that too. Victoria gets a small action scene, yet then goes back to being a vulnerable child. 47 never develops either. He never grows out of the “I killed Diana” phase. The game focused on the storyline – an idea that’s not bad on its own. The thing is, Absolution sacrificed the core design philosophies of Hitman and built its gameplay structure to compliment the story which was pretty simplistic and non-enjoyable to begin with.
The cast of characters lacked motivation and backstory – another aspect which was promised and not delivered in the final product. The entire storyline was based on one simple concept stretched to its limits. It featured obvious holes as some segments ended in an abrupt way. It had a ton of potential to be a truly thought-provoking plot about a protagonist having to cut ties to the only thing he truly had in life. It was supposed to be a personal story filled with regret, empathy and harsh decisions only to be ruined by stereotypes and juvenile humor. It missed its mark trying to present 47 as a man wounded both physically and mentally. The worst part is that the franchise has already managed to do this successfully in Contracts. A good example would be to compare the scene happening right before Terminus to any cutscene in Contracts.
Contracts was all about showing us 47’s mind. He was hurt, he was vulnerable at the time. He was having fever dreams and horrifying nightmares. But was it ever shocking? No, it used the environment as a storytelling device. It understood how flashbacks “work” and pictured the protagonist’s mental struggles in a respectful fashion. Contracts has managed to stay classy. Absolution went all out to shock players. It was an over the top action flick in a series known for its subtlety. Most importantly, it diminished the value of the previous installments in the franchise by immediate dropping everything that linked the protagonist to his past. The story did not take its time to properly introduce or establish any characters and killed off Diana Burnwood way too quickly for it to have any effect on the plot. It feels as if it was supposed to be a truly powerful moment in the franchise yet it is completely disregarded at the end of the adventure and means nothing in the long run. If you need a more in-depth retelling and analysis of the Absolution storyline, these are the two links you should probably follow.
All of the characters are used only as tools to further up the mindless gameplay. It never feels as if there’s anything important going on in the background. The already mentioned damsel in distress trope overstays its welcome. The new sidekick character ends up being just a mild inconvenience throughout the story. Yes, he does push it forward by leaking more and more intel yet this seems like the easiest, most laziest solution the writers could think of. It’s a case of “you have to go there now, cause you are a main hero in this video game” kind of a story and an enormous amount of potential that has, unfortunately, gone to waste. Imagine if this sidekick character (Birdie) was used throughout the adventure to contrast the relationship 47 had with his longtime handler Diana to the one he develops with Birdie himself. Imagine if the damsel in distress (Victoria) decided to not trust the protagonist after he clearly barely cares about her and dumps her in the orphanage. He is only protecting her because of Diana’s last wish and some vague relation to his own past anyways. What if she ended up blaming 47 for Diana’s death for the entirety of the game and this was why he is having such hard time with coping? Instead, we are left with characters that never develop and a frustrated writer who is lamenting about this for the third time in their pieces…
So let’s go back to the gameplay side of things. Although there is not much more to talk about as Absolution is a basic cover-based stealth title. The linearity and small scope of the levels mean there isn’t much freedom left for the player. The game does feature some missions akin to the traditional Hitman design philosophies and those are probably the highlights of this installments. Unfortunately, there are few and far between meaning most of the time, the player will simply traverse the grounds in his quest to defeat the hardest end boss!… and by that I mean, open the door leading to the next cutscene or chunk of the location…
The game featured collectibles in form of meaningless intel, as well as disguises, weapons and unlockables. These were not available in the main adventure however, instead having their role in the (seemingly as important as the campaign, as we’ve discussed previously) online component of Hitman Absolution: Contracts Mode. It was developed as an homage to the fanbase by letting them create their own hits inside the main story locations and challenge each other online. To compliment said mode, a scoring system was devised instead of the traditional rank-based rating used previously. This gave Absolution a more of an arcade feeling although it only ends up being confusing to the majority of the players.
