As I’ve been writing about random games for years at this point, I’ve started to look back at the various cheapo bargain bin games I’ve written about. Most of them were made here in the United States and published by ValuSoft, the most infamous of bargain bin game publishers. Other times I’ve written about stuff a little lesser known, like City Interactive’s Enemy Front. But sometimes, despite owning many different bargain bin games over the years, there’s a few that made me wonder “Why the hell did I buy this?” Alpha Prime fits that bill perfectly.
I honestly can’t remember why I bought Alpha Prime. Maybe it was $1 in a Steam sale. Maybe I saw someone show me a dumb video about it, and it looked so bad I couldn’t resist giving it a try. Regardless, I had the game in my backlog, and I felt like I needed something drastically different from BioShock 2, which I had just finished and written about recently.
Alpha Prime is made by Black Element, a development studio based in the Czech Republic. They were part of a collective called the Independent Developers Association (IDEA), founded by Bohemia Interactive. Suddenly it makes sense why the makers of ARMA and DayZ published this mid-2000s budget FPS. At least, according to the Steam store page.
Since I have a penchant for rough, janky games made in Europe, I decided to give this a try just out of morbid curiosity. Let’s just say the experience was rather… unpolished.
The plot goes like this: Arnold Weiss (or Arnie as some call him) is a former soldier who was stationed at Alpha Prime, an asteroid full of Hubbardium, a fictitious space rock that is said to give people special powers. After being egged on at a bar by an old fling named Livia, he goes back to Alpha Prime to help his buddy Warren, and stop his group from mining more Hubbardium. But then disaster strikes.
At least, I think that’s how the story goes. Naturally, since this was made by Czech people, English is not their first language. There is lots of stilted, awkward dialogue in this game, combined with a bunch of spelling and grammar mistakes that made it very hard to comprehend the game’s story, and I ended up ignoring it after a while.
Alpha Prime is a by-the-numbers FPS. Shoot dudes, try not to get shot too much, that sort of thing. The weapons are standard FPS fare for the time: pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, grenades, the works. There’s some interesting ideas, like the assault rifle being a mini gatling gun, but it acts no different than your standard FPS assault rifle.
The game does throw a couple interesting ideas, however. At one point you acquire a ReCon, a device that lets you hack into cameras and activate platforms and traps. It’s kinda neat in spots, but in most cases seeing into the next area won’t help you that much unless there’s a trap inside to make combat easier.
The game also tries to show off its physics system – this is a game from 2006 after all – such as using a loader to grab boxes and stack them by moving the arm. It took me a while to figure out how to move the arm up and down – it’s the mousewheel, awkwardly – during a fairly obnoxious box-stacking portion. To continue how proud they were of using their physics system, sometimes ol’ Arnie has to chuck a battery around to open up a thing.
The Hubbardium is not just a plot point, it’s also a special ability. Arnold got “infected” with the Hubbardium, giving him special powers, such as not being able to get drunk. But in terms of the game here, “special powers” means bullet time.
Alpha Prime did come out not long after F.E.A.R. did, so seeing Black Element take this idea and putting it in their game isn’t surprising. The problem is that the bullet time is pretty bad. While it does slow you down and significantly impair your vision, it doesn’t look as cool or destructive compared to F.E.A.R.. Even if you use bullet time, enemies can still kick your ass regardless. It doesn’t even look cool when activating it, so I stopped trying to use it after a while.
The rest of the game isn’t really that eventful. Arnold meets some people, gets double-crossed, triple-crossed, among other things. But one thing that happens really early on is Arnold meeting this guy named Paolo.
Paolo is the guy that gives you the fancy ReCon you use for the rest of the game, but there’s something about his characterization that bugs me. You see, the character is Italian, and doesn’t speak native English that well. So there’s a lot of broken English combined with random Italian sprinkled in for flavor, including him talking about your character having “[their] brain up the spout.”
I can give them credit for at least making a unique character I’ve never really seen in an FPS before, but did we really need to do the “language barrier between two people” schtick? I would’ve been fine with him just speaking fluent English peppered in with some swearing in Italian, but the whole gag of Arnold having to comprehend what Paolo’s saying wasn’t really that funny.
It’s also incredibly pointless as Paolo only lasts through a stage before being gunned down by Warren’s goons not long after. So much excess thought put into a character who isn’t even important to the game’s plot.
Since Alpha Prime hits all the beats of a boilerplate mid-2000s first-person shooter, it also includes ramping up the game’s difficulty. After dying frequently on the second stage of the game while protecting Paolo on Normal difficulty, I restarted the game on Easy. It didn’t really help, as later stages had lots of enemies doing devastating damage incredibly quickly, sometimes even from far away as if they have aimbot on.
Some levels have Arnold go through parts of the asteroid which has different air properties, so they took a page from Doom 3 and had oxygen you had to maintain. At least in this game they’re recharging stations that can be used at any time, but it just seems like a hindrance, such as in a later section where I had to clear blockage with a drone bot in the toxic air so I could keep going in the tram I was riding.
They also threw in one more gimmick: Vehicle sections. In some cases you need to use these to make any progress on the rock without dying due to lack of oxygen. It’s a nice change of pace. Or it would be if they were fun to drive in.
I think we found a new contender for “worst vehicle sections in an action game.” It uses controls similar to Halo, where the mouse steers and turns the vehicle, with W and S being used for forward and reverse. A slight nudge of the mouse can cause the vehicle to swerve very wildly, and with there being a lot of bumpy terrain, it makes it easy for the vehicle to flip over or fall into a pit and get destroyed.
I never thought I’d find a game that had driving sections worse than Mass Effect’s infamous Mako sections. While the ones in Mass Effect were frustrating and annoying in spots, they’re godlike in comparison to Alpha Prime’s driving sections. That’s quite impressive, really.
After all that, there’s a final boss fight where Colonel Olivier absorbs the powerful Hubbardium. He then mutates into a monster, and then a boss fight occurs, which requires you to do damage while activating switches to destroy him. Then a plot twist happens, which leads to a scene that would tease a possible sequel, then roll credits.
Since this is a game from 2006, I was amazed it even ran on my PC without much problems. It had widescreen support, even. Though, since a lot of these games can be finicky if ran on more recent hardware, I had wondered if the difficulty was because the game might’ve been running too fast.
Nope. Even when using NVIDIA Profile Inspector to lock the game to 60 frames per second, they still kicked my ass. So the game was always tough as balls.
There really isn’t much else to say about this game. It’s got the patented eurojank where the developers had an idea what they wanted to do, but couldn’t execute on it very well, leading to a game that’s got a lot of chips in its armor. In a sense, the game reminds me of Chaser, another eurojank-filled FPS released in 2004 that has similar ambitious ideas but flawed execution. They had the right idea, but couldn’t pull it off.
I bought it on Steam during a sale. It’s normally $5, and it goes considerably cheaper during sales. The rough nature of the whole game makes it difficult to even recommend even at $5. If you’re willing to tough it out and not gnash your teeth in some of the more frustrating spots, I guess you could give it a try.
Though, you could also spend that $5 on one of Bohemia’s other published games, like Operation Flashpoint/ARMA: Cold War Assault. Whatever works for you, really.