The number of video games I have ever felt like playing through more than once can be counted on the hands of a convicted homosexual in Iran (ie. someone with no hands). I just don’t have the patience or the motivation. So it is no small praise to say that I started a 2nd playthrough of Alpha Protocol pretty much as soon as I completed it.
Obsidian have taken Mass Effect, added a sprinkling of Borderlands, a dash of Heavy Rain, the inspiration of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, then made everything a bit more crappy than all of those and released Alpha Protocol: the world’s first spy espionage RPG. So I’m told by the trailers.
Alpha Protocol is a heavily story-driven 3rd person shooter. The graphics are sub-par, there are no exciting set pieces to be found, the controls are clunky in places and the action is fairly sedate, spread out by lengthy sequences of dialogue and the reading of emails and intelligence dossiers. If you don’t fancy a good read when you’re playing video games, you can skip forward to Singularity at the end of June.
What Alpha Protocol lacks in style, it makes up for in substance. The slogan of the game is that your weapon is choice, and the possibilities for changing the way the story develops over your initial 20 hour playthrough are bewildering to the point where you have to wonder how many hours of dialogue were actually recorded in total.
You are Michael Thorton, a volunteer recruit for the top secret US agency Alpha Protocol. The agency is closely tied with Halbech Corporation, a company who “creates events” around the world to get countries to take out military contracts from the US government. Halbech’s aim is to create a cold war that will reap them large contractual profits; Thorton’s fear is they will end up creating a real war. Your mission? Well, whatever you want actually. As the game progresses you’ll meet a number of key characters who come up again and again. After each line of dialogue you will have a couple of seconds to choose a style of response – suave, professional, threatening, sarcastic, contemptuous, whatever floats your boat – and these responses will affect your reputation with each character.
Reputation may cause your missions or objectives to change. It may change how characters associated with the one you were talking with perceive you in future stages of the game when they first meet you. It may change what equipment is available to you and the cost. It may change which characters you end up in a romantic entanglement with, or what characters say to each other about you. You also have a handler for each mision; if the handler likes you too much, they may make more emotionally-biased decisions which could be dangerous for you.
The really important thing is that there are no right or wrong answers. Alpha Protocol does an excellent job of showing that you can never be just the good guy or the bad guy; everything good you do has some negative consequence and vice versa. It is often just as beneficial to your progression to get someone to hate you as it is to like you, as it may cause different information to be revealed later, or make another character more likely to ally with you.
Unlike Heavy Rain, where you generally have several opportunities to re-pose the same group of questions, in Alpha Protocol there are no second chances. Once you make a dialogue choice, the game saves in the background, and you have to live with the consequences. Some people might bemoan not being able to go back and change their mind, but this really does push home to you the fact that what you say matters.
Let’s talk about the RPG aspects. The way the game evolves starts from the very beginning where you can choose one of three classes which pre-spend your ability points in various skill trees, or a blank slate allowing you to spend the points as you see fit, or as a recruit where you start with no skills and no ability points. For this latter choice, the characters will immediately treat you as a newbie rather than a respected agent, and the dialogue choices available will be different. After a few missions you can choose to specialize, which in Alpha Protocol basically means that some skill trees will have expanded options and others will become more limited, and you can handily re-distribute all your ability points so far at the same time. This is great because it lets you get a feel for the game, and what kind of character you want to play, before you have to really commit to a specialty.
The skill trees are fairly simple, with four for weapons (Pistol, Assault Rifle, Shotgun and SMG), Stealth, Sabotage, Technical Aptitude, Toughness and Martial Arts. As you might imagine each skill tree has a number of active and passive skills, and the active skills have a re-use timer. XP is gained from completing missions, unlocking intel and various other tasks. You will only be able to max out one or two skill trees in a single playthrough, and the different skills lead to completely different gameplay experiences.
During the game you’ll travel to Saudi Arabia, Moscow, Rome and Taipei with occasional stays in Greece and the US. At each location Alpha Protocol has a safehouse where you do your between-missions work. Here you can talk with your mission handler, check and reply to email (which is copious in volume, and replies work in the same way as dialogue choices so different responses can yield different results in information gathering and reputation change), customize Michael’s appearance and go shopping on the black market. The character customization is passable but basic. Mission intel has to be purchased, and the effects of these are varied: some will add additional dialogue choices to make it easier to extract information from people, others provide (mostly useless) area maps, still others reduce enemy difficulty or provide additional weapon and ammo stocks on site.
