Review – Alpha Protocol
3rd Person Action, Espionage RPG
I might be wrong but I suspect the life of a spy isn’t as glamorous as James Bond, Jason Bourne and Napoleon Solo would have us believe. Rather than the staples of fast cars, exotic locals and alluring women the real life of a spy is more about hiding in bushes, shooting Brazilian electricians and trips to the local STD clinic. So until a video game developer buys the Harry Palmer licence we’re never going to live the sheer drudgery of a real spy’s life. So in the meantime there’s this, Alpha Protocol by Obsidian Entertainment (Knights of the Old Republic II, Neverwinter Nights II and the upcoming Fallout: New Vegas)
The path to release hasn’t been the easiest for Alpha Protocol with a dev team made up of programmers yanked off the now sadly cancelled Aliens RPG to make a winter ’09 release date only for Sega to pull it from the schedules at the last moment for this summer 2010 amid the much stronger than normal summer competition from the likes of Splinter Cell: Conviction and Red Dead Revolver: Redemption. Has the extra six months development time been put to good use or will Obsidian have yet another ‘good but rushed’ B- RPG like KOTOR II? Let’s see.
At its heart Alpha Protocol has all the right western RPG you need for a classic: action packed combat, stealthy sneaking, directable character interaction, 12A rated sex scenes and moral choices a plenty. I could be lazy and describe it as an espionage version of Mass Effect but I won’t, even though I just did. You play Michael Thornton yet another white American from the brown eyes, short hair casting school whose life takes an interesting twist as he’s recruited by Alpha Protocol an ultra secret covert organisation tasked with maintaining worldwide political stability.
The game starts with you creating your own particular version of Mike from three archetypes each specialising in combat, stealth or espionage skills or choosing your own mix from the list of skills like pistol, rifles, sabotage, stealth, martial arts etc. You gain experience points throughout the game that help Mike to level up giving him AP points that can be spent to improve his skills as he goes along. Low level skills give him small bonuses to the related activities but with additional skill ranks he’ll gain abilities that can be activated for a short time like bullet-time style aiming, temporary invisibility, quicker reloading and the like. He can also gain perks by performing certain actions during the game like befriending or enraging other characters, performing a set number of critical hits with a weapon or choosing particular dialogue paths that’ll lead to many different and varied outcomes some not as you might expect.
Being a western RPG Alpha Protocol is full of choice in not just how you play the game but how you have Mike behave. You can load him up with automatic rifles and a shotgun and blast your way through the different missions shooting first and questioning after or if you’re a liberal pussy like me sneaking around using pistol tranquilliser rounds, CQC takedowns and bringing in enemies for questioning rather than executing them outright.
If you don’t favour the direct approach you’ll have access to a wide catalogue of labour saving equipment from EMP grenades that can fry electronic locks and stun enemy sentry turrets, explosive mines, incendiaries or noise generators to lure enemies into ambushes.
The EMP grenades in particular come in very handy as they’re a great way to bypass what is easily the most off putting aspect of Alpha Protocol: the minigames. There’s three types of games all of them timed that cover picking traditional key locks, bypassing electronic locks and hacking computers. The picking game has you squeezing both triggers to find a sweet spot on the lock’s tumblers and requires a gentle touch that can easily be gained through practice and patience. The bypass game works like a mini maze with you tracing the right numbered node to its connector that snakes and twists around a circuit board before the timer runs out.
My name is Michael Westen, I used to be a spy until…
Ignore all the faff about trying to combine the best elements of Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer and James Bond and ignore whatever similarities you may think the game has to Mass Effect and its ilk. Ignore the fact that Sega hasn’t had the best of luck with it’s games lately and lets just examine what we have, a third person stealth em up with RPG style levelling up and meaningful conversations and in-game choices.
