Voice Module








In Memory
Sean Pettibone







How ironic that as the Dreamcast enters its twilight, one of the consoleís most under-appreciated features, online connectivity, seems to have come into full bloom. With the release of Alien Front Online, Sega has once again pushed the envelope, since this title is the first one that allows you to perform real-time voice chat online thanks to the included microphone. While technically innovative, the game itself is a simple, stripped down action-oriented shooter. While it offers plenty of blasting fun, whether thereís enough depth to make the appeal last after the novelty has worn off is a major issue. The Laser looks closely  to see if the game can transcend the gimmick.

Alien Front Online is the latest Internet title for the Dreamcast. While itís not the deepest game ever made, AFO should fit the bill for those looking for arcade action in an online environment. Thereís very little thought required, but the game offers plenty of visceral thumb-candy for action freaks. AFOís plot is fairly simple: A group of aliens is invading the Earth and itís up to you and your forces to wipe them out before they run the planet Ė then you can go and attack them directly on their home world. Itís also pretty cool in that you can reverse roles and take the Alien characters and use their forces to attack the Earth. As simple as this sounds, the overall experience is quite addictive, especially when you get to the later levels. The most interesting thing, technically, about the game is that it allows you to engage in real-time voice chat with your opponents during the battle. This really allows the player to feel fully immersed in the action and makes for a better sense of being on a team. AFOís implementation of real-time, online voice chat represents Segaís expertise with innovative technology thatís easy to underestimate if youíve never tried it.

  The gameplay is simple and straightforward. Basically, you can play either as marines defending the Earth, or as the invading alien forces themselves Ė this gives you the ability to use a lot of different ships and the understanding of how they operate will help you better understand their techniques and strategy. AFOís ability to let you play the game from both sides is what really makes the title loads of fun, basically doubling the amount gameplay.  AFOís object is to survive the assault and destroy as many opponents as possible. You battle the other team and you regenerate when you are destroyed Ė most missions in the game are timed and the team whoís killed the most opponent wins. There are other missions where you have to capture an opponentís flag or take over their base, but for the most part, Alien Front boilds down to deathmatching in teams. The power-up system is also quite straightforward - when you defeat the enemy force, they explode and you can get either a health upgrade or a weapons upgrade when you run your ship over the icon. Some of the weapons are quite powerful, effectively unleashing a deadly anmount of damage on your opponent. and include missiles, super-bombs and machine guns. The carnage doesnít end there because you can also destroy parts of the environment which can be used to open up areas, giving the enemy less space to hide.

For single players, AFO offers a good balance of both arcade and mission modes. AFOís tactics mode offers missions of increasing difficulty from basic exercises to more advanced missions where you have to protect your base from the enemy onslaught. These are all unlocked as you gradually complete the earlier missions. These early missions are basically training exercises, but slogging through them is worth it since the latter missions are much more challenging and interesting, containing more varied and difficult objectives. This mode is challenging and it will take time to work through the missions.  AFOís arcade mode offers mostly timed kill-or-be-killed missions that are simple but fun for the first few rounds. Unfortunately, the missions here offer very little replay value, and they have a tendency to repeat the same areas time and time again. To make cheating harder, and to prevent weak players from capitalizing on good ones, you canít lean on others because your online ranking is based on how many enemies you destroy individually. This is a shame because a bit more effort and thought would have made thius mode much more enjoyable. The real fun in AFO comes playing online, in which teams battle each other. This is a simple mode to set up, since Segaís servers make finding the appropriate teams and difficulty levels a snap Ė though how much fun you have depends on how difficult you want your opponents to be. Itís easy to go for teams with low difficulty levels, but this gets dull after awhile. Itís better to give yourself a challenge in the long-run anyway.

