Release Date: September 2, 2004
Squad combat is a standard of action gaming these days, with top-shelf titles like the Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six series creating solid, involved experiences for those who like their shootouts one-sided and unnoticed. Alpha Black Zero tries to join those in the squad combat hall of fame but doesn't make it, getting weighed down by flaws and design issues long before it lives up to any potential.
Let's get the trite story out of the way first: you are Lieutenant Kyle Hardlaw, leader of the super-elite infiltration group known as Alpha Black Zero. As the game opens, you stand accused of storming a government facility and executing more than 100 civilians in cold blood. He is now held prisoner by the very military he was enlisted with, while a tribunal sets out to determine his guilt and the story behind the bloodbath. These sequences act as bookends to each "act," and are unfortunately drab and lifeless. After the very first one where guards escort Hardlaw to the court chambers, the rest consist primarily of people in very nice uniforms sitting around talking to each other. The voice acting is particularly bland – it isn't good, it isn't bad, it isn't much of anything worth noting.
The gameplay itself isn't invigorating either. Playing as Hardlaw and any of his four support members, you perform relatively standard missions while shooting the life out of generic gunmen with your generic weaponry. You have long range radar with which to locate the enemy, and your troops act as good support members, for the most part. There are some standard features, like switching to shoulder aim and cycling through your squad members, but that seems to be all the game has to offer – wander about, shoot people, then wander some more until the mission ends. Strewn about the map are various ammo depots, where each member can once – and only once – get a small refill on their equipment and health. I find it odd that you are entirely unable to pick up rounds from dead enemies, even after Hardlaw and others comment on how well equipped and armored they are.
Alpha Black Zero is powered by the Serious Engine, an unusual choice given what the SE does best – huge, lightly detailed areas with area perimeters far off in the horizon and enemies the size of apartment complexes. Why, then, is it being used for a game with very restrictive areas and small numbers of human-sized combatants? On top of that, the engine sputters periodically, with choppy framerates and stuttering controls. It seems like a complete mismatch of elements that winds up not benefiting anyone.
The visuals are far from stimulating, engine aside. From the very first ingame screen, I came down with a case of Quake-it is – there's a heavy predominance of one or two colors in each segment. Initially, it's red and brown, then later black and red or green and black. The maps lack any sort of useful landmarks or varying terrain, so navigating through them is difficult with no sort of mapping system. All together, I probably lost an hour or two just wandering around in circles, trying to figure out the best path to the next objective. Mountains are used quite heavily to "herd" you down a certain route, so don't plan on being very creative or on circumventing ambushes, because you just can't. The character models are nothing to write home about themselves, with odd animations (your squad never seems to stand up completely, instead going in a Sam Fisher-like crouch for entire levels) and very unexciting skins.
Handling your squad is laid serviceably, with most of the required actions clustered either on the mouse or around the WASD pattern. There are several buttons that don't make sense, though; why are crouching and going prone handled by Q ("lower height") and E ("raise height")? There is no singular "hold to crouch" button. I had issues with buttons not responding, particularly the "aim from shoulder or scope" button. Using this special view is very necessary, as firing from the hip often results in wild shooting, but it slows you down significantly. When it wouldn't toggle on or off properly, Hardlaw and company became standing targets, unable to either hit their target or move fast enough to keep from being shot. Compounding the issue are the enemies themselves, who blend in far too well with the environment while having no issue at all with finding you.
The AI finishes the entire comedy of errors off with a whimper. Your own squad does all right, laying down cover fire and picking rogues off from good range. Their pathfinding is rather poor, though, and for whatever reason they refuse to move at full speed, often getting lost far behind you. If a rogue shows up at very long range, all four squad members will begin blasting in that general direction, even if they have no line of fire and there's no threat. Having your sniper dump his entire clip into a mountainside doesn't help your cause much. None of your teammates will use their grenades, and only the sniper will switch down to his sidearm before running entirely out of bullets. Being an army of one works since the game doesn't penalize you for losing men, but it places you at a serious risk of a mission failure when you get killed.
Your enemies fare no better, alas. None of the rogue colonists can see you coming, nor can they seem to hit you unless you stand very still. More than once, I stood idly while a gunman ran up to me and just stood there quietly while my heavy gunner blasted him full of shells. They have no genuine grasp on flanking, and will take cover only when shot at. After that, they tend to panic and start running around screaming in terror, yelling things like “They're everywhere!” or “Don't kill me, please!” Don't worry about losing them, though, since no enemy remembers they're scared for more than a few seconds. The entire colonist army really only has one useful attack: their grenades. Grenades are horribly biased things, with long range and a concussive blast that puts you flat on your back for a few seconds. The things are "chainable" as well; if another explodes while you're getting up, you fall back down again. The game loves using these things as last-ditch equalizers, so learn to hear that "beep beep" and get away from it post-haste.
I haven't talked about the game's bugs yet, so I should before I forget. The engine (at least the review candidate) was riddled with them. Framerates were dismal even at low resolution and detail, while textures flickered in and out and seams showed everywhere. The audio pops and crackles, some sound cues don't play properly, and the sniper rifle tends to make the sound volume explode for a second or two. In some areas, the mouse fails to track smoothly, which all but eliminates your ability to shoot cleanly. I suffered at least two crash-to-desktop bugs, had a scripted ambush fail to happen, and found out the interesting way that OpenGL mode does not work properly, at least on my Radeon card. Switching video options in mid-game tends to make the HUD go postal, switching sizes at a frenetic rate. At first, I thought it was being jammed or something ingame, but then other things like text and large objects started going fruity on me. The only fix was to exit and reload. I don't understand which heights kill your troops, either; I'd fall from a mountain and live, then trip over a hill and scream in agony. It doesn't completely make sense.
After nearly two years of hype and all the legal ranglings (Khaeon no longer has any rights to Alpha Black Zero; all support is being handled by European distributors Playlogic), I seriously had expected more than a muddy, hard to handle shooter with no real plot or enthusiasm. It's just "go there, shoot this, shoot this too, okay go here now," over and over again. Fans of standard squad games will be disappointed by the complete and utter lack of stealth, while more action-oriented players will be bored to tears by the monotony or driven to frustration by broken elements. If the rumors of a sequel prove to be true, it will have to be a much more polished game than this, or it will head straight into a bargain bin.
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