There’s no shadow meter, no cone of vision, just old fashioned enemy line of sight. This works relatively well (so long as you’ve spent some points on stealthy attributes or sneaking armour), however if all hell breaks loose or you accidentally get spotted the enemies gain the spooky ability to see through walls and track you down with great efficiency, very annoying and as such you may just want to restart a section. The non-sneaking combat is pretty dire, accurate headshots usually require stationary targets and unless you have forever to line up critical shots you’ll be at the mercy of the dice roll whether you hit your target or not.
As in many action RPGs mini-game hell is in full swing here. You’ll be bypassing circuits (meh), picking locks (erp) and hacking computers (aaarrrggghhhh!) with relative frequency depending on how you tackle the mission. Most of these are rather difficult but almost in a good way, you’re forced to decide if it’s really worth bothering when failure will set off the alarms and send half a dozen Russian bodyguards your way, with their afore mentioned x-ray vision. Towards the end of every few levels you will face the inevitable boss and depending on conversational skills, you may be able to avoid conflict â€“ if you can’t be prepared to endure some pretty crap set pieces that will force you to embrace the games awful combat.
Despite these flaws there’s still a great premise and a lot of fun to be had here. Playing as a stealthy ninja you obviously get one side of the experience but what I have is a game that makes me want to come back for more (not in a sad-masochistic kind of way) – I would recommend people give this game a bash unless you’re hoping for a fun run and cover gunfest. Oh and if you do pick it up, tell them Chuck Finlay sent you.
Secondary Score: 7/10
The hacking game though is by far the most off putting, annoying, pernickety minigame since Elder Scrolls V had that bullshit persuasion minigame. Using both sticks you have to match two number sequences to the same numbers on a screen of changing numbers. Sounds confusing yeah? Well fuck me if it isn’t damn near impossible at first, sure with time you can train your eyes to see past the moving numbers but with the double stick controls and a too short time limit I doubt many would bother. It’s never essential to be able to hack a computer or complete the other minigames but playing the game without trying to hack anything or wasting thousands of dollars and Mike’s precious inventory slots on EMP grenades isn’t really an option. It’s a choice but one you really do have to make in favour of playing the minigames.
The choices don’t stop at the combat as the game’s dialogue trees will often give you three different stances when talking to someone. There’s the cool, emotionless professional ah la Jason Bourne, the charming James Bond suave path or the Arnholt ‘do what I say or I’ll shoot you’ aggressive path. It’s worth paying attention during the dialogue sections as not only will you gain bonus experience points for paying attention but there’s perks to be had for consistently roleplaying a particular character type or being totally inscrutable and choosing a mix of all three give the situation Mike is in.
Now if all of this is sounding good to you despite the minigame woes I recommend you go and rent, NOT buy mind you, just rent a copy as fans of western RPGs like Mass Effect of KOTOR will no doubt have a blast like I did hunting down terrorist cells, infiltrating NSA safe houses and rescuing damsels in distress. Play it for a few hours i.e. past the tutorial section at the Alpha Protocol base and get deep into the first proper mission with selectable assignments and access to the intelligence network and blackmarket vendors. Once you’re in the thick of it sneaking/shooting goons, questioning/executing terrorist leaders, recovering/selling enemy intelligence you’ll know if it’s worth adding it to your buy list because as a whole the game isn’t what you callâ€¦ finished.
Glitches both graphical and systemic are abundant. The textures pop in and out like an Unreal beta test and those that stick around look low res and washed out with intersecting tiles all over the place. The enemy AI is nowhere as sophisticated as it needs to be with guards getting stuck in logic loops and dashing to and from cover over and over again until you stop them and their line of sight veering from restricted to highly perceptive seemingly at random.
The story is well crafted and with the different mission resolutions and interactions you could easily replay it multiple times in different ways but the general feel of being unfinished and rough around the edges will scare off many gamers unused as they are to lemon squeezing like we do here at Peoww. If you can love a lemon you’ll get plenty of fun here but if all you’re looking for is flashy FMV and slick but limited gameplay look for you kicks elsewhere as Alpha Protocol is an acquired taste that I for one have grown to love but know that’ll repulse far more than it enthrals.