I have to give credit where credit is due, though. The art style and graphical fidelity are fantastic, especially at the beginning of the game. The entire Chicago portion feels to me like what I’d love a modern rendition of Contracts to look like. Once the story moves forward to Hope, the country vibe and Texas inspirations can be noticed and the title can also be atmospheric when it wants to. The Death Factory is the greatest example. And it doesn’t just look well. It plays well. It is definitely a great product on its own but not a Hitman title in the slightest. It lacks important elements established in the Hitman franchise and effectively renders the previous installments meaningless because of that. It fails as a game structured on its story by delivering a plot with so many holes and cuts it is difficult to keep track of it. It doesn’t have a satisfying conclusion, instead blatantly setting up a sequel. It starts and ends its acts in an abrupt fashion and uses shock factor to create seemingly memorable moments instead of taking liberty to develop them. But at least it is a better product than Splinter Cell Conviction…
You thought we were done talking about Absolution’s promotional materials? There are still a few bits and pieces left but they relate to the cut content we are about to discuss. As the game was meant to be focused heavily on the main protagonist’s personal story, an “official prequel” was released in form of a novel. The piece was written by Raymond Benson of James Bond novelizations fame and Metal Gear Solid novelization infamy. You can read about it in detail in my Part 6 of the original Storyline of Hitman write-up as I don’t recommend digging into the novel itself. It is worth mentioning however that it was supposed to be a link between Blood Money and Absolution. An explanation to the events that followed Blood Money’s ending was a hot topic back in the day and Hitman Damnation was supposed to answer all of our questions. It also had a goal of introducing new characters – Benjamin Travis, Jade Nguyen and Birdie – as well as provide a backstory to Diana’s supposed betrayal of the International Contract Agency. As you might expect – the book does a horrible job at any of these tasks, constantly breaking characters and ending up as something I’d call being worse than some of the worst fanfiction I’ve ever read. And that’s mostly because it seems like the author had no idea about the Hitman franchise and instead, tried to fit 47 as an international spy instead… why does that sound familiar?…
The second piece of marketing material we skipped was another alternative reality game. This time focusing on the character of Cosmo Faulkner – a police detective determined to catch “The Hitman”. His only lead at the moment is a mysterious “Birdie” person and he needs to find his location ASAP. Unfortunately, the IT team hasn’t been successful in the search and sources have been drying fast. He’s been stuck in his old ways for far too long. Something even his boss is telling him to change. To help with that, Faulkner starts up a digital journal using the power of social media. This allows him to document everything he’s found so far and get help from other people. Looking at his Google+ profile can reveal how this relationship between the detective and Birdie could link into the game itself. Instead, Birdie’s involvement with the police case is barely mentioned and only used at the end of the story to set up a followup. It’s interesting how one of the most prominently featured characters in the pre-release materials only appeared in a few scenes in the final product. As most of the first act takes places around Terminus and we know Cosmo Faulkner has specifically mentioned taking interest in the hotel, there was more to the connection than what we’ve ended up with.
Focusing your title on its story may lead to difficult choices. Building a universe is important and it was a big part of Absolution’s marketing as well. A huge chunk of the trailers came in form of “the ICA files” to establish major characters of the plot. Interestingly enough, a bunch of info featured in said videos are not even mentioned in the final game and some details can clue us into what the storyline could have been. Most notably, in the trailer featuring Benjamin Travis, we can clearly see 47 shooting through his hand – a reason as to why it has been replaced by a mechanical one and then never mentioned in the game itself. This has been confirmed in the Hitman Absolution Full Disclosure app. Originally, the entire scene of getting Victoria out was meant to end at the last confrontation with Benjamin Travis, leading 47 to shoot him as his last “no” to the Agency.
A lot of what ended up in the game was started in early concepts. From the very start, the title was supposed to explore a more emotion-driven side of 47 and feature him on a run. That has also led to changing the gameplay structure to compliment the main character cutting ties with the Agency. All of this is detailed in the previously mentioned Full Disclosure app so it you are curious, I’d recommend you take a peak. I’ll simply focus on the most important details.
