Interview: Alpha Black Zero: Intrepid Protocol
4th Jul 2003 | 11:48
Hailing from the Netherlands, developer Khaeon (nope, we hadn't heard of the studio either - until E3) is currently working on a third-person shooter for PC going by the name of Alpha Black Zero: Intrepid Protocol. Squad-based and set in the year 2366, the game boasts an intriguing sci-fi plot that's built around the courtroom drama theme. You stand accused of mass murder, and it's down to you to prove your innocence.
Alpha Black Zero uses a flashback-style structure to develop the story, missions that players will be undertaking revealing the events that have lead up to the current courtroom predicament. Throughout the missions (which can be played single-player or in multiplayer five-player co-op), gamers will essentially be gathering evidence that is then brought before the military tribunal which stands in judgment of your supposed crimes.
The flashback mechanic has certainly piqued our interest, and promises of an accomplished AI system combined with action and stealth gameplay have also had us musing over Alpha Black Zero's possible potential.
Can developer Khaeon pull it off and deliver up a surprise masterpiece? We spoke to Alpha Black Zero's lead designer Yesse America to find out more about what's in store.
Why should gamers be excited about Alpha Black Zero?
America: We have a great story and great gameplay planned for the gamers. The action is relentless and the story surrounding the game is an extra reward for those that make it through the harrowing situations the lead characters find themselves in. We have massive outdoor levels, populated with masses of enemies and dangerous tactical obstacles.
You'll be able to completely decide on your own how you want to approach any given situation and how to achieve your mission objectives. We have great indoor settings as well (some of these crossing over from the outdoor settings) that'll prove a challenge to any hardcore action gamer.
The thing I am going to say next will illicit groans from any PC gaming veterans, but we do have an accomplished and realistic AI system for the enemies and team members alike, with bots ducking and rolling away, taking advantage of cover (not only using level geometry as cover, but also natural features of the outdoor landscapes, such as long grass - through which bots crawl on their stomach - stalking the player undetected).
When and where does Alpha Black Zero take place?
America: Alpha Black Zero takes place in the distant future, in the year 2366.
Naturally, mankind has reached out to the stars and colonized nearby planets (the moon has underground cities, Earth has a gigantic ring of space cities surrounding it called "The Leonidis Halo", Mars has been completely terra-formed into a verdant paradise - and since it's populace is largely Arabic it has been renamed 'Qahira', which is the Arabic name for Mars) and star systems beyond our own solar system.
So is this a utopian future? No. Is it a future where crazed mutants and biker gangs fight for dominance over ruined cyber cities? No.
Everyone knows that popular science fiction often depicts that moral sensibilities will change once we reach out to the stars and start to colonize other planets, becoming more tolerant and in tune with other cultures, other customs - that once we have "breathing room", humanity will know peace.
Alpha Black Zero's setting is a little different. It takes current real world threats and political tensions and overlays them against a future society that, for all its advancements, looks very similar to our own: there are various interplanetary superpowers (such as Qahira, which is Arabic/African, The Leonidis Halo, which is Anglo/Russo-American) and there is a host of poor planets.
So how does the game's story fit into this setting?
America: The back-story of the game revolves around the actions of the very first activated E.T.I. team, Alpha Black Zero, which is sent on a standard VIP extraction mission. At a certain point, the mission takes an unprecedented turn and the Alpha Black Zero team is stranded in dangerous territory, a Third World planet populated by hostile tenth-generation terra-forming colonists who are under the influence of an unknown terrorist organization.
The Alpha Black Zero team has no access to ammo, food, or backup.
Effectively, they are on their own, since communication relays with their HQ have been sabotaged. From that point on, the mission changes - the team will have to operate under E.T.I. Intrepid Protocol, which comes down to this: no matter the amount of danger or opposition, interplanetary security must be maintained at all costs.
During their Intrepid Protocol mission, the Alpha Black Zero team stumbles across an incredibly deep-rooted conspiracy, which they try to counter according to the mandates given to them. Effectively, this ends in a bloody incursion into the heart of SolGov's inner system, where the Alpha Black Zero team manages to stop the conspirators.
This is where the game starts.
The leader of the Alpha Black Zero team, Lieutenant Kyle Hardlaw, is charged by the SolGov military with mass murder, performed by him and his team during the Intrepid Protocol mission. Before a court martial, Hardlaw has to prove his innocence to military judges who are none to easy sway to his point of view, and who have the greatest suspicion of covert strike teams such as Alpha Black Zero.
As the game progresses, the player plays the entire Intrepid Protocol mission as it is related by Lieutenant Hardlaw to the military tribunal. In between the action, the judges will evaluate the evidence the player has effectively gathered by playing a level of the game - a sort of flashback structure. The ultimate objective is to prove you - as Hardlaw - innocent of the count of mass murder.
What kind of lead character is Kyle Hardlaw?
America: He is your average, square-jawed, soldier-hero type - I'll admit that right up front. But he has weaknesses that belie his countenance. He makes mistakes in his command decisions, can be ill-tempered (during the missions and in the courtroom), and thinks he is utterly justified in his actions.
Naturally, there are moments when we - as the designers of the game - make a little bit of fun of him, seeing as his archetype is so preposterously recognizable in this type of action oriented game.
But in the end, Kyle Hardlaw is a lead character in which the majority of the gamers will be able to emotionally invest themselves - the rest may have fun with certain character traits we gave him.
What is the object of the game?
America: Keep your team on their feet, keep Kyle on his feet - survive, stalk and fight your way across different planets and ultimately prove Kyle Hardlaw innocent at the court martial.
