Alpha Protocol is the new espionage-themed RPG from Obsidian Entertainment and Sega. In a genre dominated by RPGs set in Tolkienesque worlds populated by elves and dwarves, with the occasional space opera thrown in, Alpha Protocol's premise is a welcome change of pace. Similar in spirit to the venerated Deus Ex, this game promises to let players use differing abilities to find multiple ways through any encounter. Obsidian boasts former members from storied Black Isle studios, makers of some of the most legendary RPGs in gaming history. Unfortunately, Alpha Protocol does little to live up to that legacy. It suffers from sub-par gameplay, and an overall underwhelming presentation, which is all the more tragic precisely because of the great potential in the premise, and some of the things the game does well. In some ways, it represents a question of convictions for RPG fans: is it better to play a more streamlined RPG built around a good core game with solid mechanics, or one that presents many opportunities for the meaningful player choices fans always pine for, but is simply not a very good game at heart?
Agent Thorton's quest to prevent global chaos is thwarted by short row of sandbags.
Players assume the role of Michael Thorton, a government operative newly inducted into the ultra-secret agency known as “Alpha Protocol”. After a commercial Jet liner is struck and destroyed by a missile, Mike's first mission sends him to track down those responsible. Before long, he finds himself going rogue and uncovering a global conspiracy through missions associated with various safehouses across the world. Along the way, he will encounter femme fatales, mysterious men, rival agents, terrorists, shadowy power brokers, and all the usual secret-agent tropes. The choices the player makes when talking to these people can change the way the plot unfolds.
The conversational system is the best part of Alpha Protocol, and its greatness makes other parts of the gamefeel all the more disappointing. Players get into dialogues where they can choose between one of three conversational “tones” or stances with which to respond at various points. Depending on the choices you make in these conversations, you can earn “perks” in the form of minor stat bonuses, influence a person's opinion of you (which may carry either benefits or penalties), and even change the way the plot of the game unfolds, sometimes in meaningful ways. Unfortunately, the system also imposes a time limit on these choices that seems to serve little purpose, and which has the effect of forcing players to sometimes think more about how they want to respond at the time, rather than concentrating on what is being said. The effect of this is that sometimes you feel less invested in the actual details of the conversation than you could be, and sometimes, out of pressure, the choices you make feel more random than deliberately calculated or roleplayed.
Alpha Protocol is rated Mature (17+) for Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Sexual Content, and Strong Language
Gameplay - 55 / 100
Those who’ve played the first Mass Effect will find Alpha Protocol’s skill system somewhat familiar. Players can pick a class to start out with that begins the game with points invested in various skill chains or specializations, such as pistols, assault rifles, hand to hand combat and stealth. They then earn advancement points for completing various objectives during missions, and can invest further in these chains, unlocking new abilities, or diversifying into different chains.
On the surface, there is a lot of room for diversification in the various player abilities. However, in the big picture, players will find themselves developing in one of two main play styles: a straightforward shoot 'em up type, or a stealthy infiltrator type who relies on opportunistic close range sneak attacks and gadgets. Unfortunately, the game doesn't excel at making either of these approaches a particularly satisfying experience.
Superficially, Alpha Protocol is experienced as a third person shooter. It is not altogether twitch based, however. For the most part, if you aim and shoot at someone you will hit and kill them, but there are accuracy and other stat-based calculations that affect your efficiency. The player will be far more effective with weapons they specialize in. The longer they hold position and zero in on a target before firing, the more lethal the weapon will be. Gunplay, however, is rather uninspired, with enemies that aren't very challenging to mow down (with the right weapon), and a cover system that can be somewhat frustrating to use.
Stealth play is similarly lackluster, missing many of the features from successful stealth games, like the ability to hide enemy bodies so they don't alert other guards (the bodies will still alert them, you just can't do anything about it). It is also missing easy to follow cues as to how visible you are at any time, and who can see you, meaning stealth is often reduced to simple trial and error. In place of more refined features like these, players are given “invisibility” powers at higher levels, which remove any lingering traces of challenge there might have been. Sneak attacks generally consist of pressing a button from behind a guard to instantly kill or incapacitate him. In the rare event a guard turns around, hand to hand attacks consist of spamming a single key, and are relatively infallible on most minions, even at lower levels. If an alarm is tripped, most of the time the worst this means is that you simply have to dispatch the guards in the immediate area, which is easily accomplished by isolating them and picking them off with hand to hand attacks. Failing that, while pistols are generally only suited for close range sneak attacks, there are few problems in the game an assault rifle won't solve quickly, even with few ranks in the skill.
In addition, to bypass certain challenges without combat, and to unlock many perks on the map, there are a number of mini-games the player can attempt, like electronics, lockpicking and hacking. None of them are particularly fun. Lockpicking is ridiculously easy (at least in the PC version). Hacking can be somewhat frustrating, with an interface that can be difficult to read and too slow to respond to directing the code segments around the screen that you need to place. Regardless, you will be doing these minigames again and again, especially if you're trying to sneak around. Any character build can attempt the mini-games, but players who don't optimize towards this end are likely to find the time limits problematic, at least for hacking.
