Alpha Black Zero is a third-person shooter is set in the year 2366, featuring a story of conspiracy and corruption. Players take command of a small squad of soldiers and battle through 19 levels of dangerous missions. Missions are set both inside and outdoors, on a number of different aliens worlds. The game is designed to allow players to decide for themselves how to accomplish objectives, whether through patient, stealthy precision, trigger-happy running-and-gunning, or a brave mix of both. Alpha Black Zero is built on a version of the Serious Sam game engine.
Alpha Black Zero is all about jogging. The outdoor levels, of which there are many, are huge -- stretching the Serious Sam engine (upon which the game is based) to its limit. You lead your squad of tactical warriors through one valley after the next of mostly lifeless hills. You follow the waypoint marker on your HUD, but there's no data about how far away the waypoint is -- your HUD only discloses its direction. And most of the time, you're unable to take a direct route to the waypoint because those damn giant hills are in the way, so you jog back and forth down endless valleys like winding your way through the lines at Disneyland, hoping that the next valley you turn down will be the last. This game should be called Alpha Black Marathon.
Alpha Black Zero wants to be a futuristic, third-person, sci-fi version of Rainbow Six or Ghost Recon. You're dropped into the shoes of Lieutenant Kyle Hardlaw (who comes up with these names?), just in time for his court martial. The missions you play are actually flashbacks of the events leading up to Hardlaw's alleged transgressions. If you've played Hitman: Contracts, you'll know all about playing missions as flashbacks; you'll also have played a much better game than this one. The best part of Alpha Black Zero is the plot, told mainly in cutscenes between the endlessly long missions. Sadly, little of the drama actually unfolds during missions, which might have made them more interesting.
You guide a covert-ops team of five soldiers, each with their own specialty. In the normal loadout, there's a pair of all-purpose riflemen with automatic weapons, a heavy machine gunner, a sniper, and a stealth operative with a silenced weapon. Other loadouts, stealth and heavy, tweak the inventory appropriately, but they hardly affect gameplay; I got through the entire game using only the normal loadout.
You can jump into any of your five squad members' shoes at any time and issue orders to the other four, such as regroup, hold fire, rock out with covering fire, stay put, and so on. While Alpha Black Zero is supposed to be a tactical shooter, you don't really need to do much in the way of tactics; I got through most missions simply by jogging -- jogging -- through them as one of the riflemen with the rest of the team in tow, taking out enemies as I saw them. Your soldiers can take a lot of damage without going down; I lost more men who accidentally wandered off cliffs than I did to enemy fire.
Zero's controls are twitchy, at best. I found it hard to find a mouse sensitivity setting that provided a good mix of precision and responsiveness, making finesse aiming a pain. Close-up, action-oriented aiming is also a challenge, especially when your reticule disappears as you fire long bursts of automatic rounds. You're armed with grenades, but there's no good way to gauge the distance at which you'll toss them; their range is very limited. For what it's worth, the smoky, wispy grenade explosions are the dullest pyrotechnics I've seen in a game in years.
Artificial intelligence is pathetic (sensing a pattern here?) Enemies act like their deaf and won't notice you running up to them from behind until you pop them in the head. They're also terrible shots, missing from both long distances (even when you're stationary) and even from a few feet away. Whole groups of enemies will often run away from your men, making them easy targets to mow down without resistance. They make a weak effort to use cover, which works better indoors because outdoor levels are mostly barren.
Nonetheless, the combat is one of the best parts of the game. On a tactical level, it succeeds in a limited way. With your boys backing you up and with a small squad of enemies laying down fire, Alpha Black Zero imparts the feel of high-adrenaline action, the kind of who's-shooting-whom chaos that makes all those World War II shooters so gratifying. The problem is, it doesn't last. Once you've dealt with a gang of baddies (the fun part), you're off to jog another 5K or trudge through some gigantic installation (the dull part), before you find another satisfying action sequence.
It's hard to fathom how anyone could make a game this ugly with the colorful, powerful Serious engine. Granted, the engine is a few years old, but Alpha Black Zero looks bad even with that in mind. Clipping is rampant, as are the bodies of enemies that end up sticking out of hills or walls. The lighting is drab and listless; the giant outdoor levels are devoid of vegetation or anything to break the monotony of endless, featureless hills; the character models are stiff and blocky. Indoor levels look better than outdoor ones, with some interesting, futuristic architecture, but they're often maze-like and frustrating to navigate. On the bright side, with a nicely aged engine, the game will run well on older PCs.
Multiplayer is limited to cooperative gameplay against A.I. bad guys, with up to four human players. While Alpha Black Zero has its own built-in server browser, it was next-to-impossible to find anyone playing online, and our guess is that's not about to change anytime soon.
And that's fitting. If you're in the mood for a tactical shooter, stick with the Tom Clancy game. Hell, Alpha Black Zero even makes games like Chrome look like high art. Ultimately, the intriguing storyline doesn't compensate for the vast, boring levels, and ugly scenery. The redeeming payoff for braving the stuff that makes the Zero in the title so fitting is the combat itself, which offers a bit of a rush. It's too bad there's not more of that, and less ... jogging.
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