Alpha Protocol Review
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Reviewed on PlayStation 3
When the United States government needs dirty work done, they turn to Alpha Protocol, an agency with little oversight and plenty of resources. When gamers want to enter the world of international espionage, they can play Alpha Protocol and enter a world of covert agents where choices must be made in the blink of an eye and can mean life or death.
I started Alpha Protocol with a stellar impression of the game. Beginning with the nail-biting (if hardly innovative) escape from a medical detention facility, I snuck up on one guard and placed him in a sleeper hold, tranquilized a few more and snuck into an interrogation room to begin my career in plausibly deniable espionage. With a slew of character choices, making me feel like I could take any approach I wanted when saving the world, I chose to begin my work for Alpha Protocol as a Tech Specialist, able to rapidly hack computer data, pick locks and avail myself of plentiful gadgets.
My alternatives were to take on life as a soldier, focusing on direct confrontation and firepower, or as a field agent, relying on stealth and non-lethal takedowns. I could even wing it as a freelancer and take on the world with a customized hybrid approach. I started to get that feeling of joy and freedom from a game that lets me do what I want. I actually thought to myself, "Alpha Protocol will let me customize everything but my appearance," until I got my first opportunity to change my look.
After a few hours of play, the warm glow was gone, but I was still enjoying Alpha Protocol. Admittedly, there's plenty about Alpha Protocol to loath. As I got past the introductory mission, and started wandering the world to puzzle out the role of an American defense contractor in global affairs, I was enjoying myself as I gadgeteered my way to new intel, but I also had to overlook a string of technical issues. Textures sometimes popped in slowly, as my world of spycraft slowly resolved its higher-resolution details, and the world is littered with loading pauses long enough to be confused with a frozen console. For that matter, several times the console did freeze.
For all the technical issues, I was really enjoying myself. I was bouncing between Rome, Moscow and Taipei, infiltrating intelligence facilities, blowing up munitions shipments and building my network of espionage contacts. My decisions and interactions felt meaningful. Alpha Protocol frequently forced me to make split-second dialog decisions and ethical decisions that impacted my play. Should I save the life of a personal friend, or disarm bombs that could kill hundreds? These decisions not only changed the story, but influenced each mission. Sometimes it was a subtle difference such as a perk (a bonus to a character's various statistics), or new hardware, or more (or fewer) guards, allies and distractions. Despite the fact that every player will see the same maps, not every player will experience the same mission.
As I reached the end of the story arc in each city (as well as my final mission) Alpha Protocol finally pissed me off. Not enough to sour me on the game, but enough to lower its score far more than my initial impression based on the merely technical glitches. Each city ends with a boss battle that is patently ridiculous, given the game's play style. To my mind, one should be able to play through Alpha Protocol focusing on stealth, gadgets or weapons. That's the impression every aspect of the game gives. Then, towards the end (after an opportunity to respecialize), I faced a series of challenges that could only be met with brute force – something my character was wholly unprepared for.
These boss battles are irritating, out of keeping with the rest of the game, and require quite a few tries to complete if you haven't specialized in combat. Most irritating of all, I nearly couldn't complete the game. One final battle (against a former Alpha Protocol ally) was impossible without long-range weapon skills. The developers clearly anticipated the problem, so offered a sniper rifle that allowed for an easy victory... locked behind the toughest lock in the game to pick. With a simple EMP grenade, I could have bypassed the lock, but I'd never needed one, so I hadn't equipped one. Trying to pick that lock while under fire and with grenades lobbed at me took dozens of tries. Had the game not allowed me to walk into a nearly unconquerable situation, I might have forgiven the boss battles. Too many repetitions gently squeezing the controller triggers to complete the pick-locking mini-game left me annoyed, all the way through one of the game's many endings.
For all my complaints, I strongly feel that Alpha Protocol has a lot to offer to role-playing gamers. Alpha Protocol is not, however, a shooter or an action game. As important as action sequences seem, everything from shots fired to stealth to picking locks is strongly influenced by character statistics and behind-the-scenes calculations. An action gamer with a stealthy build could easily pick up an assault rifle, hang the reticle on a nearby foe, and miss repeatedly, doing little to no damage. Aiming at the head is better than aiming at the torso, but it's not enough to ensure a hit. That's frustrating. Unless you realize it's the points spent on your underlying skill rather than your lightning-fast reflexes that win the day.
Had the game allowed players to pause and aim shots, triggering role-playing game-style attacks (such as in Fallout 3, Alpha Protocol would have had a shot at winning over all gamers. Similarly, because you only have so many character advancement points to spend on skills, you won't be able to do everything. This is easy for pencil-and-paper RPG fans to accept, and commonplace in massively multiplayer online games, but hard for action gamers to accept. Someone who focuses advancement on stealthy spy skills won't be able to shoot well, and a shotgun toting engineer will have a difficult time sneaking. The different classes and approaches are just one reason to replay this game, but an appreciation for stat-based role-playing event resolution is part of the price of entry.
I appreciate how rich the world of Alpha Protocol is. Unlike other games, where dossiers are just background and flavor, they have a real impact on Alpha Protocol. Doing research, talking to contacts, reading e-mails and purchasing intel on the black market all can lead to profiling allies and enemies. This helps teach the proclivities of opposing factions and the quirks and battle plans of enemy agents. From intel, I learned that some skilled martial artists from the Triads would charge at me to engage in melee, while CIA operatives would hang back and wait for enemies to reload. If you don't read the intel, the Triad behavior might seem like faulty AI, but after reading the intel, it's productive to set traps and hang back.
The game does have its share of AI problems. A few times I saw enemies running endlessly into a fountain or ladder, but I felt like the different factions had characteristically different approaches to combat. Even if they were pleasantly stupid enough to fall for my stealthy tricks.
Finally, Alpha Protocol actually has an engaging story that left me wanting to explore multiple branching paths. The tale itself is a somewhat hackneyed fable of unchecked corporate power. The wonder is that the game ties in so many variations on plot twists and different reactions from various characters and still works. Missions can be approached in very different orders. Contacts can love or hate you. Your choice of allies affects cut-scenes, resolutions and even mission details. It's the real fun of the game, especially if you decide to go past a single play through.
The story always uses the same set pieces. The developer didn't create multiple, parallel missions. Yet those missions can mean remarkably different things, and the characters will have entirely different motivations. Trusted ally or traitor, most characters have more depth than typical cardboard-cut-out game characters. Certain combinations of missions will result in anomalous dialog, but these glitches are surprisingly rare.
If you've read this far, I'm certain you know exactly whether you'll love or hate Alpha Protocol. Personally, I found a lot to love, and was able to get past most of what I hated. So I can easily recommend Alpha Protocol as a game that reaches well beyond what most games even attempt. Yes, the game's reach far outstripped its technical grasp, but isn't that what games should be striving for?