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Alpha Protocol is the first original IP from RPG developing house Obsidian, a spy RPG in which you play Michael Thorton, a secret agent pitted against terrorist groups and corrupt organizations. Obsidian has previously produced Neverwinter Nights 2 and Knights of the Old Republic II, but their reputation for older RPG fans stems more from the large amount of Black Isle Studios employees working there.
As an original IP, the game is both conservative and novel. It is conservative in basically being a shooter-based RPG, with similar dialogue, character systems, and cover-based shooting mechanics as BioWare's popular Mass Effect series. It is novel in its modern-day spy-themed setting, as well as in its experimenting with choice and consequence structure, which we'll come back to later.
Alpha Protocol was a widely discussed game even before its release. Not just because of the promises made, but also because of the messy production cycle, resulting in the game being delayed from an early 2009 to a May/June 2010 release. SEGA and Obsidian effectively parted ways even before Alpha Protocol was finished. Still, with the delays you would hope they'd be able to deliver a polished product. Right?
Bits 'n pieces
Alpha Protocol's graphics are to put it simply not up to snuff. Even considering this is an RPG, which usually provides some leeway in the graphics department, this game looks like it's a few years behind. Most of it isn't aggravatingly ugly, but there are some bits that'll leap out at you, including some fairly low-quality animations in the game. The fact that the game is powered by Epic's Unreal Engine 3 makes the issue much more glaring than it would have been with an in-house engine.
To make matters worse, the camera system is far from perfect. The third-person camera is awkwardly seated behind Thornton, but it can get plain wonky when perching behind cover or peeking past corners, which is a pretty big part of gameplay in a cover-based shooter. Motion blur is extensively employed in this game, perhaps as an artistic decision, but the frequency of it makes me think it is meant to cover up graphic deficiencies. It doesn't, but it is rather annoying. Thankfully, it can be turned off, though otherwise your graphic options are somewhat limited you can't turn off static on your PDA, for instance.
The soundtrack is not very memorable. It'll give some of us a chuckle by the shocking similarity the main menu theme has to the menu themes of many Flash games on Newgrounds. Other than that, the non-originally composed songs are often well picked, particularly Turn up the radio, but more on that later.
I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry.
This game... this game has more bugs than the average David Cronenberg hallucination. To say this was released in an unpolished state would be a kindness, as it is waylaid by a barrage of small glitches to huge bugs on the PC platform. It doesn't quite reach the legendary messiness of old like Fallout 2 but for many people the experience won't be that different to some of the classic unplayables.
Without seriously trying to test the game by looking for bugs, in two playthroughs I encountered getting stuck in terrain, falling through terrain, enemies glitching out of the level, boss fights bugging out so the boss doesn't fight back, missions bugging out so you can't lose them, missions bugging out so you can't finish them and understandably different storyline threads created by my choices conflicting with no pre-defined resolution.
All of this wouldn't be as big a problem if Obsidian hadn't opted for a check point save system, the game auto-saving in every new checkpoint you reach overwriting the old autosave. There's a good reason they opted for this system, as we'll discuss later, but it's a right pain in the ass when it means having to chase a boss around again because you fell through the terrain or having to start back in your safehouse when you had already made it halfway through a mission.
If you're fortunate enough to dodge the major, mission-killing bugs, you'll probably still run into one of the game's many smaller glitches. It's a walking clipping error, but other texture or rendering glitches can also show up. One of my (favorite) frequently encountered glitches was the bad functionality of the dialogue fast forward option, by which you could skip to the next text block in the conversation. Very frequently, the game would play the audio of both the part I just skipped and the next part simultaneously when using this function.
But this game is not done yet aggravating its PC players. This is not a very good port, at all. The basic control scheme is your standard control scheme and works well enough, but it handles all its different menus poorly. Sometimes the right mouse button closes screens to return to the main game, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the escape button does, sometimes it doesn't. Map interfaces where any PC user expects to be able to click on the map itself, or (continue) screens where one would expect (click anywhere) functionality don't work that way. And Alpha Protocol commits a transgression that is a pet peeve of mine: not making all the key bindings remappable for no discernible reason.
