Alpha Protocol Review
Written : Monday, May 31, 2010
By: Dan Webb (GT: Webb x360a)
Cult games are a weird phenomenon in the games industry. It’s that breed of game that won’t necessarily sell amazingly well or even score highly in terms of a Metacritic score, but they’re games that offer something so fresh and so original, that they will no doubt have their devout followers. Mirror’s Edge, the Hitman series and Crackdown are all fine examples of what I like to define as cult games. What does this have to do with Alpha Protocol you ask? Well, because I hereby proclaim that Obsidian and SEGA’s latest espionage RPG, Alpha Protocol, is what I like to call a cult game, because beneath its flawed shooter mechanics, its outdated gameplay and substandard graphics, lies a game that does so many things right and offers a fresh take on a neglected sub-genre.
Thorton's pistol stats weren't high enough to make this shot.
With the popularity of super secret agents like Jack Bauer, James Bond and Jason Bourne, it’s quite puzzling how the espionage genre remains largely untouched in recent years. Alpha Protocol looks to correct that and throws you into the shoes of Michael Thorton – that’s Thorton, not Thornton as many of the press labelled him in the game’s pre-release build up, something that Obsidian makes light of in the game. Thorton is enlisted by a covert governmental program called Alpha Protocol – a black-ops organisation that is meant to do the dirty work for the United States government – and tasked with the relatively easy job of tracking down some stolen missiles that were used against a civilian airliner somewhere in the Middle East. As you’d expect to see in an episode of 24, things aren’t quite what they seem and Thorton gets dragged kicking and screaming into a plot that includes the almost obligatory conspiracy theories.
The story is told through a series of mini investigations that has Thorton venture into the unknown with a variety of different handlers to uncover the conspiracy piece by piece. Whilst the plot is rather convoluted and of typical 24 ilk, Alpha Protocol’s strengths lie in its dynamic dialogue system that puts you at the helm and gives you the potential to carry out the mission as you see fit. Taking Mass Effect’s impressive dialogue system one step further, Alpha Protocol allows you to tailor the story to how you want to see it unfold, with many impossible choices along the way. Choice in Mass Effect was saved for key moments, in Alpha Protocol, even the simplest of choices can have the most perverse consequences. Want to kill an arms dealer and anger his faction? Sure, go ahead, it’ll win you points with the US government, but you won’t get cheaper munitions anymore. Want to be aggressive with an informant rather than pay their fee? Carry on, but be careful, their livelihood is to sell information. Anger them and they could drop you in it and make your life harder down the road.
To smash his face off the bar or not? The choice is yours.
The dialogue system usually offers you three angles to approach a conversation from all ends of the scale which usually revolve around suave (or smug as I like to call it), aggressive and professional. There is a fourth interrupt option that can prop up at convenient intervals in the story which have radical consequences. Responses are however put on a short timer; not so much like they’re a quick-time event mini-game, but so you have to think on the feet, and it’s a much more dynamic system for it. It’s also the platform – along with the choices you make – that set up Thorton’s relationships. In typical spy genre fashion, Thorton can even choose to woo any number of women in the game and kill/spare any number of foes. Hell, if you want to be, you can be a complete asshole and piss everyone else off, pull the trigger on a number of key players and just purely look out for number one. Choice has never been so rich. However, it must be said that it really doesn’t change the overall scope of the game that much, although killing key characters can potentially cut off any number of intel lifelines and even missions. The key thing to stress is, that it’s your choice how the events pan out.
First and foremost, I feel I must make this clear, Alpha Protocol is an RPG, and if you’re coming into this thinking that you’ll get a great third person shooter experience out of this as well, you better turn that horse around mister. In a lot of senses the game actually reminds me of the first Mass Effect in that regard, where the shooter mechanics are actually tied into the RPG mechanics, so unless you have a high enough rating in that discipline, then you may come unstuck. It’s the roll of a dice mechanics all over again. This isn’t a game for the mindless Call of Duty and Halo drones.
Everybody was kung-fu fighting!
Nevertheless, whether the game is an RPG or not, the fact remains we’ve been spoilt by Mass Effect 2 and to have the RPG without the shooter just seems farcical. Simply put, the third person shooter mechanics in Alpha Protocol are not just outdated, deeply flawed and hugely frustrating, but the fact remains, that they’re utter dross. It boasts a cover system that is more jerky than a trip across the English Channel on a raft made out of breadsticks, a stealth mechanic that feels like it was designed by a 12 year old, enemy AI that makes the guy that said his penis pump was a bomb at an airport baggage screener look like Steven Hawking and a convoluted control mechanic that will have you fiddling about swapping gadgets and “powers” every 5 seconds. It’s not ideal.
