European games, like European women, are different. And like all things exotic, the promise of reward carries with it a certain degree of risk. Buying a title developed for European audiences is a bit of a dice roll: You might end up with something uniquely cool and far removed from your everyday experience, or you might end up with haggis. With that in mind, we’ve got two offerings from European developers to look at, both action games and each with a healthy dose of that special “not from around here” distinctiveness.
First up is Alpha Prime, a futuristic FPS by Czech developer Black Element Software. The game takes place primarily on the eponymously named mining colony of Alpha Prime, where a faceless megacorporation known only as The Company extracts and refines Hubbardium, “the fundamental raw material for cybernetics, biomedicine and nanomedicine.” Humanity runs on Hubbardium, and Alpha Prime is the place to get it. But something has gone terribly wrong: Hubbardium radiation has driven the miners violently mad, and The Company is taking drastic steps to keep a lid on the bad news. You, as one of the finest prospectors ever to break rock in search of a fortune, must descend into this investment-driven quagmire of suffering and death to rescue the guy who stole your girlfriend.
The game opens with a long and confusing cut-scene centering around Hubbardium as “the heart of Glomar,” an old miners’ tale that comes up repeatedly throughout the game without ever approaching even a hint of explanation (or, as it turns out, relevance), that culminates in an encounter with the aforementioned old girlfriend who dumped you years ago for your ex-best friend. Turns out he’s trapped on Alpha Prime, and she wants you to go get him.
Hard-bitten and cynical though your character may be, he nonetheless agrees to go off on this mission of mercy with just slightly more than a minimum of fuss. A brief interlude for a bit of tutorial-like running around and another cut-scene or two later, and you find yourself on the arid surface of Alpha Prime.
In the early stages of the game you’ll encounter miners, who appear to be not so much violently insane as just gainfully employed, going about their jobs in a fairly normal manner, watching gauges and conversing among themselves until you show up with gun in hand and bad news on your face. Wasting these guys was more than a little surreal, since they showed no signs at all of hostility until I – an armed trespasser, remember – came charging into the room waving my piece around. It was an odd way to begin and made me feel more like a mass murderer than an intrepid rescuer, but apparently that’s business as usual on Alpha Prime.
Enemies in the game can be broken up into three distinct sets of increasing difficulty. You’ll begin with the miners, who are essentially target practice that occasionally shoots back; they will eventually give way to various humanoid robots, who are more durable and offensively capable; and before long, The Company’s private army will show up, armed with a variety of weapons and specialized military-grade robots. Different enemies carry different types of weapons; the vast majority are packing machine guns or shotguns, but a few specialized military types will come at you with sniper rifles, rocket launchers and flamethrowers.
You’ll have access to the same arsenal, although like so many FPSes, the shotgun/machine gun/rocket launcher trifecta is all you’ll really need. Alpha Prime‘s guns don’t pack a lot of gut-hammering oomph, and though they get the job done, you’ll never feel like you’re packing serious heat. The flamethrower, with an effective range of about 10 feet from the nozzle, is particularly noteworthy in its uselessness, although on the upside that uselessness works both ways: As long as you can stay 11 feet away from flamethrower troops, you’re untouchable.
Players have access to a form of “bullet time” by way of refined Hubbardium, which can be found throughout the game as an injectable drug. There’s plenty of the stuff lying around, and the more you have in your system, the longer you can maintain your accelerated movement speed. But not once did I run into a situation in which I actually needed to make use of the ability. It was fun to run up behind an unsuspecting enemy and pop him in blurry slow-mo, but the practical value of refined Hubbardium was zero, and by the midpoint of the game it was largely forgotten and unused.
FPS veterans should have little trouble with the difficulty; ammo is plentiful and enemy A.I. is not. In fact, most of the game’s challenge comes from a pretty blatant case of Quake 3 syndrome: You could charitably say the A.I. has raptor-like eyesight and reflexes, or you could cut the crap and say it cheats. Although some enemies aren’t great at initially taking notice of you, they stay absolutely locked in once they do. Compounding the issue is a vicious damage model, which will cut your health down to nothing after only a few hits. Alpha Prime is in no way a tactical FPS, but charging into a crowded room Quake-style is a sure way to end up at the “Load Game” screen.
The action is average at best, not bad in the strictest sense but certainly unremarkable, and while graphically the game won’t burn your retinas, visual oddities in the character models, particularly when they die, can be a little jarring. Surprisingly, the voice acting isn’t half-bad, although the material often swerves dangerously close to painful, and while the synth-metal soundtrack can get repetitive, it meshes well with all the mindless shooting going on.
I have to admit I came away from the game entertained, albeit for all the wrong reasons: Alpha Prime is pure Mystery Science Theater 3000 material. Plot progression, particularly in the latter stages of the game when things are, for lack of a better term, wrapping up, is a magnificently grotesque spectacle, careening arbitrarily from point to point, eventually coming to rest in a horrific mass of baffling nonsense. It’s almost a shame that a truly awful story is not in itself enough of a reason to recommend a game, because it really is something to see. Unfortunately, as unimpressive as it is in every other way, it’s just not worth the price of admission.