What clinches it is the mouse controls. The mouse sensitivity is...off, and because it appears to be due to some odd mouse delay, no amount of in-menu tweaking will fix it, though some tweaking guides already exist. It's not a big pain during the main gameplay, but it particularly smarts during minigames.
Now I'm not the biggest fan of minigames in general, but Alpha Protocol's are a typical example of bad design mixed with too high a frequency. The bypass minigame is basic and short enough, and the lockpicking one is also simple, if often messed up by mouse sensitivity. The learning curve for each minigame can be a bit steep, especially as the minigames are often on a short timer and will alert all the nearby guards if you mess them up.
The one that really grinds my gears is the hacking minigame, which consists of a full screen of characters flickering and changing wildly. Two codes are provided which you have to find inside that field of flickering characters, and match together. The most intuitive way to implement this on a PC would be to have us drag and drop each of them. So how does Alpha Protocol do it? By controlling the left one with the arrow/WASD keys and the right with the mouse, making the left too slow and the right too hard to maneuver precisely.
Having dealt with what is probably the worst Alpha Protocol has to offer, let's move on to some other things quite a few people won't enjoy greatly, and which sadly represents elements of the game's core gameplay.
Alpha Protocol is a cover-based shooter with stats determining the precision of your aim, and a contracting reticule showing the need to steady your aim before shooting. This should be familiar enough to anyone who has played FPS/RPGs or cover-based shooter/RPGs. Alpha Protocol doesn't get too creative in this. There are four weapon types (pistol, SMG, shotgun, automatic rifle), each of which is uniquely fitted to a particular combat style, combat range and subtlety of approach. Add in some gadgets, from simple firebombs to proximity mines, and it's a solid enough basis.
Despite that, the combat is not very good. It's not terrible either, but a combination of bad camera work, sub-par enemy AI, and poor variety in combat scenarios makes for a rather tepid combat experience. The game doesn't throw too many trash mob fights at you and the poor AI makes most of them a breeze, but considering the paucity in design here it's probably still too much time in combat, which is an odd thing to say for an action RPG. The poor variety in combat scenarios is a part of a fairly poor, oddly linear level design, which at times makes the game feel like a corridor shooter with a strange layout.Your lack of mobile range you can't jump means a foot-high fence can stop this international superspy.
If you really don't like the gunplay you can go for the martial arts skill, taking out baddies with your bare hands. But this was obviously designed as a supplementary skill to sneaking, particularly so you can beat your way out if caught close to an enemy. As a main combat skill, it won't work as you'll usually be gunned down before reaching the enemy.
Speaking of sneaking, the big alternative to combat is stealth. Much like combat, the stealth gameplay is a bit too simplified to be very satisfying. Guards will be alarmed by visual contact or loud sounds (particularly gunfire), but the game is very vague about how visible you are or how loud your movement is, whereas experienced stealth players will expect visual cues on this. Other small bits detract from the experience, for instance you don't have to hide bodies, they automatically disappear quite fast though if they are found it will alarm the guards.
Leveling up the talent unlocks activated skills such as silent running or shadow operative, the latter of which is essentially an invisibility spell, the best form of which gives you 20 seconds of invisibility in which you can freely silent-kill your opponents. This is quite a bit of fun, but it's not really stealth gameplay anymore.
For the most part, Alpha Protocol is an unfinished game when it comes to taking the combat or stealth approach. It's not often (or), it's often (either). A stealth mission can only be finished by a stealthy character, and a combat mission only by a combat character. Lack of proper skills and equipment are a major setback, they'll be very difficult or impossible to do well. When it comes to side missions, that's brilliant, since you don't have to take on all the side missions, so your choices in character design can exclude you from certain missions.
