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.
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