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There are quite a few games that could draft the defining features of multiple games and create a blend of certain appeal. And it's safe to say that not many have tried to, for even then there were probably consequences for going with this bold design principle. IDEA Games' Alpha Prime is one of these games, as well as being Black Element Software's next bid in upgrading the technological scale of independently developed titles.
We say next bid, because unbeknown to many, the Czech-based developer's first project was the independent stellar hit, Shade: Wrath of Angels. The Nightmare Creatures-esque title, published by Cenega (UFO Aftermath), won a good share of rave reviews from the regional press and added itself to the slowly multiplying achievements of the independent gaming sector.
But Alpha Prime was to be Black Element Software's first tackle with the first-person shooter arena and being the developer's flagship title for Enforce 2 - an in-house developed technology engine - it needed to stand out. Black Element's success with Shade would have propelled them to maintain their standing, and Alpha Prime's forecast features reflected their ambition.
Canadian publisher Meridian4 probably tuned in to that vibe and signed up to be the indie title's first official publisher for the North American side of the equation. Of course, being almost half a year old, Black Element had to prune and polish Alpha Prime in preparation for its entry to Meridian4's privileged line up.
A little bit of everything: a case of mistaken identity?
Alpha Prime just oozed a feature-rich gameplay experience, and we mean "feature-rich" in a different sense: it's chock full of familiar gameplay mechanics - so much, in fact, that it was compared to the likes of Doom 3, Quake 4, First Encounter Assault Recon, Pariah, and System Shock 2.
Of course, this was saying a lot back in mid-2007 when the European version - the initial release - was served to trigger-happy gamers on the PC. But it also detracted from the game's identity, since the comparisons often tore from what Alpha Prime could have been: a demonstration of the capabilities of Enforce 2.
Though much of the reviews of the European version were as blended as Alpha Prime itself was claimed to be, there was an unusual air that beckoned us to try the game before we judged it. Lucky for us we did.
Sci-fi with a unique kind of high
Alpha Prime plopped us into a fictional future, where a mineral called Hubbardium becomes a premium market product. Its appeal attracts all sorts of prospectors and miners, but it fetches an exorbitant price not because it's prime space fuel. In fact, people are more willing to pay high premiums for Hubbardium because it can also serve as an addictive drug.
As you might have guessed, the story revolves around this precious substance, and though Hubbardium is nothing like Haze's Nectar (Free Radical Design), it does have its share of side effects. Players will get to witness these effects little by little through the eyes of Arnold - Hubbardium prospector and main protagonist - and unravel the mysteries behind it.
Aiding Arnold in his quest are a slew of NPCs who are essential in propelling the player further through the story, though there's only ten levels of to wade through. As players dig deeper into the once-abandoned Hubbardium mining asteroid aptly named Alpha Prime, they will have to depend on their own sense of tact, skills, and wit to mow down hundreds of rogue mining droids, crazed illegal miners, and mercenary spec ops soldiers with a vendetta.
Alpha Prime's storyline was penned by Czech science fiction writer Ondrej Neff, who also authored the 1998 local bestseller Tma (Darkness in English). his has given the game a serious appeal for sci-fi fans, but the story wasn't perfectly rendered. A few issues with voice acting and cut scenes dialogue may cause players to lose interest fast.
Splank these high definition hams
Alpha Prime sports one of the meanest sets of graphics biceps this side of independent gaming. And yes, we're still talking about the same scene where exquisitely beautiful Tarr Chronicles (Quazar Studio) and gorgeous X3: Reunion (Egosoft) reside. Bump-mapped texturing, reflective surfaces, dynamic lights and shadows, bloom effects for a next-generation feel, motion blur, and even particle effects like heat plumes will do a handstand to your visual delight in Alpha Prime.
Pariah, id Software's Quake 4, and Doom 3. What's more surprising is that the game was furnished by a development team fewer in members than those behind games of similar graphical caliber.
Unfortunately to achieve the game's uber eye candy, you'll have to pay a premium price: your hardware must be powerful enough to flex Alpha Prime's technical facets. On our end, the game handled extremely well on a dual core processor, 2 GB of RAM, and a GeForce 8600 GT under the hood.
We've heard about some issues found when playing the game at the lower end of the machine spectrum, but as we can't test to confirm it, we'll leave this as a warning to those willing to try Alpha Prime with machines close to the minimum requirement specifications.
But with its good sides, Alpha Prime also suffers from its own quirks. There are times that brightly lit environments would completely outshine your heads up display, and players that rely on the HUD indicators (health and ammo) for tact may find the constant need to back off to a darker area a bit frustrating.
There's an option to adjust brightness, but it detracts from the game's visual appeal more than solving the problem. We haven't encountered an in-game Gamma setting which may solve the problem, so more technically apt players may need to rely on profiling Alpha Prime with its own driver-forced Gamma correction setting.
It's called the moonwalk, Newton
One of the slightly interesting mechanics in Alpha Prime is its physics, although others have found it rather strange. We're guessing it's because the manner at which movement and objects behave in the game give the impression that everything is unusually light. Objects in-game also include you, and yes, you can pick up almost every object inside the game in a way similar to Bethesda's Oblivion.
Jumping from one place to another or dropping a massive object to a floor two flights down would give off some considerable air time in-between. While other heavier, unmovable objects behave as it would in real life, other objects seem to glide about when launched to the air.
Because of this, Alpha Prime's physics were often described as "wonky". Unfortunately, we found it rather normal, since we attribute the "wonkiness" to the fact that you're on an asteroid. In deep space.