It's not so good when it comes to bosses. I'm not sure why the designers felt this game needed (boss fights) anyway, it doesn't add too much. But the annoying thing is only the very first boss has a stealth solution, all the other bosses you will have to fight, often in an open fire-fight you can't avoid because the boss is too fast or too powerful in hand-to-hand combat. In a game that otherwise encourages me building a stealth kill character, that's pretty annoying. Even ignoring that, with their limited AI the bosses tend to be of a very predictable, rinse-and-repeat variety, which is probably why the game felt the need to pump up their offensive firepower and health to make them challenging, which feels a bit cheap. As does sending in endless goons, a very old-fashioned platform-esque solution, but again showing some poor design here as in some leaving one goon alive means the next batch won't get sent in, and one goon shooting at you is no problem at a higher level. That said, the game balance really isn't very good, as the pistol chainshot skill can pretty much take care of any boss in the game.
Another big gameplay mechanic that I was not fond of was the Dialogue Stance System. Basically, you get to pick a stance (suave, aggressive or professional) at key points during the dialogue which will determine how Thorton carries on the conversation. The dialogue choice is timed so you have to make your pick quick, a possibly irksome but very consciously made design decision we'll come back to later. The only real problem I have with it, other than occasionally struggling with my mouse to get the proper option in on time, is how it's too vague. Like Mass Effect's keyword based system, I don't really know what Thorton's going to say. That can be very annoying if in his response he opts to call Steven Heck (Steve) even when I know that'll upset him, and nothing in the option itself indicates Thorton is about to do that. Playing guessing games in the middle of dialogue hurts the experience quite a bit.
Missions in general aren't very challenging if they suit your skillset, but they can be quite difficult if they don't. Stealth and non-combat solutions are openly encouraged and that's great, though it can be a bit frustrating how one simple mistake can mess you up and force you to either do the mission badly or start all over again, particularly if said mistake is due to failing one of the messy hacking minigames. There are some timed missions, but not many. Sadly, Alpha Protocol is one of those games that tries to fake-hurry you, telling you that you need to hurry even though you have all the time in the world. It won't work on experienced gamers, and I wish designers would stop trying it.
The last thing I'd like to mention under this header is the character system, which is solid but unspectacular. It's very reminiscent of Mass Effect's, but reinforced very cleverly through the game world to heavily encourage you to specialize as much as you can, by tagging and combining three skills that make sense for your playstyle. Each choice of weapon and supporting skills will net a very different gameplay experience, which means the system pretty much does its job.
A good touch there is the addition of a character history. There's a number of basic backgrounds that don't add much, but the recruit and veteran options add a few dialogue options and gameplay challenges, particularly in the opening area.
The imperfect gunplay is exacerbated by bad aim early in the game, due to lack of skills. That'll bother some people but it's kind of the nature of the genre here, and really shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone. An interesting (fix) of sorts is that putting points in gun skills does not only unlock increases in accuracy, damage and recoil control, but also special activated skills that more or less plays like bullet time, or like an aiming cheat. It's a nice enough addition but the only net result is they often make boss fights too easy.
The item system is pretty good, though the game doesn't have too many item drops. In a normal level, you'll mostly find ammo and gun mods, but you'll have to purchase most weapons and armor yourself, and they come at a steep price. That means the item progression is based less on your main items, which you'll update only once or twice, but rather on the mods you use, which can be switched out constantly, including adapting to enemy type or mission goal the pistol silencer in particularl reduces damage and is thus preferable only for stealth missions. It's a bit of an unorthodox system, but it works really well.
Call me old fashioned, but if you really wanted peace couldn't you just stop fighting?
As we move from weaker points to stronger points, it should come as no surprise that we reach the writing, always one of Obsidian's strengths. That's to say, the main plot is really typical spy dreck, international conspiracies, don't trust anyone type of stuff, with a kind of brick hammer approach to international politics only a thriller writer could have. And while I have no love for such stories, I can't deny it's what Alpha Protocol wants to do and that it does it pretty damn well.