The black market also lets you upgrade and customize your weapons and armour. Each of your four weapon types can be upgraded with custom barrels, scopes, magazines and accessories. Your armour can have various stat upgrades as well as enhancements to allow you to carry more items and so on. There is never enough money in this game and always too much to buy, so make your choices carefully. This only evens up right at the end of the story; it is therefore worth exploring each area fully to try and find as much cash as possible.
No spy game would be complete without gadgets and Alpha Protocol is stuffed to the rafters with them: EMP charges, radio mimics, shock traps, remote mines, epinephrine spikes, incendiary bombs, sound generators, you name it – and of course, the expected heals and grenades. Having said that, use of gadgets is entirely optional and the reality is that most of the time you will find you don’t need or use any of them. They’re there if you want to, but a bit wasted. One thing that is annoying is that you have to go into a sub-menu during the game to choose the item you want to use, and since you’re going to be using heals and grenades most often, it is a bit irritating that they only let you assign one gadget at a time. Like everything else, the gadgets also have re-use timers.
As this is an RPG, everything is stat-based. This means that when you’re sneaking around, it is your sound dampening and area of detection stats that determine if you are spotted, not just distance from the enemy. I was a little naïve at the start and couldn’t understand why unloading a full clip at point blank range into the enemy’s head only took down a third of his health. That too, is based on stats. It’s very irritating for the first hour or so but you quickly gain enough ability points to be able to use your weapons more effectively. Head shots do more damage than body shots, but it is ultimately still stat-based.
Dotted around the game you will find cameras which will trigger an alarm if you fall within their visibility cone, computers that can be hacked for additional intel or syphoning funds, and safes and locked doors that can be picked. There are skills to help you with all of these, which revolve around three minigames. Disabling an alarm requires you to trace some numbers on a circuit board and attach them to the correct pins at the bottom. Hacking a computer requires you to find two letter sequences in a jumble of moving characters. Lock picking is the most well-executed and trickiest minigame as you have to finesse the rods into the right place using the pressure-sensitive triggers on the controller, then lock them in place. As the game goes on the minigames give you gradually less time and have more pins and rods to fix; passive skills make the games less challenging, give you more time, or if you have the EMP skill you can throw an EMP grenade at the offending piece of technology to bypass it altogether. It is truly impressive how you can feel the tension as you are trying to crack something in 20 seconds while people are shooting at you, knowing that if you fail you’ll set off another alarm. You really have to be calm and stay focused here, which adds nicely to the atmosphere.
The story in the game is full of twists and turns, nobody is ever quite who they seem. You always get the choice of whether to spare or execute each suspected terrorist or main character. You may end up assassinating everyone, bringing down Alpha Protocol and Halbech, or you could save some suspected terrorists, find out they’re innocent and change sides. Or you might save some suspected terrorists, find out they were guilty and get your ass kicked by the agency as they go on to assassinate someone important. You may end up dating your mission handler, or you may wind up killing her, or she may just wind up thinking you’re a chauvinistic pig. The way you play is up to you.
This freedom also extends into the action portions of the game. If you want to play stealth you can; if you want to run-and-gun you can. Personally, I don’t do subtle, and running and gunning worked fine for me.
There are some pretty big issues with the action, though. The stealth mechanics are not the usual ones where you use the environment to your advantage. It is simply a case of levelling up your stealth skills, crouching down, sneaking up behind the enemy and doing a one-touch takedown. If you approach the game as a Metal Gear Solid-type stealth game, expect to be disappointed as from that perspective the stealth mechanics in Alpha Protocol are completely broken.
Enemy AI is random and stupid. Sometimes they will be close to gunning you down then go off and climb up a ladder. Other times they will just stand there while you annihilate them, other times still they will use cover effectively and be tricky to get at other than at short range.
There are several control issues as well. When fighting up close, the camera is too close to your back to see what you’re doing properly. You can’t vault over cover and auto-running between two cover points generally doesn’t work. You can’t fire while you’re hanging or climbing a ladder, and some gadget and skill-related operations don’t work from behind cover. Hand-to-hand combat seems far more powerful than using guns which makes you inclined to just run up to everyone and punch their lights out. You level up faster than your opponents so the game becomes progressively easier and the last couple of bosses are really quite trivial, all you have to do is stand at a sufficient distance and shoot repeatedly. Bringing up the map is annoying because you have to press select, wait a few seconds, then press two more buttons. The maps are somewhat useless because the objective markers don’t show you what physical level (1st floor, 2nd floor etc.) they are on. This is also true of the arrow on the main HUD which only gives a 2D indication of where you need to go next. In practice, this is only a problem on a few of the later missions.