In a way though, the general standard of the third person mechanics places more emphasis on how you develop your character and what special powers you give him. If you want to stealth it using pistols whilst creeping around, then you can assign points in those disciplines and achieve your vision. Adding experience points to your pistol, adding a silencer to said pistol, purchasing lightweight armour that makes you sound like you’re walking on a cloud and buying the Evasion ability and the Chain Shot ability helps there. If you want to play it as more Arnie than Jack, then buying beefy shotguns, heavyweight armour and more grenades than the Al-Qaeda definitely helps. Again, the choice is yours and not only that, but your reputation will often precede you whichever way you play it.
If the downright poor third-person shooter mechanics weren’t enough to take the shine off the mostly excellent choice and dialogue mechanics, the dismal boss fights and poor production values sure are. Whilst the voice acting isn’t that bad, it’s not great either and at times the performances definitely feel phoned in. It’s more James Bond than Jack Bauer in the dialogue department. The visuals aren’t that great either and whilst it’s hard to call them “bad,” they’re very generic, bland and lack any sort of visual flare. Oh, and the lip-syncing... seriously, when are developers going to get this one right!? It’s not Alan Wake or Assassin’s Creed 2 bad, but it’s not far off. P.S. Rockstar, you’re excluded from this mini-rant!
One of Thorton’s high tech spy cribs. Shibby!
With such an emphasis on choice, the achievements mirror that somewhat, with multiple playthroughs required for the full one thousand points. You’re probably looking at three playthroughs unless you know what you’re going for when you start out – a sure fire way to take the gloss off of the game. With Alpha Protocol not being as long as your traditional western RPGs – about 10-15 hours to complete – that isn’t such a bad thing, and you can expect achievements for every major choice in the game and more. With over half the points attached to the game’s story, chances are you’ll net a significant amount of points on one playthrough, but it’ll be the smaller five point achievements that will take most the time – the achievements which are the most generic out of all of them.
Essentially, Alpha Protocol is going to be like Marmite – you either love it or you hate it. There’s no middle ground here people! If you can look past the outdated third person shooter mechanics and its ordinary visuals, and view it as an RPG, then Alpha Protocol could very well be a title that will be in your console for months as you try different approaches to the task at hand. However, after Mass Effect 2 proved that combining the two genres is most definitely possible, Alpha Protocol pales in comparison. Where Mass Effect falls down by giving you very little control over the major aspects of the story and its outcome, Alpha Protocol shines by putting a real emphasis on choice. If you want to play the bad guy, switch sides and sacrifice civilians to save a world leader, you can – it’s as close to being Jack Bauer as you’re going to get. However, whilst Alpha Protocol doesn’t fail on its choices mechanic and its dialogue system, it does pretty much fail on everything else and it holds it back from being a great title. We’d love to see them take the best bits out of the title, combine them with some real shooter mechanics and high production values to make a sequel, but unfortunately, that’s probably never going to happen.
The voice acting is fairly competent on the whole, with it fluttering between decent and damn right diabolical. The audio score and sound effects are uninspiring, but by no means terrible.
Mediocre about sums it up and miles behind what we expect in this day and age of HD, jaw-dropping visuals. Terrible lip syncing as well.
It handles quite well, but Alpha Protocol is not a third person shooter. Its shooter mechanics are steeped in RPG elements and places emphasis on the game’s powers and dice rolls, rather than your skill. Not necessarily a bad thing, but one you have to recognise from the off.
The dialogue and RPG mechanics are mostly excellent – although it wouldn’t have hurt to have more customisation in Thorton’s look and weapons – but that’s tainted by a distinct lack of ability to get the basics right in the action sequences.
The game places a lot of emphasis on choice, and that ultimately means multiple playthoughs if you want to catch ‘em all. Not a bad list, but distinctly average.
Buried beneath the poor shooter mechanics, Alpha Protocol does exactly what it says on the box, and that’s make choice your weapon. With a great dialogue mechanic and more choice than your local Tesco megastore, the title is ultimately a letdown in every department except these key disciplines. A title that true RPG aficionados may treasure, but everyone else best steer clear. A cult hit if ever there was one, and one that I truly enjoyed.