If our memory serves us right, gravity should be a bit more forgiving on a space rock thousands of times smaller than Earth. And we're sorry if we just had to geek out a bit, because we do part-time as rocket scientists, too. In Unreal Tournament.
The Encore 2 engine, as far as we can tell, has AGEIA's PhysX support buried somewhere beneath the code, but we weren't able to tell at all. Options to explicitly use our physics processing unit didn't show up anywhere in the game's settings, so we've tried to find some noticeable changes in-game. Nothing noticed out of the ordinary.
Feeling lucky, punk?
Weapons in Alpha Prime are otherwise a stock FPS affair; there really isn't anything new added to the FPS mix. Players will get to use the common pistol sidearm, a shotgun, an assault rifle, a sniper rifle, grenades, and a rocket launcher - each one sporting a unique futuristic facelift. The player's only melee weapon is the hammer, and though it does look and sound rather wimpy, it does its job when impacting on metal or flesh.
Even though players will get to use all of the weapons throughout the story, it's the machine gun (or the assault rifle) that you'll be using most. The availability of ammunition would demand it, because machine gun clips are plentiful inside Alpha Prime.
The Gatling LE and its ammunition is most abundant in Alpha Prime
It also became a personal favorite - and not just because it's fairly accurate and automatic. It's because the machine gun is actually a mini-chain gun refitted for shoulder-fire use. Awesome now has a new name: the Gatling LE. And awesome kicks serious ass, even on a 28-round limited clip.
Moving targets no more
Some FPSes fail considerably in the department of enemy AI, and Alpha Prime manages to climb out of the pit with its own sharp AI. Fighting enemies in Alpha Prime almost feels like you're in another arcade rail shooter, only this time, you're free to move and use your environment however you wish.
And that's a blessing, because you'll need that against enemies that use cover so effectively. They turn almost every firefight into an extended volley exchange from one side of the room to another. Almost.
Of course, being the tactically apt shooters we were, flanking was our number one specialty, and with movable objects in-game, we were able to clear paths to expose the immediate attackers' heinies.
And this is where the AI and character animation began to shine. Flanking enemies will force many a baddie to panic, and they often run away spraying what's left of their clip behind them, hoping to hit you in the process of their retreat.
This also takes into effect when they attempt to create a firing line in front of you, and yet get served lead for thinking you'd let them succeed. The enemy has exceptional aim and merciless persistence, and bursting into a room all gung-ho and blasting everything that moves will get you kissing the floor time and time again.
Each encounter offers ways you can move the odds in your favor and sometimes even eliminate the odds. While combat is obviously what Alpha Prime will allow you to do, taking down heavily-armored, heavy weapon soldiers is much easier when you plan your approach carefully.
Injecting Hubbardium derivative can be used to increase your reflexes during firefights, (read: bullet time mode), or you could always hack your way through, you know.
Open sesame just won't cut it
Breaking away from the mold, even if so slightly, Alpha Prime added a gameplay feature that was only once truly experienced in games such as Origin's System Shock and System Shock 2: system hacking. But the game delivers the hacking capability in a slightly different way, sort of like how the marines do it in Sierra's Aliens vs. Predator 2.
In Alpha Prime, players can access several hacking hotspots all via one unique device, named the ReCon. Short for Remote Controller, the ReCon is able to interface with any hackable system node within wireless range, even if the nodes are in the farthest corner of the next room.
Now this lends quite a bit of tact for even the most hardcore of FPS players, since the ReCon can allow the triggering of traps, reconnaissance of hostile areas, or the unlocking of secured rooms. With a bit of skill and timing, you can get rid of annoying sentries without firing a single shot.
What's even more exciting is that on some levels, the ReCon will also give you access to automated sentry turrets. In a few seconds, you could gain control of defense systems and mow the opposition down like the vermin they are. The ReCon also gives access to remote-controlled robots and becomes an essential tool in solving the game's occasional puzzles.
Sounds like 'fettuccini'
We never really expected this from Alpha Prime, but despite arguable quality in voice acting, we've found something immensely appealing about one of its characters: Paolo Bellini. Perhaps even more than the foxy Livia. Now we're not going to spoil anything here, but the Italian prospector's accent and delivery could either make you riot in hilarity or cry oceans.
For us, he definitely hit the banter bone, and we're glad for his occasional, mostly indecipherable dialog, if only to be an aversion from Arnold's stern, serious, and slightly sarcastic one-liners.
Bellini's orations may not be so appealing when heard repetitively, but there were no shattered eardrums reported. Doubling over, gasping bloggers, yes.
Decent bang, bang at half the price
With all these features and quite a few more, Alpha Prime definitely lives up to Black Element Software's ambitions. Cutting edge graphics, hacking capabilities, a driving segment, and tactful enemies reinforces the independently developed shooter, providing itself with an edge in the indie scene.
We do acknowledge the fact that it could have been packaged with some form of multiplayer and with some refined audio work, but the game has other features that make up for its faults, and for a measly 20 bucks, it offers a little bit of everything to the budget gamer.
And if you're frustrated from running through the final SAS training module because you can't accept Captain Price's statement that he's seen better, or if you can't quite outrun those Korean gunships while even on Maximum Speed (*cough* Nicolo S. *cough*), Alpha Prime serves as a partial escape from all of that - at least on our end.
Alpha Prime is published by Meridian4 for the North American market and should already be available over online distribution services. Valve's Steam would be a good place to start.