The narrative is structured to have a single opening (and tutorial) and closing area with three areas in between, in which you can tackle the three areas in any order you prefer. Unlike games with a similar approach, in Alpha Protocol it can have a very large impact in what order you do the different areas, and choices you make will carry over from place to place. The rigidity of the different areas, which broadly always offer the same missions in the same setup, might disappoint some who were expecting miracles in the choice & consequence department, but it's a reasonable approach.
What I liked less was the way they opted to thread it together, in a mysterious dialogue between the PC and the antagonist taking place after the events discussed. It feels unnecessary, as the two often just sum up what we just saw happen, and while the foreshadowing when present is nice, the writing and delivery here is a bit stiff, if not hammy.
As mentioned, the game world works because it is supposed to breathe the atmosphere of a spy novel. If this were a (realistic) game, the suspension of disbelief on all these conspiracies would snap in an instant. Picking up this vibe is key to buy into the quirky sense of humor of a lot of the writing, or the very existence of boss-fights or way special skills work.
That doesn't mean Obsidian didn't pay attention to detail in crafting their game world. When a developer sets a game in the real world, it is too simple to think (well they got it easy then.) It's not like you can copy the real world into the game, especially not in one set (almost?) exclusively on non-US soil like this one.
I don't know each of these places as well as the next, never having been to Taipei or Saudi Arabia, but their interpretation of Rome looked accurate, while their interpretation of Moscow to me showed a great attention to detail needed to make the game world breathe. This starts at getting the look of the city right, but where it shines is when they start doing (fanservice) of sorts for Russians and those who know Russia somewhat, from the appearance of Nikolai Valuev in the form of Championchick, to little jokes like the name of Lazlo's yacht: originally named Ð¿Ð¾Ð±ÐµÐ´Ð°, meaning victory, the Ð¿ and Ð¾ fell off so it now reads Ð±ÐµÐ´Ð°, meaning trouble or misfortune.
Konstantin Brayko, with his garishly decorated villa, terrible tastes in clothes, tendency to swear oddly and obsession with 80s USA culture, to the point of the glamrock song Turn up the radio being more or less his ingame theme, is a very, very recognizable modern Russian archetype, a level of detail that supports great character writing. His dialogue is very amusing, especially if you opt to take a mocking stance towards him. The actual fight can be a bit frustrating, but the amount of research you can tell has been poured into this character makes him one of my favorite in years.
More so than the story or setting, the strength in the game lies in these characters. During the game you will meet many key NPCs. They will start out as friends and turn into enemies, or start out as enemies and turn into friends, depending on your actions. Each has his or her own personality quirks, which shows in how they respond to the player's actions and choice of words. And while most slot easily into archetypes, there's a depth of writing to the characters of this game which makes them significantly less predictable (and thus trustworthy) than your usual RPG NPCs, as would befit a spy game.
The actual dialogue can get a bit odd. There are noticeably weaker moments in the game, lapses of writing quality, particularly near the end where it kind of feels like the game is dragging its feet. But overall, it's absolutely rock-solid, hitting the right notes at the right time. As good an imitation of human interaction albeit in a spy novel tone as any, though marred by its flawed dialogue system. What it does well is stick to the right tone. Specifically, tending towards mocking people or generally being a bastard comes across as more real and believable than it does in many games, where it just feels pointless.
What makes it waver a bit more is the voice acting, which can only be called (uneven). It ranges from painfully bland (Josh Gilman as Mike Thorton, Courtenay Taylor as Scarlett Lake) to awful delivery with an assumed accent (Mary Elizabeth McGlynn as SIE), to rock-solid (Robert Clotworthy as Albatross, James Hong as Hong Shi) to stone cold brilliant (Jim Cummings as Conrad Marburg, Matthew Yang King as Konstantin Brayko). Mike Thorton in particular is a bit of a painful point since he is the PC, and nearly all his lines are delivered in a drab monotone, which ruins a lot of the good writing poured into it.