More physical exercises are sadly limited to various isolated “hot spots” around the game map, for the most part. Mike can crouch to move stealthily but he cannot jump, or execute any other impressive maneuver, unless he finds an opportunity to do so. This can be a little frustrating at times, such as when you have to go the long way around a wall of sandbags two feet high because you can't simply hop over, or when you have to find just the right spot to be able to jump down to a lower level. Alpha Protocol has intentions of being an action game/RPG hybrid, but Mike's limited repertoire of motion tends to limit its appeal as an action game.
With all the various means at your disposal for effectively eliminating or bypassing guards, and the pronounced weakness of the poor enemy A.I., it's difficult to summon any sense of tension in the various missions. There are few real consequences for triggering alarms, and minions are generally only dangerous in large numbers, otherwise they are fairly easy to avoid and pick off. The only real challenge, at least on the default difficulty setting, comes from various boss battles and occasional areas where one set of skills is more helpful than another. Generally, a straightforward shooter is going to be more practical for most situations in Alpha Protocol than a stealther, who may struggle at times. The game has a checkpoint save system, and save points are plentiful. In the event a player gets impatient and blunders into more than he can handle, reloads are generally painless, except for maybe having to do a few repetitive mini-games over again. The result is that it's easy to develop an apathetic air of recklessness while undertaking missions that feel monotonous before too long.
Graphics - 65 / 100
Graphics in Alpha Protocol are fairly mundane and underwhelming. It won't be confused with a game that has cutting edge graphics, despite a sort of gimmicky motion blur effect. Textures are drab, environments can feel sparse, and the visual design isn't particularly inspiring. The various animations are competent at best. For example, when retreating, Mike looks more like he's jogging a victory lap around a baseball diamond rather than running for his life. And when it comes to physical character customization, there are some minor cosmetic options for changing Mike's appearance, but he's always going to be the same person.
In addition, the game's interface shows signs of being a somewhat underdeveloped console port. While aiming in a shooter is always going to be a superior experience with a mouse and keyboard, the game fails to make use of other benefits of the PC platform. The player's decent-sized lists of gear and abilities aren’t hotkeyed. Rather, they are located on console-style radial menus, and only one at a time can be active, requiring a couple steps to stop and change them, rather than being able to bring any one up instantly. A couple of the mini-games feel like the PC interface wasn't considered at all in their design.
Sound - 60 / 100
While the conversational system in the game is excellent, the conversations, sadly, are not. Apparently, this agency likes their operatives as bland as possible, in order to better blend in with their surroundings. In a pinch, Mike Thorton could simply bore his enemies to death with extended dialogue. Mike sounds more like a high school history teacher than a globetrotting super-agent. And (likely with high school teachers as well as Mike) use of the suave conversational option is bound to induce some cringing.
Characters in Alpha Protocol are two-dimensional and dull. While the voice actors generally do a competent job with the material, the dialogue is flat and uninspired, and some of the conversations tend to run on a bit. This can lead to a bit of a conflict with players who may sometime be torn between wanting to concentrate on getting the most out of the conversation choices and wanting to fast forward through the conversation to get to the meaningful choices or get on with the action. The game's story is adequate for the genre but, coupled with the distracting time limits on responses, the uninteresting dialogue can sometimes prevent players from feeling as invested in the story as they could be.
Value - 77 / 100
I don't think that word means what you think it means.
The Alpha Protocol campaign can probably be played through in 15-20 hours, depending on how much optional content is explored. It does, however, contain a noticeable number of bugs, glitches, and performance issues. On my system, which runs other, better looking modern games well, there were some video stuttering issues, texture loading issues, some instances of hitching, and random weirdness like enemies not spawning upon reloading a level.
Lasting Appeal - 95 / 100
Assuming the premise that a player found Alpha Protocol interesting enough to play through once, and wanted to play through it again, this is one area where the game does well. There's theoretically a lot of replayability, exploring different playstyles, and how different choices affect how the story pans out. In reality though, it's difficult to imagine most players finding the game interesting enough for a second time through.
Pros and Cons
- Rich conversational system affects plot and character in complex ways.
- Lots of room for customization in player gear and abilities.
- Many. Nearly every other aspect of the game is disappointing to some degree.
In some ways, it's easier to be a lot tougher on Alpha Protocol than it deserves on an objective level. While there are a few aspects of the game that are genuinely bad, for the most part the game is simply disappointing, albeit in a good many areas. But the sense of disappointment is exacerbated by the awareness of how much potential there was in this game, and the feeling that with more polish it could have been really great. The branching conversational choices players can make and their associated outcomes are more than welcome in any RPG. Unfortunately, in the end, they are still just choices about how to proceed in a game that is either a mediocre shooter, or a mediocre stealth game, with forgettable characters and story that simply isn't a lot of fun to play. Players interested in this concept might get more satisfaction out of firing up Deus Ex again.