It seems like all of the major setpieces and vistas were to show off the power of the new Glacier 2 technology. Many of the chase scenes presented in the concepts are still part of Hitman Absolution – the train station and hotel comes to mind – but thankfully, the game did not go fully Splinter Cell with a light/shadow mechanic. From the beginning, it was supposed to be a cinematic experience, often going as far as focus on the dreaded Point Shooting mechanic.
Showing 47 physically and emotionally drained was a big part of what the title was meant to be. This is something we can still see in the controversial Attack of The Saints trailer. It starts by giving us a good look at 47’s naked wounded and scarred body as he’s cleaning himself up. The CGI also focuses on the back of his head – the barcode has been slashed and the protagonist’s head is clearly bleeding. First, the idea was to set up Blake Dexter as an antagonist by making him cut 47’s barcode off the back of his head. Whether or not you think this is a better choice than the self-harm scene we ended up with, it is good to mention that originally, the cutscene happening before Terminus was quite different. A lot more aggressive and over the top. This has been toned down significantly in the final product, albeit I’d argue that some of the removed features were a better representation of 47’s state of mind. I talked about this in my character analysis if you are curious. The disconnect from the Agency was in a spotlight leading to more creative decisions being made. Instinct symbolized the main character having to rely on his own skills instead of the ICA support. Improvised weapons also showed how he now had to take care of himself. Not just 47 was meant to be given an emotional background. One of the bad guys of the game – Clive Skurky was to play a more significant role. His role in the story was to smother Victoria with a pillow which would lead to 47 following him to his home where we would learn about Skurky’s personal problems.
And now for a RARE-style character parade featuring all of the mentioned cut characters of Absolution: the crazy bum guy was supposed to be one of 47’s friends. Anna was a name of a girl 47 was emotionally invested in. After her death, he ends up getting a tattoo in memorial. Babble was a private eye related in some way to Diana. He was also to be a sidekick character for 47. All of this sounds as if the concept was later reworked to become Birdie himself. “Ma” or “The Nosy Neighbor” – a favorite of the development team was to appear in the Hope section of the game as a unique enemy type. Fei Zhu was to play a more significant role as one of Birdie’s people. Various witnesses of 47’s actions which would be explored in Cosmo Faulkner’s substory. We first see a glimpse of The Saints in an early concept, still inspired by Grindhouse and rock’n’roll culture. This is also where the snake comes from – an underdeveloped yet heavily marketed theme of Absolution. Originally, Victoria was meant to be a little girl instead of a teenager. Full Disclosure features a concept art showing us what the first meeting of 47 and Victoria could have looked like.
There is also a ton of cut locations such as an enormous warehouse, a hotsauce factory, a supermarket, a literal Burning Hope – the town was meant to be set in flames during the course of the storyline, the previously mentioned house of Clive Skurky, a bowling alley, Diana’s mansion being a cottage placed in a mountain setting, an antique radio shop, a high action airplane setpiece ending at a busy freeway, a bigger-scope train station, Ort-Meyer’s training grounds as part of 47’s flashbacks, open nature locations, a moving ship and probably more.
I wonder if you’ve made the connection between the two big titles featured in this post yourself. As I stated at the beginning, there is a reason as to why I decided to compare those, very different yet so similar games. Both are disappointing sequels, developed after a long period of silence and meant to bring new generations of video game enthusiasts to a respective universe. They both decide to focus on a wider target audience whilst trying to evolve the aspects that made the originals great. In both situations, it ends up doing them more harm than good as they attempt to fit it concepts which clearly do not work in their specific scenarios. They feature amazing art styles and are their chosen theme is a focal point. They decided to go for a storyline-heavy approach but multiple cuts and incompetent writing proved that it was not the right choice. They are also victims of marketing and a lesson to all of us – do not trust everything we see unless we are sure it comes from a neutral source. I’m sure you can find more pieces coming together as you explore the history and analyse both of those titles for yourself. If you wish – this is your homework for this time. I have done mine. After all, in Cosmo Faulkner’s own words:
“Evidence is everywhere if you know how to look for it.”
Thank you for my beloved Patreons for making this piece possible.