Can you switch between first and third-person?
America: There are three views: third-person mode, which allows you to oversee the action and your surroundings best. An over-the-shoulder view, which give you greater accuracy while aiming with sidearms, provides you with a compass and the ability to "use" certain objects, and a view that gives various modes of first-person zoom views (different per weapon).
Alpha Black Zero forces you to act much slower and more intelligently than the average shooter, since running around trying to shoot everything within sight will get you or your team-mates killed. In that sense the third-person view actually works to the advantage of the player.
How does the squad-based element work?
America: When a level starts, you always begin "in" Kyle's body. But from then on, you can switch to the other team members with a single keystroke. Kyle can give his team members orders, which they will follow to the best of their ability (if not completely detrimental to their health). These orders include movement and tactical commands.
But in order to keep the game fun and fast, the other members of the team can "request" these actions from the team as well: you don't need to be everywhere at once with Kyle in order to manage the team. Kyle himself will actively respond to "suggestions" from fellow team members.
Also, since the game is not about micromanagement of the team, individual team members take care of themselves and each other. While you - as the player - are hopping from team member to team member, they will take cover, protect Kyle, attack or retreat, throw grenades and snipe.
There are five "specialist" character types - can you explain what each one can do in the game?
America: Your team is comprised of five people: four E.T.I. marines and Lieutenant Kyle Hardlaw. All of them are equipped with state of the art armor and weapons, but their specializations over the course of a level largely depends on what you fit them out with: all E.T.I. members are adept at a wide range of combat styles and weaponry use.
What kinds of enemies will we be encountering?
America: The player will face both highly disorganized and trained troops, from colonist guerrillas to corporate death squads. The main enemy is the one stirring up anti-SolGov sentiments on remote colonies - but you will have to play the game to find out who you're up against ultimately!
What happens when you lose a team member - can you still complete missions?
America: Yes. The E.T.I. marines all wear heavy-duty armor, meshed to their own nanoblood-impregnated veins. This armour will cauterize and seal off wounds (such a suit, while the stuff of science fiction, is actually being researched right now by manufacturers of military apparel).
When the health of a team member is brought to zero, he will fall down on the ground and will no longer be able to participate in any actions of the team. The rest of the team can carry on to complete a mission, and the downed marine will join them during the next mission, beginning at low health.
You can also lose Kyle this way, but the E.T.I. marines can carry on without him to fulfill the mission.
Could you take us through part of a typical mission in the game, explaining objectives and set pieces?
America: Since most of Alpha Black Zero's missions are set on "Third World" colonies, a typical string of missions plays in the vicinity of the small and larger planetary set pieces: villages and settlements, atmosphere processors and larger industrial areas. To get to one of these structures, the team has to navigating the terrain surrounding it, which is, of course, full of hostiles.
We strive to make the gameplay flow naturally (which means that it is not complex to control your squad), the missions don't contain puzzles, and navigation is not like finding your way through a maze. Rather the challenge is in keeping the team alive for the duration of a mission and dealing with scores of enemies by positioning and using the best-equipped members of your team.
Once you reach the end of an outdoor mission the next mission typically plays inside an abandoned super-structure. The setting is darker and more cramped - emphasizing strategic placement of your team and using it's full firepower to take enemies out.
Other types of missions include the (stealthy) infiltration of enemy strongholds, escorting and defending SolGov personnel and property against hordes of attackers. In each case the environment will play a role in the kind of opposition you meet and both can use said environment to their own advantage.
How does the stealth element work in Alpha Black Zero?
America: Enemies can hear and see you. Hiding in dark places will make you "invisible" to them, slow movements will make you "inaudible". Crawling on your belly through grass will also make you less visible. You have silenced weapons at your disposal and headshots count as being deadly.
So, taking all of that in, it is a matter of deciding what you want to do. During play-tests we have seen people storming at enemies through levels, or slowly getting their team in position and silently taking out an entire patrol without a scratch. During the missions, both are possible.
Usually, the player maneuvers all of his E.T.I. marines into safe and dark (cover) positions: snipers in sniping spots, heavy machine gunners in those locations where they can spray a large group of enemies, silenced machine guns to pick off patrols without drawing attention.
I've seen people setting up their initial attack on the enemy for over ten minutes, only to have it be over within seconds (very satisfying to clear an encampment that way). But I have seen other people just digging themselves in and fighting corridor-to-corridor shootouts.
In that sense, the stealth element is very intuitive: it works like you would expect it to.
Can you name some of the 15 weapons? Is there dual-fire modes for each?
America: Weapons will be available according to the kind of mission you are playing and whether you are still out of contact with your HQ. At the beginning of each mission you will be presented with a weapon loadout screen, from which you can pick what you think will be appropriate.
There are assault rifles, silenced machine guns, heavy machine guns, two sniper rifles, grenades, a flechette pistol and a silenced pistol.
Some of the weapons do have dual fire options (such as the heavy machine gun, which fires heavy shells and has an under-slung grenade launcher).
One of our favorite weapons is the Freyland Snub Gun, a burly sniper rifle which can fire superheated armor piercing rounds and a wide variety of small grenade charges, ranging from explosives to SenseDull rounds (imagine a flying flashbang that emits a high-pitched shriek - very good for breaking up and confusing large clusters of enemies).
What is your personal favourite feature in Alpha Black Zero?
America: The arguments between Kyle and the Judges during the courtroom interrogations. That, and running around in our outdoors levels.
Finally, when can we expect to see the game in the UK?
America: Q4 2003.