What the HECK took me so long to get my review of Alpha Protocol done? Didn’t I mention months ago having finished the game? Didn’t I later say I was going back and replaying again … and haven’t some months ensued since THAT as well? It is all true, and since then I have gone back again, looking to reduce the ‘two minds’ I have about so much of this game into a coherent review … you’ll have to read on to find out how I did!
The year is 2009. Worldwide political tensions are at a breaking point when a commercial airliner is shot down by a U.S. missile over Eastern Europe, killing all aboard. The U.S. government claims no involvement, and dispatches Agent Michael Thorton to investigate and bring those responsible to justice. As the first modern day spy role-playing game, Alpha Protocol offers unprecedented control over the development of Thorton’s abilities and his interactions with other characters. Upgrade skills such as physical combat, weapons mastery, cutting-edge technology and even seduction as you grow in experience and complete missions.
* Choose your words and actions carefully in a living, reactive role-playing world. Experience the “ripple effect” as encounters with your allies and enemies change relationships, reveal storylines, and unlock new missions.
* Mold Thorton into the secret agent you want to become with lethal close-combat techniques, marksmanship abilities, spy gadgets, and much more.
* Access an arsenal of weapons and customize their many add-ons to create the perfect weapon load out.
* Form relationships via dialogue and action choices within an intriguing cast of allies and enemies to get data for missions, new weapons and more. Remember who to trust and decide when to trust them …
* The game reacts to every decision you make. Will you let a terrorist escape to follow a lead, or eliminate targets against the mission agenda? With no right or wrong choices, every player can create their own storyline and ending.
Expectations and pre-conceived ideas are huge factors in opinions people draw about products. Whether it is cars, computers, smartphones or video games, what we think about a genre, developer, or style of game will greatly influence our perceptions of the final product we actually get to evaluate.
I state that upfront as it is the only explanation I can come up with for the wide variety of reviews and scores for Alpha Protocol. At times I could hardly believe that people were playing the same game that I did! I am not blind to the flaws of the game – and will detail them momentarily – but I was fairly certain that the game title was ‘Alpha Protocol’ and did not contain the words ‘Mass Effect’ or ‘Splinter Cell’ anywhere in the description.
Alpha Protocol is a RPG from top to bottom, with all of the good and potentially bad things that entails. It is also a failure in many ways … and yet also a great success. When I recently used Troika in reference to Obsidian, it was very intentional – both are wildly talented studios that put out great games with loads of problems!
You start off by selecting the type of character you will play. Of course, this is pretty limited as you are going to be ‘Michael Thornton’ regardless. But while you can’t choose your name or gender, you have a wide latitude of how to play the character. More on that in a bit.
There are really two games here – the Spy Game and the Role Playing Game. Let’s look at them one at a time.
Alpha Protocol: The Spy Game
As you begin Alpha Protocol, you are the newest member of a top-secret organization, given little choice but to join up and take on missions. Your goal for the organization is to discover why an airliner carrying US citizens was shot down by traveling the world and unraveling a series of complex and twisted plots.
I found the story interesting, the characters well done, and the writing pretty well up to the standards I expect from Obsidian. I will speak more about playing your character in the next section, but in terms of the encounters you have with others, you will learn that everything is contextual, each person has their own agenda that you will not always discover, and that the game is full of twists and turns that will often take you by surprise!
In the early sections you can train on gadgets, martial arts and other skills, but the critical thing you need to learn to use is stealth. In terms of gameplay, Alpha Protocol is a third-person cover-based shooter. But that doesn’t mean you can play it like Mass Effect 2 or Gears of War or other games. You really need to … as I said, learn to use stealth.
In theory you can try to learn heavy weapons skills and become a wrecking crew, but that will really just make your life miserable. If you train heavily on Stealth skills, your pistol becomes able to deliver one-hit kills over a few dozen meters, you can remain nearly completely invisible for long periods, you are a silent killer who can sneak up and kill two enemies next to each other without anyone else knowing.
Alpha Protocol: The Role Playing Game
The RPG aspects of Alpha Protocol don’t seem very promising at first – you play a fixed character gender with an assigned name, and play as a spy. It looks and feels like you will be playing more of a generic stealth-shooter with some RPG-lite elements.
In fact – some reviews and forum/blog comments pretty much come down to that, so all I can assume is that they played for an hour or so and gave up. Because Alpha Protocol is a game with loads of options in terms of gameplay as well as character development, and a truly branching plot system that offers loads of replayability.
The world has shifted since the time when you had to be careful about skill allocations and how you spent in-game gold: the contrast between Fallout 1 & 2 (able to create useless characters) and Fallout 3 (about to max out way too many skills before end game) demonstrates this. Alpha Protocol is like a trip back in time: you will never have enough skills or enough cash.
As is typical for a RPG, you gain experience as you progress through the game which you can then use to improve your character and grant him new skills. These include stealth skills, weapons aptitudes, technical aptitudes and personal characteristics such as toughness. Each skill has 15 levels, but you can only progress so far until your character reaches a certain level. In other words, you cannot try to maximize one skill immediately at the expense of all others – but honestly that isn’t an issue since there are plenty of skills you will want to improve, and never enough skill points!