But other than Mike Thorton, whose combination of voice acting and appearance could win him a (dullest PC of the year) award, most of the character are colourful and lively. So much so in fact that a lot of them you either love or hate, like Steven Heck, Konstantin Brayko or SIE. But it's a mistake to think you have to love them all, or even love the characters the developers want you to love, it's the fact that they are colorful enough to engender an opinion at all that is a mark of strong writing.
Konstantin Brayko is a favourite of mine, as discussed above. I personally loathed SIE, not just because of her abrasive personality, but because of her ear-twisting accent. It doesn't help that the game designers try to sell her off as (in her 40s) even though her game model or face's age looks no different from the other women, who are in their mid-20s.
Speaking of the women, what would a spy game be without romance. Well, probably a better game, to be honest. The romance options don't add much, and are generally too easy to unlock to feel like an accomplishment. Add to that the fact that the least tame sex scene is the one in which the PC gets sexually assaulted, in a creepy scene I'm pretty sure they could not have got away with if the genders were reversed which makes it all the more disturbing and I can't help but feel the game would have benefited from cutting out the love interest stories. They feel tacked on, and thus tacky.
You're stone cold brilliant, you are, I swear, you really are.
So we've seen things Alpha Protocol does well, but what about the things it does better than most? There are a few things Alpha Protocol does that are either truly novel or exceptionally well executed (or a combination of both).
It starts with intel, an extension of the character writing. During Thorton's travels you gather intel on different characters and factions, by picking up files, hacking into computers or discovering tidbits in conversation. Some of these files have a fairly predictable result, such as giving a damage bonus in boss fights, or the faction intel giving some tips on what kind of enemy you're facing (heavily armored or not, using gadgets or not).
It becomes more interesting when you dig up specific facts that are less than public, which you can then use in dialogue in a variety of ways, for example to impress a character or to blackmail him or her. This is often a (dossier) option, but often you'll have to read the dossier itself carefully. For instance, early on when infiltrating an arm's dealer's base, you'll learn from his dossier that he's a no-nonsense kind of guy, who expects strict discipline from his guards. So when you have to fast-talk your way through the gate, you know trying to crack jokes with the guard is probably a bad idea. Perhaps most impressive is how proper dossier knowledge and dialogue choices can impact two of the final bossfights, in either removing them or making them much easier.
The intel system intermixes with the favor system, a scale from -10 to 10 which defines how much key NPCs like or dislike you. This plays a huge part in the game's overall progress. Even when dialogue choices or in-mission approaches don't result directly in a new path opening up or closing, the attitude of NPCs towards you can bring them to contact you to add new options, or to turn against you instead. Even before you meet someone, he may have heard of your approach to certain missions, and will make mention of it as approving or disapproving of your style, with a fitting impact to your standing.
The writing can be particularly evocative here. There is some good fun to be had carefully telling someone what they want to hear, but the (Hate) status dialogue is interesting, and at points it can open up knowledge you otherwise would not have. Balancing it so dislike isn't just a punishment was obviously important to Obsidian, and while they do not always succeed, one nice touch is that your (handler bonus) (a temporary perk giving during a mission) changes if your handler doesn't like you, but it is still a boost to your abilities.
The different characters' motivations in taking a dislike or like to your style are usually easy to understand. And because each has his own set of guidelines, it's pretty hard if not impossible to be every man's friend. Nor does the game want you to, it wants you to make your choices and stick with them.
And that's where I feel Alpha Protocol shines more than any game before it. It is a game with a lot of different consequences to a massive amount of choices, and those consequences are always logical but not always obvious. I suspect that looking at the flowchart of this game alone would give me a headache. The changes are often small: shifts in someone's liking to you, the ability to unlock some extra support in a mission, small meeting missions unlocking or disappearing. But focusing on the lack of huge, sweeping consequences would be ignoring how much all these small changes stack and impact the game. I've been reading through some short writeups of people's playthroughs, and it's fairly impressive how different each person's story is, though the differences are again more in a stack of small details than in completely different areas unlocking. Many of the choices you make will tweak the final area, making it very unlikely it'll play out exactly the same each time. Roughly speaking, one could say Alpha Protocol has a massive amount of choice and consequence, but it is not a game with a branching narrative.
