First shown at least year's E3 with little fanfare, Alien Front Online was a pleasant surprise. Now, a little more than a year and a half later, the game is coming home. Developed by Wow Entertainment, AFO is an arcade deathmatch game that offers real-time voice chat during gameplay and online play. Once slated for the arcades as well as the home market, the game even promised online play between arcade units and Dreamcasts. Unfortunately, times have changed rather dramatically since last year, so the game will see release only on the DC. Fortunately, the arcade's loss is definitely a gamer's gain, as AFO looks to be coming with style, thanks to accessible gameplay and some cool options.
The game's rather thin plot goes something like this: Aliens are invading the earth, so you need to stop them. While not exactly Star Wars, the premise is serviceable enough. You'll be able to play as either the humans defending the planet or the aliens trying to conquer it. Aliens and humans each have three vehicles to select from, with craft on both sides sharing the same basic traits. The smallest vehicle for both sides is fast but weak on armor; the medium vehicle is well rounded, offering stronger armor but is slightly slower; and the largest vehicle is the slowest but is the most heavily armored.
Like its premise, Alien Front's structure is simple: pick a side, pick a vehicle, and then go kill. You'll find three modes to choose from: arcade, tactics, and online. Arcade is basically a timed deathmatch in which you must defeat a certain number of enemies to progress to the next stage. As you destroy enemies, you gain more time. Tactics is a campaign mode in which you play through a branching selection of missions for either the army or alien sides. If you're skilled enough to make it through, you'll be rewarded by a cinema at the end of each of the branches--five for each side. Online is obviously the game's online multiplayer component--here, you'll be able to select from a variety of game types (deathmatch, capture the flag, and so on) and play with teams of up to eight players.
Control takes a bit of getting used to, but after a few minutes of playtime or a quick run through the early tactics stages, which function as a tutorial, you'll be blowing up baddies like a pro. You'll move your tank forward and back via the analog stick. Strafing is handled by the L and R triggers. The A button fires your main weapon, which has unlimited ammo. The B button is used to shoot off any special weapons you've picked up during the game, but unfortunately, these extremely powerful weapons can be used only a few times. The X button toggles between the game's two camera angles. Finally, the Y button activates the game's voice chat when you're playing online. By using the Dreamcast microphone, you'll be able to chat with members of your own team during online battles. It functions basically like a walkie-talkie--you can hold down a button to speak and release it to listen. The sound is a bit tinny but very clear nonetheless. For those unhappy with the default setup, AFO offers six other presets for you to try out, and a seventh even supports the Dreamcast steering controller, although it's hard to imagine trying to use voice chat while playing with a wheel.
The graphics in AFO offer some truly nice bits of eye candy. The game's levels are extremely detailed and make effective use of photo-realistic textures for great image clarity. Levels are a bit on the small side, but the design keeps the action from slowing down, as you'll find yourself turret to turret with an enemy fairly regularly. As the action heats up and the lasers and shells begin to fly, you'll notice that the levels can be deformed to varying degrees. Familiar landmarks, such as the Washington monument and White House, can be hit and deformed. Animation is handled well, as the army's tanks and alien's vehicles move with a solid sense of weight. For example, the alien walkers' movement is smooth and crablike, while the army's tanks lurch forward with antennas and exposed drivers, both of which move in sync to convey motion. Weapon fire and explosions are appealing, thanks to generous use of color. And thanks to over-the-top effects, special weapons are given an extra kick. Small graphical touches--such as your vehicle leaving tracks on the beach as you move around, the throbbing of the alien's weird organic structures, and tiny ground troops for both sides racing around--give the game a nice sheen of polish.
So far, the online gameplay is manageable, and the talk feature works surprisingly well--although when combined with lag, it can be somewhat disorienting. Like those of the latest batch of DC games, AFO's online play is OK, but it definitely has its issues at times. Fortunately, the servers are still being tweaked, so there's hope for the final release. We'd also hoped to have our smack talk heard by all players online, but, sadly, it looks as though you'll be able to talk only to the other members of your team. Even so, AFO is an extremely fun online game, calling to mind the good old days of gaming, when we were all happy to just race around mindlessly, destroying anything that moved. Gamers eager for some mass destruction will want to keep an eye out for Alien Front Online when it ships later this month.