Similarly, completing missions gives you cash which you can then use to buy weapons, armor, upgrades, ammo and gadgets. There is a dizzying array of stuff to buy – pistols alone have 15 weapons, three ammo types, and 31 upgrades in four classes! The prices range from a few thousand to a basic pistol with basic ammo to hundreds of thousands for a top-level decked out weapon! So similar to skills it is critical to choose a path and stick with it – you won’t get far with a wide array of mediocre weapons and loads of mid-level skills!
Combining skills and weapons in combat brings up an area that is often touchy for shooter-RPG fans: the crossing point between ‘twitch’ skills and character skills. As shooter fans we want and expect that when we aim at something we hit it. But as RPG fans we want those skill points put into pistol accuracy and the money spent upgrading the rifling to mean that your can aim quicker, fire more accurately and do more damage. Sadly, because this means that at the start of the game you are missing the same shots you could hit in Gears of War, some gamers decided that the game was ‘broken’ or ‘buggy’. Um, no … it is an RPG, and that is just the way they work.
Bioware is famous for their approach to morality – you are pretty much good, neutral, mercenary or evil. Obsidian has always tried to exploit the gray zones in between – they worked hard to find a new path between the Light & Dark sides of the Force in Knights of the Old Republic II, and between Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil in Neverwinter Nights 2.
But in Alpha Protocol they throw the morality grid out the window and force you to figure out the approach to a given situation that will work for your character to get out alive and with the information you need. This means alternating between being charming, forceful, violent, humorous, respectful, and so on. It isn’t trivial and forces gamers to do something else that seems old-school: actually read what is going on and make choices that might have far-ranging consequences.
Alpha Protocol: Everything Else
Throughout the game you will find places where you can hack into computers or security systems or open doors and so on. Each of these has a mini-game associated with them, which are time-based connect-the-item games, or ‘find the code fragment’ and so on. They are pretty well done compared to other games, but as always become tedious by the end of the game.
In terms of graphics I found Alpha Protocol to meet my expectations for a ‘AAA’ game: it all looks great, but there is nothing that ever made me say ‘wow these are awesome graphics’ … but more importantly I never said ‘OMG this is fugly!’ I played for a while with the output sent to my big screen TV, and this is how it looked.
All of the other technical elements were similarly well done. The voice acting and soundtrack are very well done, with the voice acting in particular standing out. Unlike way too many games Alpha Protocol doesn’t sound like the same half-dozen guys sitting around doing phony accents – indeed Sega and Obsidian obtained voice actors from all over the world to add to the realism … and it works. As for the soundtrack, it is solid but unspectacular – considering the impact of so many James Bond soundtracks through the years I had hoped for more.
In terms of other criticisms, I do wish that the story hit harder in terms of emotional impact, the way the best of Obsidian’s writing (Mask of the Betrayer) does. I also found that even taking the skill and level system into account the cover-shooter aspects were ‘fiddly’, meaning that more than once I found myself popping out of cover when I meant to slide, struggling with the ‘shoot from cover’ aspects and so on. Nothing critical, this simply isn’t the best ‘cover shooter’ game – nor is it meant to be.
In a game billed as a ‘Spy RPG’ I don’t know why I should have to make a point that you should focus on stealth skills … yet in reviews, forums, blogs and so on I have seen way too many gripes about things that ultimately come back to people trying to run’n'gun their way through this game or expecting it to behave like a standard cover-shooter. I also find it frustrating explaining the juxtaposition of shooter skills and RPG skills – especially when so many folks had similar issues with Fallout 3.
It should seem pretty clear by now that I really enjoyed Alpha Protocol – it is not the best game I’ve played this year but is a solid game that I know will stay installed on my system for some time to come. So how come I also say it is a failure? Not just because of lackluster sales and lack of a sequel, but because it failed to really grab played with the first impression. You feel limited, the story isn’t instantly compelling, and the early combat isn’t terribly satisfying.
Alpha Protocol is a ‘slow burner’, a game that takes a while to get going but is a wonderful overall experience. It is bar none the best spy RPG I have ever played, and my favorite spy game. I have mentioned putting Obsidian on ‘Troika Watch’ because I fear that unless Fallout: New Vegas is a big hit they will be hard pressed to stay alive.
That really bothers me because they represent the type of developer I love and that is all too rare: one that focuses on top-quality writing, morally ambiguous stories, complex RPG systems with punishing limits and gameplay that forces you to constantly pay attention and think. And THAT is exactly the sort of game Alpha Protocol it …which is why I think it is so good.
The other good thing about my late review? The price has already dropped so you can pick it up now on Amazon for $25!
Review: Alpha Protocol
Where to Buy: Amazon.com
What I Like: Unique setting and premise; Engaging story; Great stealth system; Choices that matter; Great skill system; Strict cash system;
What Needs Improvement: Graphics are lackluster; Soundtrack isn’t memorable; Cover system is fiddly; Mini-games become a chore
Source: Personal copy