Voice Chat isnít perfectly implemented because the groups arenít labeled as clearly as one would like. Thanks to this, itís far too easy to accidentally find yourself in a room with advanced players, getting demolished over and over.  In the online mode, as youíd expect, each team is trying to kill the more opponents before the clock stops. Thereís very little lag, which makes the experience very fast moving and enjoyable, with the fast refresh rates almost mirroring the offline modes perfectly in terms of speed and smoothness. AFO didnít crash once in all the times Iíve played it, which was fantastic given the typically erratic nature of online play. .As mentioned earlier, AFOís best feature is that it supports real-time voice chat which is quite flexible. AFO allows you to either communicate to an individual team member, the entire team or you can use it to taunt so all the players in the game can hear you. The included microphone is easy to install, because it basically snaps into the Dreamcastís VMU port  It works this way: you record a quick message lasting 5 seconds for the other gamers on your team. Itís cool but you have to lower the music in order to hear the messages clearly because the sound quality isnít perfect and when combined with the loud music, makes messages difficult to decipher. Still, the implementation of voice-chat in this title is more than adequate, making the gameplay much more immersive and urgent.

AFOís controls and interface are simple for this genre, making it incredibly easy to get into the action and not be distracted by excessive configuration.  You move and shoot, with basic strafing abilities that allows for some impressive maneuverability. Strafing can be annoying at certain because it causes the gun to move in one direction while you move in another, but not actually changing direction. This can lead you into bad situations frequently where you find yourself backed into a corner or directly into the line of fire, leading to death to often. This causes needless frustration and confusion but can be compensated for by practice and it wonít bother good players after awhile. Aside from that small problem, itís easy to control with smooth, responsive action allowing you to concentrate on the action, not the buttons or interface. The menus and onscreen indicators are well designed and unobtrusive, giving the player easy reference to their status throughout the game. AFOís radar is implemented effectively as well, making placement and location of you versus the enemies easy to understand. It doesnít hurt that many of the areas in the game are quite small, making it hard to lose direction in any case. 

Visually, the game looks decent, but AFO wonít win any awards in the innovation department. The most important thing is that the game runs at a consistent 60FPS, making for some incredibly speedy action. AFOís engine is about average when compared to the consoleís other FPS offerings, there are fairly convincing renditions of semi-realistic environments, such as major cities and beaches on Earth. Itís not entirely convincing, but the developers have done a good job of making the world seem realistic. The aesthetic design of the game is also good, especially when you come across one of the gigantic alien tentacles over-running a building. The alien world is also well designed, giving you a good sense of being on another planet. AFOís sense of scale is also quite impressive. This is evidenced when you see the giant alien walkers running over the tiny soldiers, itís a convincing effect that does a good job of conveying the sheer size of the ships. The aliensí vehicles also have a good design to them, rather creepy and insectiod in appearance, they make for a menacing presence.  One of the more impressive aspects is the fact that you can destroy buildings and other objects in the game, causing huge explosions that light up the screen. AFO also has some pretty cool power-ups that make for some pretty cool explosions when they make contact.  Where AFO seems to fall flat is in the detail, most of the objects only feature cursory texture mapping and very little lighting is used. This gives the game a simple, plain look that seems a bit flat. Of course, some detail had to be sacrificed in order to implement online play and maintain a decent frame-rate still, itís one of those titles that you know could have been a lot better graphically. Still, this is a good-looking game and the lack of detail is more than offset by the speedy play.

While there have been loads of online titles released for the Dreamcast, Alien Front Online differs in many ways. Itís not as deep as some of the other titles, and can be played quickly without taking up too much time. AFO isnít the deepest or most strategic game ever made and in fact, itís rather superficial but that can be turned around and made into one of its selling points. You wonít have to spend hours pouring over the manual in order to learn how to play. Itís really cool that you can play as either side in this conflict, which really helps the longevity of this action title, but obviously the replay ability isnít unlimited. The game does have some good explosions and the weapons are awesome. Unfortunately, there are some problems with the control and the graphics arenít as polished as you would like. The trade-off here is that the game runs at a very smooth frame rate with little lag evident in online play. The game does a good job of implementing voice chat but the messages youíre allowed to leave are too short and the sound quality leaves a bit to be desired. Thereís virtually no learning curve to the game and the main challenge youíll have is how long youíll want to play the game because it does get repetitious after awhile. Alien Front Onlineís biggest downside is a lack of longevity because missions become repetitive quickly with many of the same areas repeating themselves. In the end, Alien Front Online is an example of pure fun blasting action. This more than mitigates the lack of depth and variety.