The most annoying control problem is that sprint is mapped to X. There is a very good reason why sprint is usually assigned to L3 in shooters, Obsidian: so you can run and turn at the same time. In Alpha Protocol, you can’t do that unless you happen to have been born with three hands.
For those of you who don’t like needless death, you will be glad to hear that hand-to-hand combat counts as subduing rather than a kill. You can also move the camera to the left or right shoulder of your character, which is a nice touch.
The environments are passable but fairly bland, the textures are low resolution and the frame rate suffers inexcusably whenever a large explosion from a grenade goes off, or there are more than a few baddies on screen at once. The sound is fine but otherwise unremarkable; worthy of note however is the voice acting which is superb with a good script and great execution. It manages to never come across as sounding too cheesy, and that is of course vital for a game which is fundamentally propelled by its dialogue. Especially I would note that by the end of the game there was one character in particular that I just loved to hate, he just oozes arrogance and bad attitude, and it’s always a good sign when a story in a video game can elicit an emotional response from the player.
Two words for the wise. I discovered to my expense after levelling up my pistol and shotgun that a few encounters really need you to have a long-range weapon like the assault rifle. Trying to kill a distant boss with a shotgun is almost impossible. Secondly, on one of the very last levels you are required to pick a 5-node lock in 8 seconds. This is extremely difficult and I wasted an hour going back to re-level up so I could spend my ability points on Sabotage instead to get round this. So there are a couple of bad design choices there which the player should be warned about.
Also important is that you don’t skip the training missions at the start. You can elect to ignore them, but then you will have no further opportunity to find out what the gadgets are for, or for example, that holding down the fire button lets you set the arc of the throw. I learned that just before I completed the game. Whoops.
Playing on the easiest difficulty level is not very challenging, you can take an inordinate amount of fire, walk up to most of the enemies and just beat them up. The normal difficulty level is just that – you will have slightly more need to use your gadgets and the occasional stealth kill, and on the hardest difficulty level, every hit counts. I think therefore, that there is something here for everyone, because easy lets you ignore most of the trickier gameplay mechanics, whereas hard requires you to put serious thought into what you’re doing. However on all there difficulty levels, expect to die a lot at the start while you acquire your basic combat skills.
A final complaint: this is a game that is crying out to be replayed several times, both to see different evolutions of the story, but also so you can try the different classes. So why oh why oh why, does it not let you create separate character profiles or save points? The game always maintains two saves automatically: your last safehouse, and your last checkpoint in the current mission. That can’t be changed, all you can do is go back to one of those two points. If you start a new game, your old save is deleted – so there’s no way to switch between classes or between different story threads you’ve created. That is, to me, absolutely stupid.
- Story-driven core works superbly and is engaging
- Tons of possibilities for different outcomes, lots of replayability
- Class and ability system is generally well-designed and gives vastly different gameplay
- Weapon and armour customization is fun and interesting
- A considerable number of flaws with the controls
- Dubious enemy AI and stealth mechanics
- Drab-to-average environments, framerate and texture issues
- No multiple character profiles
You might think based on the objective outline above that Alpha Protocol is probably worth a 6 or 7, and can be safely skipped over. I would ask you to think a little deeper about whether average graphics and niggles with the cover system are deal-breakers. The two people I asked for their impressions during my time reviewing Alpha Protocol both dismissed it as boring because it had too much dialogue and reading material, and not enough action. Normally I hate those kinds of games so I felt their pain, but for some reason Alpha Protocol grabbed me and kept me engaged. For me, the versatility of the story, the way the flow of the game can be altered and the fact it kept me interested enough to finish it and then play it again far outweighed any issues I had with the controls.
Alpha Protocol has been delayed for 9 months before finally getting its release, and you do have to wonder why they didn’t spend the time fixing some of this stuff – or how bad it was 9 months ago – but seriously, if you like espionage and the idea of Heavy Rain-style dialogue being applied to a shooter with RPG-like levelling, don’t worry about the downsides: you’ll eat this game right up. As an adventure in storytelling, it’s totally solid.