Programmed for Etiquette and Alpha Protocol
You would have a hard time finding a game in recent memory that provoked such wildly divergent assessments of quality, from professional reviewers and fans alike, than the recently release Alpha Protocol. Developed by Obsidian and published by Sega, opinions and scores range from the enthusiastic gushing of Tom Chick over at Fidgit and 1UP’s B+ review score, to the middling verdicts from Giant Bomb and Eurogamer, all the way to the furious, vitriolic bile of Jim Sterling’s 2/10 review for Destructoid. Although no one would claim Alpha Protocol is as supremely polished as gamers increasingly expect thanks to high profile, triple-A titles like Uncharted 2, Mass Effect 2 or Alan Wake, the main disagreement seems to stem from how much an individual is willing to put up with this particular game’s technical foibles and gameplay conceits in order to explore the dynamic conversation system and massively branching storyline.
Alpha Protocol bills itself as an espionage RPG. It plays out using third-person, cover-based shooter mechanics for combat, skill-based character progression and a quest-hub style nonlinear mission progression. The game begins with your character, Mike Thorton, waking up in an unfamiliar military installation. Your attempt to escape the facility constitutes a tutorial level to acquaint you with the basics of combat, stealth, hacking, lock-picking and working with your handler.
Cultivating relationships is a major facet of Alpha Protocol’s gameplay and story. The game tracks how much the various NPCs like or dislike your character based on dialog choices, email exchanges, your treatment of other characters, even how you comport yourself during missions. Being liked is not always the goal, intimidation and fear can also confer benefits, whether it’s to extort money or extract information. Handlers also give you different bonuses during missions. There aren’t really bad decisions, only different, sometimes unpredictable outcomes.
The story will take Mike Thorton first to Saudi Arabia in pursuit of Shaheed, leader of the Al-Samad terrorist organization responsible for shooting down a passenger jet. During the mission, Thorton discovers a conspiracy involving Halbech, a major military contractor, and their attempt to raise tensions around the world to drive new sales of their weapons and services. Thorton is forced to go rogue, investigating leads in Moscow, Rome and Taipei as he attempts to uncover and expose the details. Along the way you will encounter various factions and their leaders and you can decide to become allies, or make them your enemies. The order you tackle the cities in can change the experience, even the order you tackle the missions. A contact, for example, might be offended if you start running missions in their city without showing due respect by paying them a visit first.
Much has been made of the problems with combat, but to a certain degree that has been overblown. The shooting does not, as they say, come down to dice rolls. It’s true that the game does not give you pixel perfect accuracy most shooters condition you to expect, rather it introduces a level of randomness with how bullet fly when fired off quickly at low levels. Investing enough points into your primary gun skill quickly reduces that problem. In addition, for the shotgun, assault rifle and pistol, patience in lining up your shot greatly increases their effect. It’s best to choose a primary weapon and stick with it, investing as many “AP” as you can into that particular skill. By the end of the game I could single shot just about any enemy from across a large room with my silenced pistol.
Stealth is the other major skill in the game, the one which requires the most points to upgrade. Investing in stealth leads to a passive ability that turns Thorton invisible for a few seconds, just long enough to get back in hiding if you are sighted by an enemy. Later, an active ability turns him invisible for up to half a minute, during which you can literally walk up to an enemy’s face and perform a quick kill or non-lethal takedown without being seen. Either you’re willing to accept the gameplay conceit or you aren’t. Alpha Protocol may be playing fast and lose with your suspension of disbelief, but it’s a highly useful skill late in the game allowing you to kill 4 or 5 enemies without alerting anyone to where you are, or even triggering an alarm.
The game gives you plenty of choice in how you handle each mission. Some missions involve simply meeting an underworld contact and having a conversation. Most require the infiltration of a location where you suspect you can find valuable information. In each case you can go in guns blazing, or sneak your way through. In places where you will encounter civilian security or American troops, you can also choose to use restraint and tranquilize and stun rather than kill. It’s even possible to go through the entire game without killing a single person. Unfortunately, certain missions do terminate in “boss fights”. Usually these are against a powerful enemy assisted by respawning thugs, other times you will need to take out a vehicle. If your character build has been combat weak, this can be a bit of a problem. In addition, coming at the end of a mission, you might find yourself out of medkits or ammunition at just the wrong time. There are a handful of big fights like this where I had to reload over and over again, trying different strategies to get through a seemingly unwinnable encounter.
Certain technical issues mar the game as I played it on the PC. I don’t believe the graphics are bad, some of the deign work and texturing is quite attractive, but it is clearly a step down from the cutting edge, despite not being very ambitious in its presentation. The animation isn’t great, and completely missing in certain instances as your character model will simply float into place when you activate a station in your safe house. There are issues with texture pop in, and despite running above 60 FPS for the most part on my dual core rig with an ATI 4850 graphics card, the game stutters badly a points, usually when approaching new areas, presumably as the next set of enemies are spawned in. If you are playing with a mouse and keyboard, this can cause your view to swing wildly for a few seconds, leaving you with the camera pointed in a random direction when the engine finally recovers. This is far more frustrating than the clunkiness of the hacking mini-game controls or the crappy menu navigation. In most cases you learn to manage it by not moving as soon as you sense it happening, but occasionally it will hit mid-peril with rage-inducing results. Reportedly, these problems are diminished if you play on the PC with an Xbox 360 controller. The game does not support other gamepads.
Sure, it’s not perfect, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in Alpha Protocol. I took great pleasure as my abilities increased to the point where I could clear a room of enemies with ruthless efficiency. The writing was also quite good, including the romances which didn’t fall into that Bioware trap where the dialog sounds like a nerdy virgin’s idea of how get a girl to like you. Each NPC has their own personality and they respond differently to certain approaches. If you try and be flirtatious with the wrong girl, or at the wrong time it just may turn them off. Others just might go for that suave approach. There are so many paths to explore; it can be a bit overwhelming. The timer on dialog choices is a nice innovation as it forces you to make snap decisions and go with your gut. But there’s a real sense as you play that the game could have shown you something very different if you had just sided with a different faction, or let a certain person live instead of executing them. It’s an improvement over Dragon Age: Origin’s enforced ambiguity where, no matter how much time you think about it there’s no way to know the best outcome to certain decisions. Alpha Protocol just blows past those issues by not allowing you to agonize over something, only to learn later the writers were just pulling a fast one on you anyway. At one point in Alpha Protocol, in just such a forced branch I literally decided to do one thing rationalizing that, if I was fast enough, maybe I could accomplish both of these seemingly exclusive goals. The joke was on me, of course, but it’s to Alpha Protocol’s credit that I was so deluded.
Alpha Protocol is now available on PC, 360 and PS3.