Review: Alpha Protocol

AlphaProtocol.jpg I don’t normally dress down other reviewers in my own reviews, because everyone is entitled to their own opinion and not everyone is going to like every game, and that’s what makes the review business great. But sometimes opinion crosses the line and becomes mischaracterization, and that’s what I see happening a lot with Obsidian’s new espionage RPG Alpha Protocol.

After browsing some of the early reviews of Alpha Protocol – many of which have pegged the game as a technical mess, among other derogatory terms – and proceeding to spend 20-25 hours completing my first play-through and another five or so thus far into a second run, it is crystal clear to me that much of the mainstream press had misguided expectations and/or didn’t put in the effort to play the game as it is meant to be played. The game has a lot of little flaws that are open to criticism, but to say the game is somehow broken and unplayable is outright deceptive.

I understand the mixed views somewhat. Based on appearance alone, Alpha Protocol looks like a third-person stealth shooter cross between Mass Effect and Splinter Cell. But in reality, the game is an RPG with shooting mechanics and character progression governed by RPG rules, not the rules of your everyday third-person shooter. As such, it shouldn’t be compared to either of those games.

Initially, Alpha Protocol’s play mechanics can be tough to get a feel for. Typically when you point a gun at an enemy, line up your crosshairs for a perfect headshot, and squeeze the trigger, you expect a direct hit every time. But that’s not how Alpha Protocol plays. Instead, all of your skills in combat and espionage are based on how you choose to develop your spy hero, and the shooting controls built around that concept are more than solid. The cover system can be a bit sticky, but works well overall, and in the context of an RPG the gunplay and stealth mechanics perform nicely.

The game starts you out with a few pre-determined classes, but also allows you to play as a recruit if you want complete control over building your agent, and after finishing the first mission area you are able to choose three specific skills to specialize in. Learnable character skills include everything from different weapon proficiencies (pistols, shotguns, submachine guns and assault rifles) to martial arts to sabotage to stealth, and how you spend advancement points to build these skills directly translates into how your character performs during missions.

If you use weapons that you aren’t proficient in, you’ll miss repeatedly, even if an enemy is dead in your sights. If you try to be sneaky with a character you haven’t trained down a stealth path, enemies will spot you with ease. But if you develop these skills and play to their strengths, you can line up headshots, move amongst foes unseen, or blast your way through missions, and feel like a special agent badass in the process.

Computer hacking and lock picking mini-games factor into the gameplay heavily as well, and can be somewhat tedious. But if you develop skills in sabotage the mini-games become a lot more forgiving, and you can also learn the ability to use EMPs to automatically bypass locks and electronic devices. Using the proper equipment is also very important, as I found out the hard way. During my first campaign I developed my character on a stealth path with high proficiency in pistols and martial arts, and early on I had a difficult time sneaking up on enemies and couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. Then I noticed that I was wearing heavy body armor ill suited for stealth play, as the bulky garb made a lot of noise when attempting to sneak around, and enemies could hear me coming — and that makes perfect sense. The same applies to weapons. Properly modding firearms makes a huge difference, as it enables you to find the right balance of weapon accuracy, damage, recoil, and ammo capacity to suit your particular approach to each mission.

This is all smart, well-balanced RPG design if you ask me.

True to its tagline, “Your Weapon is Choice,” and Obsidian’s general RPG philosophy, Alpha Protocol thrives on a deep system of choices and consequences, and at the heart of the C&C system is a timed dialogue system – the Dynamic Stance System. Rather than give you specific keywords or partial sentences, the DSS gives you three vague stances – Suave, Professional and Aggressive — to choose from when dealing with other characters. I like to think of it as the James Bond / Jack Bauer / Jason Bourne dialogue system, as the Suave stance casts your agent as more of an easy-going, lady-lovin’ Bond type, the Aggressive approach allows you to cut through the BS in a threatening manner and get right to the point like Bauer, and the Professional stance is more respectful and duty-driven like Bourne.

