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Alpha Prime

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Action
Developer: Black Element Software

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PC Preview - 'Alpha Prime'

by Alan Butterworth on Oct. 5, 2006 @ 6:04 a.m. PDT

Alpha Prime is a first person action game with an emphasis on the single player experience. At its core is a Science Fiction story written by the foremost Czech Sci-fi author Ondrej Neff. Game play will be a varied balance of combat and more technical activities such as hacking and remotely controlling robotic devices.

Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: IDEA Games
Developer: Black Element Software
Release Date: TBA

Five minutes into playing Alpha Prime, I was a quivering wreck. Over and over again, I was getting owned by the computer-controlled enemies. Amid curses and clenched fists, the excuses started to come out of the woodwork. I blamed poor gameplay design – it's too easy to die, there's not enough health, my weapon isn't strong enough, and the computer's cheating. Stupid computer.

It finally dawned on me that Alpha Prime demanded something more of me than most other first-person shooter action games on the market. I couldn't just waltz into a room juggling grenades with my guns blazing and expect to survive. I had to bring my brain back out of retirement and think, aim, and act tactically. What an outrage.

Alpha Prime is the name of a mining asteroid where this sci-fi-themed first-person shooter from Black Element Software is set. The single-level preview build is set in a mining facility where a rudimentary storyline in the opening sequence introduces you to the fact that a corporation is sending in the laundry squad to cleanse the place of all witnesses. Time to grab your guns and give them a warm welcome. Much of the build was a solitary affair, but you will have contact with potential allies over radio frequency. The skimpy plot is advanced in cut scenes with some questionable voice acting, but skip to the action because that's where this game really stands out.

The bullets start flying almost immediately without buildup or suspense. You begin fighting small squads of between two and five corporate militants driven by an aggressive and quick-witted AI. When the enemy spots you, he doesn't just stand there for your target practice. They'll instantly run to a strategic cover position, usually ducking behind a structure if one is available. If you load them with lead, they'll flee for a different position, firing their guns wildly behind them in the hope of hitting you by chance. Then they'll call and wait for backup and advance together in teams trying to flush you out. What's more, they fire with frightening accuracy, appearing suddenly from behind a crate and hitting you almost every time they pull the trigger. The action is frenetic and intense enough to get your adrenaline going, and each firefight forces you to feel like you might actually be fighting for your life.

If you want any chance of surviving, you'll have to take things slowly and tactically. Using cover, ducking, aiming for the head and peeking around corners are essential if you don't want to end up mopping the floor with your face. By picking up vials of hubbardium – a psychotropic semi-poisonous drug – you can use your character's bullet-time maneuver which slows down time, giving you the edge for as long as the stimulant lasts.

The only criticism you could level against the graphics are that they are a bit derivative. You've been here before if you've ever played Doom, Alien vs. Predator or nearly any other sci-fi FPS. The claustrophobic isolated corridors, mesh-metal walkways and dark iron hull are a staple of these industrial/gothic-themed games, and although Alpha Prime breaks no new ground in its visual aesthetic, it gets it right, which is just as important. Visual effects look great with bright orange muzzle flashes lighting up the gloom, and empty shells clattering to the floor after an extended session with your Gatling gun. The visuals compare very favorably with other recent titles from the same genre.

Speaking of guns, the preview has a decent assortment of guns to try out, although there is nothing revolutionary. The Gatling gun is a high rate of fire weapon with the trademark six-chamber spinning barrel. You also get a shotgun with its typical devastating short-range stopping power. Your melee weapon of choice is a small hammer, useful for cracking skulls if you're ever lucky enough to get that close. The game's assault rifle is actually a sniper's weapon, firing lethal single rounds through a scope. Finally, the heat and impact of the flamethrower is perfect for barbecuing unwary fleshy opponents, and it looks great with its hazy flame and shimmering heat wave effects.

The music alternates between low-fi spooky sci-fi sounds, and churning death metal riffs when the bullets start flying. If anything, greater diversity in the soundtrack would be welcome. Sound effects could also be beefier, especially for the shotgun, whose kick feels a bit flimsy right now.

The designers have borrowed heavily from the Half-Life series with its emphasis on equal parts puzzle-play and firefighting. The environment is full of objects that can be moved or tipped over, and at times you'll need to manipulate objects into certain positions to be able to advance. You can pick up most objects in the game and throw them or stack them on top of other objects. A break from the action is always welcome, especially when the action is this intense. It also breaks up the linear monotony of moving from A to B and mowing down all the enemies in between. However, I found the object movement controls to be a little limited, and putting something just where you want took more than a few frustrating tries. The health stations look and act as if they're on direct loan from the Half-Life props department, and maybe a little more originality could be afforded here.

Unlike many other games where you can wander around god-like, plugging enemies with lead and replenishing your health every five steps, Alpha Prime manages to make you feel fragile, human and totally destructible. Games like Half-Life aim for an almost seamless interactive action experience, and as a result end up sacrificing some of the difficulty factor. Alpha Prime is for the first-person shooter gamer who maybe care less about being the star of his own continuous action movie and instead is craving a new challenge from a relentless, supercharged AI that will force you to get good quickly.

The preview build for Alpha Prime was only one level, but there's already plenty here to be excited about. Although we weren't able to try it out in the preview version, the developers are promising the ability to pilot vehicles, hack your way out of tough situations, and use remote controls to manipulate security devices. In addition to the mining colony, you'll be fighting in other environments such as the windswept surface of the asteroid. There's plenty of potential in this brief glimpse, and what remains to be seen is if Black Element can keep up the feverish pace and tense action sequences, while maybe introducing a less linear structure.


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