Next page: Shadowgrounds Survivor
Our second overseas specimen is Shadowgrounds Survivor, Frozenbyte’s follow-up to their 2005 release, Shadowgrounds. Shadowgrounds Survivor scores points right out of the gate for giddily reveling in the kind of gameplay that’s been all but forgotten since Origin’s classic Crusader franchise. It takes the crazy monster-killing action of Doom and Aliens vs. Predator and throws it into an attractive and explosive isometric environment that has only one rule: Shoot everything.
For fans of the original, it’ll be like riding a bike, if you recently traded in your old 10-speed for one of those $7,000 Italian racing models. The core gameplay (shoot everything, remember?) is intact, but wrapped up in a tweaked, enhanced and very hot-looking graphics engine with integrated physics, an all-new soundtrack and included editor tools for custom-built xenomorph butchery.
The mechanics are very simple. As a top-down game, everything occurs on a single plane, so as long as you’re pointing at something, you can shoot it. The game’s campaign mode includes three characters, each possessing a different loadout of weapons and character traits. There’s Luke “Marine” Giffords, the general-purpose starting character who carries an assault rifle and a rocket launcher; Bruno “Napalm” Lastmann, a Father Grigori-style maniac with a flamethrower and a minigun; and Isabel “Sniper” Larose, a precision death-babe packing a high-tech railgun and plasma rifle. Along with the different weapons, each character can be developed via an “RPG-like upgrade system,” which makes different skills available to the characters as they progress. And yes, “Marine” and “Sniper” are nicknames provided by the game, just one of the more obvious examples of the risks inherent in translating a European game for American shores.
The levels in Shadowgrounds Survivor are considerably more varied than those of the original, although aside from making enemies slightly harder to see in certain areas, their impact on the game is minimal. Snow-covered outdoor levels and underground caverns help to break up the scenic monotony, but they’re also the least-interesting levels in the game, due in large part to a relative lack of things that blow up. Survivor is all about destructive mayhem, and anything that attenuates that quality – fewer explosions, for instance – serves only to weaken the game. Wisely, the Frozenbyte team kept the focus on the human settlements and outposts, using the outdoor environments as relatively brief interludes.
The visuals are impressive, particularly for this type of game. The lighting and shadow effects are as good as any I’ve seen, and the attention to detail given to video screens, computer consoles and other futuristic-looking paraphernalia scattered throughout the game is admirable. The environments aren’t quite as destructible as I’d have liked – glass shatters and fuel barrels explode, but just about everything else is static – but it’s definitely easy on the eyes. And the music, as I’ve come to expect from anything thrown at these shores by our European brothers and sisters, is absolutely top-notch.
Progress is saved automatically between levels, and in-level saving isn’t allowed. It’s an odd choice for a PC game, but not as restrictive as it sounds, because the levels are very short, typically running five to 15 minutes each. And even on “Hard” difficulty, the game is relatively easy; there are a few dicey bits here and there, but nothing that’s going to hang anyone up for very long. Relentless slaughter is the priority here, rather than hard-nosed difficulty and a struggle to stay alive. Humanity itself may be threatened by this murderous alien onslaught, but the three humans at your disposal are most definitely not.
A new game mode introduced in Shadowgrounds Survivor is called “Survival,” which distills the already simple concept behind Shadowgrounds even further: You’re locked in a room, monsters come into the room, and you kill them. The longer you live, and the higher your body count, the better your score. New Survival levels will be unlocked as you progress through the campaign, typically composed of small areas taken from the game itself, but otherwise it stands complete separate from the game itself. It’s fun in short bursts, but not the sort of thing you’d want for an all-weekend gaming marathon.
But the only real knock against Shadowgrounds Survivor is its length, or more to the point, the lack thereof. This thing is short: Average gamers can expect around five hours out of the Campaign mode, perhaps a bit longer for the obsessive sorts who are determined to find all the secret tokens, plus a few minutes (or hours) more in the new Survival game mode, depending on how much alien killing you really want to do.
At its heart, Shadowgrounds Survivor is very much a casual game. While your mom may not pick it up with quite the enthusiasm she had for Zuma, it operates on all the same principles as the best casual titles: Easy to learn, simple to play, short levels, lots of aural and visual feedback and a smartly integrated system of leveling and bonuses that keeps players pushing for the next level. It’s interesting to see Popcap-style gameplay masquerading as a hardcore shooter, but the truth is Shadowgrounds Survivor is the Solitaire of action gaming: light enough for burning a few minutes while you’re on hold, but engaging enough to hold your attention.
Bottom line: So, two games, neither of which will break your bank at $20 apiece, but only one of which is really worth your hard-earned cash. Alpha Prime probably won’t be the worst action game you’ll ever play, and Shadowgrounds Survivor hopefully won’t be the best; but where Alpha Prime offers dull, uninspired gameplay mired in an incoherent and overwrought B-movie story, Shadowgrounds Survivor takes the wiser tack of tossing out all the but the most rudimentary and disposable story elements in favor of weird characters, great music and a whole lot of goofy, violent action. Both games have a distinctly European flavor, but only Shadowgrounds Survivor embraces that unique ethic and runs with it. It is by far the better game for it, and one not to be missed by action fans.
Recommendation: Don’t touch it (Alpha Prime), Buy it (Shadowgrounds Survivor)