The timed nature of the DSS has been called into question, and understandably so. But personally, I like that there is a timer, as it forces you to think on your toes and make snap decisions like a real secret agent would have to do in precarious situations. It also forces you to learn about characters and manipulate them based on instinct.

That said, there is one thing I would change: the timer’s start time. Currently, the response timer begins as soon as the stance choices pop up on the screen, and sometimes you are forced into choosing a stance before the person on the other end of the conversation has finished speaking. It would’ve made more sense to have the timer begin only after the final line of dialogue is spoken.

How you treat characters in conversations is key to developing relationships and gathering intel. There is no BioWare-style set morality path of good vs. bad, so instead you are free to befriend and piss off characters to suit your goals, and the game changes depending on how you treat certain people. Mission handlers you are on good terms with provide extra ability benefits while out on assignment, and other characters will lend a hand during certain missions by providing diversions or weapon drops, or even personally fighting by your side.

There are also many other choices to make outside of dialogue. What do you do when you capture a terrorist: do you execute them on the spot, let them run free on the condition of helping you gather intel, or arrest them? Or what if you intercept a shady email: do you auction it off to the highest bidder on the black market, use the evidence to blackmail the sender, or forward it to a reporter to print in a headline news story?

Big or small, all these choices have a lasting impact. Even the order in which you choose to play through the game makes a difference. The story spans four main hubs – Saudi Arabia, Moscow, Rome and Taipei – and after the initial Saudi Arabia area you are free to complete missions from the other locales in any order.

Consequences spread beyond character relationships and story development as well. Certain actions imbue your character with special Perks, which grant additional stat and ability bonuses on top of the standard method of leveling up and applying AP to advance along the skill tree. These Perks also provide extra incentive to build a character and stick to a specific path, as you can gain additional skill modifiers by achieving specific ability milestones, such as stealth killing 75 enemies to earn a reduction in movement noise or landing a set number of critical hits to gain weapon upgrades. There are so many little things like this that are affected by how you play the game, and it makes replaying as different roles a lot of fun.

In terms of story, Alpha Protocol presents an intriguing plot of familiar espionage themes. Double agents, secret government agencies, corporate conspiracies, terrorist scumbags…Alpha Protocol has everything a blockbuster spy thriller should have. The story won’t win any awards for originality, but it and its characters are written and acted well, and if you enjoy TV shows and movies like 24, Bond and Bourne, this game is right up your alley. Yeah, Michael Thorton is a pretty generic dude for a starring role, but in a way it makes sense that he is portrayed as a blank canvas, because you are supposed to be shaping his personality based on your actions.

Polish, and the lack thereof, is really all that is holding Alpha Protocol back. Unreal Engine 3 texture glitches, stiff animations, occasional framerate hiccups, and bland environments put the game’s otherwise respectable graphics in a bad light, and other flaws, such as AI glitches occasional causing enemies to suddenly freeze in place, sluggish menus, poorly balanced boss battles and some dialogue trees not being as fleshed out as others, make it abundantly clear that Obsidian wasn’t able to optimize the game to its fullest before pushing it out the door.

But even with shaky production values and a somewhat unfinished feel, Alpha Protocol is an outstanding game, and one that is quietly sneaking into position as one of my favorites of this year. As long as you know to treat the game as an RPG and not a shooter, and don’t mind its rough appearance, I think you’ll appreciate its nuanced gameplay and story as much as I do.

Now I just have to cross my fingers and hope that Obsidian gets the opportunity at a sequel some day!

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Pros:
+ Successful integration of RPG and stealth/action
+ Lots of meaningful choices and consequences
+ Intriguing spy storyline
+ Excellent character development
+ High replay value

Cons:
– Very unpolished
– Weak boss fights
– DSS response timer starts too soon
– Some dialogue choices aren’t as fleshed out as others

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available for PC and Xbox 360
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date: 6/1/2010
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!