While its obvious Obsidian poured their hearts and souls into Alpha Protocol, it would have benefited from more polish than passion
- RPG levelling and story-shaping conversations add depth to the standard secret agent action; varied gameplay mechanics and a not-too-serious spy story generally outshine the game's flaws
- Seasoned shooter fans may not be able to overlook the clunky cover system, erratic AI, and general lack of polish; graphics and animations look dated
Alpha Protocol is far from perfect, but some good ideas, complemented by varied action, stealth, and RPG gameplay, make it a must-play for those still mourning the loss of television's 24.
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After several years of development and a seven month delay, Obsidian Entertainment's ambitious spy-themed action/role-playing game, Alpha Protocol, is finally infiltrating consoles. The studio behind Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and the upcoming Fallout: New Vegas have crafted this "Espionage RPG" with the goal of engaging gamers' minds as well as their trigger fingers. While the end result isn't nearly as successful as the similarly genre-mixing Mass Effect 2, those who can look past its many flaws will discover a satisfying better-than-the-sum-of-its-parts experience.
The set-up revolves around a Bond/Bourne/Bauer mash-up character named Michael Thorton, who is recruited by the titular shadow organization to uncover the conspiracy behind a missile attack on a passenger jet. Players start their skill-building right away by choosing between Soldier, Field Agent, Tech Specialist, Freelancer, or Recruit disciplines (you're prompted to define your profession even further a few hours into the game.) From here you're able to specialize in nine specific areas by distributing experience points (AP) to them as you level-up. The game gives you lots of freedom in this regard, and shaping your agent throughout the adventure is addictive and rewarding. I poured most of my points into the shotgun, martial arts, and sabotage specializations to match my favored play styles. This allowed me to easily by-pass the repetitive hacking mini-games, get the most out of my 12 gauge hand cannon, and break bones like peanut brittle.
While this let me spend much of my time in the field giving the finger to encrypted computers, and filling baddies full of buckshot before kicking them in the throat, I also could have focused on the other skills -- pistols, assault rifles, submachine guns, stealth, technical aptitude, toughness -- for a totally different terrorist-thwarting play-through. The RPG options don't stop there; you can also equip specialized skills, such as temporary invulnerability or silent footsteps, utilize a Sam Fisher-size suitcase of gadgets, and tweak your firearms with a variety of scopes, barrels, magazines, and stocks. Everything can be upgraded and everything affects your skills. You can also play most missions in any order you like.
Alpha Protocol's defining RPG feature, though, is its story-steering conversations. From shady informants to underground arms dealers, Thorton talks to lots of folks, and how you act during these exchanges can dramatically change the story's outcome as well as its mid-game paths. Players can choose three types of responses -- suave, aggressive, professional -- and occasionally a more dramatic action like "execute" or "spare". You only have a short amount of time to reply, and what you say may increase or decrease your favor with the NPC your chatting up. And, unless you reload a previous save point, there's no taking back your response.
The system works well enough, but to really appreciate its far-reaching goals you'd need to play through the game multiple times. I only completed the campaign once, but I did cheat time a bit to experiment with the mechanic. In one instance, I spared the life of a dual-pistol packing psycho who came at me like a freight train; turns out she was the bodyguard of a very powerful ally who eventually helped me because I didn't whack his hench-woman. When I tried a second time, I let my itchy trigger finger do the talking, and the baddy's boss, needless to say, chose not to befriend me. While these outcomes were decided by gunfire, I experienced a similar two-sided encounter when I used my words rather than my bullets. My cocky response to a Gatling gun-toting mercenary quickly escalated to a bullet-whizzing boss battle; played a second time with a more silver-tongued response, I gained a friend rather than a metal slug in the brain pan.
While I dug this aspect, it also yielded my most significant frustration; the majority of people will only play through the game once, so the developers may have put all their resources into an admirable, but somewhat misguided goal. But the real kicker is that those resources could have been applied to Alpha Protocol's other areas that desperately needed additional attention. The game's more action-y moments are riddled with bugs and flaws that don't ruin the experience, but certainly pull you from it. The cover system is clunky, often leaving you unprotected or trying to hide behind something that's not recognized as a cover spot; A.I. behaviors range from dumb-as-dirt to spot-on -- oh, and sometimes they float in the air, too; jarring loads halt the action; items clip through each other often; and Thorton's walking-crouch animation makes him look more like a wounded animal than a highly-trained licensed killer.
Coming off a year that gave us visual third-person stunners such as Uncharted 2 and Assassin's Creed 2 doesn't help Alpha Protocol either. Its dated graphics, relying on bland color combinations like gray and white to capture Moscow's dreary winter, and brown and tan to remind us that the Middle East is really sandy, lack the level of detail we've come to expect. On the flip side, the characters are quite colorful; I totally expected Alpha Protocol's story to be a super-serious Tom Clancy-wannabe, but a crazy-ass cast, including that aforementioned bodyguard who's actually a mute teen girl with a Hot Topic wardrobe, add some unexpected style. There's also a shapely she-mercenary, whose guns are only outsized by her breasts, that easily could have been pulled from the Metal Gear Solid book of bizarre bosses. Even Thorton is at his best when you play him as a flirtatious Bond-like cad. It may come up short on production values, but Alpha Protocol is surprisingly brimming with personality.
While its obvious Obsidian poured their hearts and souls into the game, especially its RPG elements, it would have benefited from more polish than passion. There's plenty of reason to recommend Alpha Protocol, but for many, its easy-target shortcomings will no doubt cast a dark shadow over its better ideas. Despite its flaws, I was won over by its varied gameplay, conspiracy-heavy, character-driven story, and engaging mix of action, stealth, and role-playing elements. It doesn't match Mass Effect 2's Game of the Year-like quality, but it does make me want to assassinate, neck-snap, interrogate, hack, zip-line, and globe-trot my way to its other possible endings.
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