Obsidian are a developer I have always loved, but have never had much respect for. Their work on the Fallout games is legendary, but I’ve always been more of a Baldur’s Gate man. Knights of the old republic 2 was great, (even though it was unfinished) yet it was a straight sequel built on the back of Bioware’s awesome work on KOTOR 1. As for Neverwinter Nights 2; Well I like to repress that particular memory. Love them or hate them Obsidian have returned with a brand new IP, Alpha Protocol. It’s the present day alternative to Mass Effect, blending RPG and shooter elements in a spy drama setting, but is it able to blend these elements together successfully?
The story begins with the initiation of our protagonist, Michael Thorton, into the obscure US military agency Alpha Protocol. After the obligatory plot exposition and training segments, our hero is sent to retrieve information on an arms smuggler in Saudi Arabia. Alpha Protocol starts to carve an interesting universe immediately that serves as an enjoyable pastiche of other spy thrillers from Bond to Bourne, and this certainly becomes clearer once he finds there are members of his own organisation trying to work against him to cover up black market weapons dealing. So Thorton steps out to attempt to find out how to stop all this bad stuff going down, whilst evading pursuit from his previous colleagues. It’s an enjoyable, if quite cheesy storyline, but it’ll certainly keep you playing from start to finish.
As for your supporting characters on your missions, well this is left up to options you make early on in the game. This is where Alpha Protocol comes into its own, as your interactions with the game’s memorable cast of characters decide who sides with you, and who will attempt to halt your progress as the story unfolds. I was particularly friendly with the lady at the shooting range, (giggidy) so she was the one to help me out when my other co-workers were out to get me. It really gives your interactions with the game’s NPCs an edge, as keeping them all on side becomes more and more difficult as time moves on. Much like the rest of the game, the characters feel a little too formulaic, but it’s clear that a lot of thought has been put into them and each will react to your varying remarks and actions according to their wide-ranging personalities. It’ll keep you on your toes and will keep you guessing the best approach for each conversation.
Throughout your journey into the bizarre conspiracy theories afoot, you’ll travel the world from Moscow to Thailand, and encounter a lot of memorable set-pieces along the way. It’s just a shame that, whilst the level design isn’t bad, it’s incredibly linear and offers little in the way of exploration. This linearity is furthered by the way missions are structured. You have a safe house where you manage your inventory, skills etc. and where you choose your next mission. It’s nice that you can tackle the levels in any order, but it decreases the sense of Alpha Protocol being any more than just a range of levels strapped end to end.
The RPG and the Third Person shooter are two opposite ends of the genre spectrum that have recently been merged on many occasions. With such a saturated field to enter, is Alpha Protocol able to keep up with the big boys? Sadly not in terms of sheer gameplay. The RPG aspect of Alpha Protocol passes with flying colours. The dialogue system is smooth, simple and effective. You choose one of four key-words during a conversation, ranging from a question to moods and approaches to dialogue. Whilst it’s easy just hitting the keys and hoping for the best, sometimes even the smallest decisions can have a lasting effect and this is something that not enough games get right these days. The other corner of the RPG ring is the levelling and equipment options and Alpha Protocol caters for a wide variety of customisation options. There are a myriad of weapons, upgrades and gadgets and a variety of skills that need mastering in order to use these effectively.
Unfortunately it’s with so many skills and items that the major balancing issues in Alpha Protocol come to light. Some of the guns are just plain useless, and when I can win a fight at any range with just an assault rifle and my fists, I know something is not quite right. What’s more frustrating is the inability to use stealth in the game. Remember the linear missions I mentioned earlier? It makes sneaking up behind the tangos tough, regardless of my skill level in stealth. What’s more bothersome is the appalling AI. Not only are they stupid and partially blind, but they’re also just inhuman. Sure it’s easy enough to get the drop on a guy, but the moment you are spotted, every enemy in the section of the map knows where you are, even when you break the line of site. So I turn off the alarm that was set off; and it makes no difference whatsoever… This becomes game-breaking when you realise that you can’t remove skill points once you’ve comitted them, so take my advice and ignore the pistol and shotgun. They’re next to useless. Alpha Protocol’s main tag line is that “your weapon is choice.” Whilst this is certainly the case with the dialogue system, this is just plain deceitful in relation to your options in combat. No matter how hard you try every level soon becomes a blood bath, and it’s one of Alpha Protocol’s weakest aspects.
The Shooting mechanics are a bit more hit and miss. Ironically the cover system that most titles struggle with is handled quite well in Alpha protocol. It lacks any finesse for sure, but it works and rarely gave me any trouble. It’s a shame that the rest of the mechanics aren’t quite as solid. The gun-play is designed to reward methodical and accurate shots, but it just winds up feeling a bit too slow and flaky. It quickly becomes a case of spamming bullets in the heat of combat, and it makes the shoot-outs feel very unrefined. It’s these moments that unfortunately break the suave spy illusion that is built up so well in the dialogue. Compounding these issues are a range of glitches ranging from the aesthetic to the plain annoying. They were noticeable but thankfully the worst I got was some very dodgy camera flashes. Be warned though that a quick google search will yield various forum posts about more game-breaking glitches others have encountered so I might have just been lucky. Thorough research prior to a purchase would be well rewarded.
The unflattering nature of the combat isn’t helped by the look of the thing. These aren’t the worst graphics I’ve ever seen, but they reek of PS2 era. What’s more frustrating is that the art direction is bland and uninspired with drab textures as far as the eye can see. Some of the animations too are a bit embarrassing, and I must admit it eventually got to the stage where I was locking my door for fear someone would come in and see the suggestively wooden crouch walk animation. You’ll know what I mean if you see it in action. Thankfully the user interface isn’t as bad as the rest of the visuals. It’s helpful enough without getting in the way, and saves me trying to play the game whilst blindfolded.
I’ve always believed the sound to be an important part of the spy thriller genre. After all, there are only a handful of conversations I’ve had about James Bond where someone hasn’t hummed the iconic theme music. Alpha protocol gets some of this important aspect right with some appropriate, if forgettable, background music (minus one intense set piece in Moscow that I won’t spoil for anyone) and some pretty awesome voice acting on the whole. The problem comes in the sound effects in that, much like the combat itself, they just feel weak and unpolished.
Alpha Protocol is a Marmite title. Should you decide to love, rather than hate it you’ll find a lot of loving to be done. A single play-through will take you around 15 hours depending on how thorough you are, and the impact of the dialogue options easily warrants a second or even third run through. Sadly these alternate play-throughs might not hold your attention on account of the linearity of the levels and the lack of feasible options in combat.
I hope it doesn’t sound sexist if I refer to Alpha Protocol as the kind of gal you’d want a long term relationship with. She can be a little irritable and might not be the best looker of the bunch, but deep down she has a heart of gold. It’s worth thinking about whether she’s your type or not though. Do you play games for the story and role-playing? If so proceed to your local games outlet and pick up Alpha Protocol. You won’t be disappointed. If your favourite aspect is the bit where you shoot said villain in the face, then you’ll be better served by a few more hours on your favourite FPS. At it’s core it’s sturdy and solid, but it lacks a certain polish that many will find off-putting. If you can get past this aspect, Alpha Protocol has enough memorable moments to justify the expense. I’m certainly glad I took the time to enjoy its rather unique charms.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Character interactions heavily influence the story, A gripping plot and characters, Diverse levelling and weapon upgrades systems
Poor graphics, Dodgy shooter mechanics, A myriad of glitches
Alpha protocol is a fantastic addition to the western RPG genre, but sadly lacks the polish of other blockbuster titles.