Preview by: Tim Eller
Posted On: 08/03/2004
First impressions may not be the most important thing a budding developer should strive for, but Khaeon, along with a little help in the publishing department from Playlogic, has so far created an experience worthy of a second glance. As an initial effort for the five-year-old company, Alpha Black Zero (ABZ) stands atop the very competent engine used for Serious Sam, giving it the added oomph a third-person tactical action game requires to attain a certain singularity. The Sam engine is even augmented with minor tweaks to present ABZ’s own brand of subtleties.
The story of the protagonist, given the eponymous title of Kyle Hardlaw, is told in a series of flashbacks during his trial in a military tribunal on Mars. After being accused (along with his four squad mates) with assassinating planetary government officials, the missions you play will set the stage for his conviction or vindication, depending on your success. The story has a darkly familiar edge to it, smelling of our own present-day corporate uber-agendas, and the tension in the playable levels creates and carries the cutscene courtroom drama. Add a clichéd but workable soldier template, then simmer and let it thicken. It seems that Khaeon hit their stride with the premise, because it doesn’t appear as forced as some action games I’ve played (though I did notice they’re not above a bit of melodrama, as seen in the crotchety prosecutor of the trial proceedings).
I was asynchronously dropped into the middle of some plot string in the demo I played, but the level examples were perfectly suited to show off the efforts that had gone into creating a palpable environment you could almost taste. Normally, I’d make some comment about mapping or obstacle rendering, but I honestly have no complaints, and very few constructive comments. The background terrain and structural depth are very impressive, and though I doubt much more revision will be done to the visual aspects, very little is needed. Finely-rendered and moving grass softens the polygonal landscape and makes the ruddy hills and valleys “feel” like something tangible, not to mention the wispy reeds’ ubiquitous role as cover for the discerning stealthy jarhead.
The level I played involved the infiltration and subsequent destruction of a foundry on another planet. These turned out to be good examples for a demo, since both external and internal environments could be shown. Both spaces exuded their ambient presence in quite convincing manners. Traveling from the access duct in a distant hillside to the entrance of the foundry, I found multiple ravine passes occupied by enemy mercenaries, tall grass, and definitive sniping points. One could look on for what would seem like miles without seeing the opacity of the “distance fog”. The hills and jutting mounts marched on in the distance, genuinely cementing the player in a virtual world reality. Where lighting and shadows bowed out in the glare of the planet’s sun, the inside of the foundry allowed these dimensions to, if you’ll excuse the word, shine. Dimly-lit corridors and green, gleaming tubes of fluid running floor-to-ceiling served their purposes well by defining the depth of the space. The gradient terrain of the outer valleys contrasted with the rigid angles and deliberate level designs within the foundry, both providing a playing field of covert and conspicuous possibilities for the player. The only things I found to be a bit sub-par were the occasions of visible pop-up of surrounding obstacles and frame slow-down in dense areas, and perhaps the absence of ragdoll physics (that surprisingly engrossing effect that allows dead bodies to fall in the position most suitable for their terrain, instead of the pre-scripted death pose). Perhaps they simply were not added yet, who knows.
In addition to Kyle Hardlaw and his perfect hair, four team members bring up the rear (or front) to help Kyle out. Working with these guys was quite easy, certainly a removal from examples I’ve played where squad mates tend to follow their own battlefield guidelines and exhibit the sort of behavior that makes you want to turn your gun on them. Their directives from you are broken down to four easy commands (hold position, regroup, hold fire, firing mode), which are easily memorized after five minutes of game time. Since I usually kept them with me, I didn’t really get a chance to try them in key positions, taking a point from many angles. But what I did get to see was how smart AI is supposed to work with a squad of this type.
Whether I was high-tailing it through the weeds, or sneaking up on a hot corner, these guys knew how to do it. If I faced an imminent enemy and the firing had already started, they swept in, no holds barred, and sometimes took out my enemy charge before I could even see them. They acted as plows in this sense. There were other times that stealth was on order; as I crept to my location, I knew my back was covered, and more often than not one of them was looking over my shoulder for a secondary shot. Even in the variable terrain, my boys didn’t falter much.
As far as displays are concerned, Khaeon created a useful HUD that served the complexities of a tactical action game with straight-forward function, and without the distracting glitter. The top of the screen contains the health, ammo level, and alert status of Kyle and each of his team members. The only other thing taking up the screen is in the lower right-hand corner, which displays more info on Kyle himself, and a multi-function radar that identifies key points, objectives, your squad, and detectible enemies. Keyboard and mouse controls are kept minimal and functional as well. A right click of the mouse can flip Kyle in between a squatting jog and a zoomed-in creep. Both views bring Kyle off to the side when he’s standing still, in order to open up the middle-screen for better targeting. And those squad mates? No more than a number stroke away. For instance, the number two key corresponds to anonymous soldier number two, and he can be directed one of four ways, once selected.
I imagine that Alpha Black Zero will end up competing with the already quite saturated market of third-person action games, especially some of the well-constructed examples with a bit more diversity in gameplay and titanic license names, like the Splinter Cell and Jedi Knight lines. But what Khaeon has done as an inaugural effort is certainly no slouch; Alpha Black Zero has enough positive content to be a stand-out tactical action game with the right amount of publicity.