What makes it unique is that there are no wrong choices. We've seen this before, for instance in the Witcher, where choosing between Templars or Squirrels was never wrong or right. Alpha Protocol does this to a much greater level, giving many more choices that are not so binary in nature. However, the problem with applying choice & consequence to this level in a mainstream game the reason BioWare always avoided doing it with linear narratives and Bethesda with a fully open, fairly consequence-free world is primarily that it's difficult to create. But another problem is that it doesn't appeal to the OCD crowd the industry at large is trying to foster. The (big thing) is achievements that encourage obsessively exploring every nook and cranny, not a game that Frith save us actually tells the player he failed at something.
Alpha Protocol faces this problem in two ways. First, it doesn't really tell you when you (missed something), if your information on a character isn't full, sometimes they'll just disappear and you won't find out you missed something important unless you read up on it online. You can see how full a dossier is, but you won't know how important the info is you're missing, even the (secret facts) rank from the plot-changing to fairly irrelevant. The game will never really push your lack of information in your face, and if you choose to execute someone rather than listen to him, that's fine too. The story is tweaked to always flow naturally, and feel like a complete narrative no matter what you miss.
A lot of decisions in game design are head-scratchers until you put it in this light. A checkpoint based saved system seems anachronistic, until you figure it encourages players to go through each area in one go, no matter what kind of mistakes they make. The timer in conversations is included not just to encourage snap decisions, but also to reinforce this concept of there being a natural flow of decisions, of none of them being wrong, of never needing to feel like you should go back and correct yourself. Similarly, the three-pronged dialogue system, is not one that has obvious right and obvious wrong choices, it's not a choice between being good or evil, or competent or incompetent, rather it's just a question of style, of pushing the right buttons on people to get what you want.
Does it work in a broad sense? Hard to tell. There's so much wrong with the game that it kind of stops one from being able to just focus on this gameplay element alone. Any public discussion on the game will focus more on its big flaws than one the big experiment. So it's hard to tell if this is a design approach worth pursuing for developers. But can it work for individual players? Hell yes. This is absolutely the core strength of the game, and gamers tired of the same old bland rote of false choices and fake consequences should enjoy the heck out of this game.
Honestly, I get the reviewers who totally rip this game to shreds. I think it's a too simple a take on the game, but I get it: this game has major flaws in core gameplay elements. That's not something you can just shrug off. It'll bother many players. For quite a few, it'll simply make the game unplayable. To exacerbate this, the opening area is somewhat poorly designed, focusing purely on the game's mediocre combat and stealth gameplay, as if encouraging players to put it down before they get to the good part.
And this isn't all stuff we can hope to be patched out eventually. Maybe somewhat like Troika's Arcanum or Bloodlines, it's not just bugs and glitches, but it's just that the combat and other core gameplay elements aren't very good, and it'll never be very good. It's not yet clear how much support we can even expect from SEGA on this game, but even fully patched it'll be a significantly flawed game.
Still, this is a game that has all the potential to become a cult classic. It's kind of a shame that it'll be hard to tell how well the experiment in game structure and flow in choice and consequence will work, simply because many will never get to that point, beyond all its flaws.
No one can pretend the flaws don't exist, but it's also a mistake to focus on them alone. I can't guarantee they won't turn you off the game completely, but I can say that even with its flaws Alpha Protocol was one of the more satisfying RPG experiences I've had in years. It doesn't play it safe with the predictable blandness that has become the industry standard, instead daring to throw more choices your way than any game in recent memory. Actually challenging the player, rather than insulting his intelligence. If this sounds like something you can identify with, I would give it a shot to try and get past the game's flaws, it's definitely worth it.