Alpha Protocol Review

Article Index

Eschalon: Book II

Developer:Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date:2010-06-01
  • Action,Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
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 победа, meaning victory, the п and о fell off so it now reads беда, 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.