June 1st, 2010
So close, yet so far
Alpha Protocol is the Espionage RPG. Is it really though? I'm still not sure. This game was in development for quite a long time; I don't even remember exactly when it started. It's also been pushed back a number of times in its cycle, but that's not relevant anymore (to me, at least). With a glance at the plethora of media prior to its release, there's distinct vibes of Fallout or Mass Effect, but with spies. No one likes the "Like X but Y" comparison and contrast method with games, but it's really the best way to understand it. Though I would attribute the Mass Effect franchise much moreso to this game than Fallout 3 certainly.
AP is another of the vague, yet sometimes vivid "FPS RPG" genre. You are you in control of Michael Thorton, rogue agent and you choose to develop his combat skills as you see fit. You put skill points as you level into his repertoire including Stealth, weapons (Shotguns, SMGs, Pistols, Rifles), gadgets (offensive and defense), and his durability (health, endurance recharge, melee damage). This gives you a number of ways to play Thorton, choosing the stealthy route and incapacitating enemies silently by sneaking around with light armor, ambushing and incapacitating unsuspecting foes by one; the combat route of simply rushing with guns blazing in any mission, the tactical route of setting up traps, or even the brawler route of smashing your fists and feet into opponent faces. As an RPG similar to Mass Effect, your firing is based both on your ability to aim as well as the skill points you've allocated to the weapon you are firing. Hovering your crosshair over an opponent isn't always a guaranteed hit, but the game does a reasonable job of telling you your approximate chances of actually hitting in most situations. There is also the rather familiar cover system featured in Mass Effect, with a small amount of extra flexibility thrown in.
The act of shooting mostly explains itself. I chose pistols and rifles and I'd like to think they served me pretty damn well. It's worth mentioning that each weapon has a unique ability associated with it, and the respective skill for the pistol is pretty damn good; maybe even a little too good (you "freeze" time somewhat, and are allocated a set number of shots that will all instantly fire at once, allowing for some amusing chain headshots), whereas the Rifle "locks" onto targets and increases your stability and recoil control a bit (it's a rather unwieldy weapon to just spray). At first the shooting doesn't feel terribly accurate; somewhat attributed to the fact that you don't have many training points to spend to increase the "critical" effect time (with pistols and rifles at least you have to spend a few seconds either on your target or simply holding steady to hit directly where you are firing), and that there is no pinpoint accuracy. Later on I felt much more comfortable overall with Thorton's ability to hit what he was aiming at with reasonable success the vast majority of the time. Overall I'd say the shooting is respectable as long as you understand how it's going to work ahead of time, and that you're patient with it. A "guns blazing" build does not mean firing from the hip and spraying at everything in sight; you definitely still need to utilize the cover system and most important, be patient. Thorton doesn't have the pinpoint accuracy that Shepard did in Mass Effect 2, so just fire steady and you'll be fine.
While we're on the subject, let's do talk about the cover system for a moment. The system as its implemented has some strengths and flexibility, and a few unfortunate weaknesses. For contrast; in Mass Effect the cover system consisted of "in cover" and "not in cover" with the former simply being a waiting game (overheat, reload, recharge, etc.) and the latter being the method of attacking while exposing yourself to damage. This is still true in AP, though being in and out of combat with cover also occasionally offers a few extra choices. By closed doors, Thorton can open doors without revealing himself, quickly strafe/roll from one side of a doorway to another while maintaining the cover stance on both sides, shuttle himself from one piece of cover to another, or exit and assume a running position. Also there's the option of simply tumbling out into the open which I never found a use for, but did repeatedly for style. The cover system is somewhat of a mixed blessing, though. Despite these options, cover is not always 100% reliable and players can definitely be confused as they take damage from where they're hiding. You may not be given the option to move from one side of a door to another or to open a door from cover consistently, and before you've become accustomed to it, removing yourself from cover can feel a little sticky. But regardless, being aware of the potential issues and preparing yourself accordingly does a lot to alleviate potential frustration and mishap in the future.
And there's the other, very RPG staple way of shaping your very own Thorton; dialogue and story progression. The dialogue system is a definite strength of the game; with any given decision you're only given mere seconds to make a decision, and offer the person you are talking to an attitude stance rather than a specific response usually. Likewise, unlike Mass Effect where a "global reputation" system defines Shepard, who Thorton is as an agent and how people see him is done on an individual by individual basis. You are ultimately choosing your allies and enemies which can shape outcomes of the game as you situate yourself on specific sides in the scenarios you come across, and even decide the life or death of many people you come across. Even the order in which you choose to do the respective missions (based by region; Rome, Moscow, and Taipei) affects the story's progression, as contacts from previous areas offer potential assistance or aid in current and future missions. There are many missions involving combat and/or stealth, but also a number that are simply purely dialogue-based, and simply ask the player to talk to an individual as they deem fit.
The system is very well done, but still has its shortcomings that need mentioning. As a story about a special operative gone rogue, the story is littered with double agents, double-double agents, moments of finally reaching a target and thinking maybe they aren't your enemy etc. and many other predictable cliches you'd expect in a "spy flick." Overall it's still done reasonably well and believable, however. The real shortcoming is in your relationships. By game end, the player has to wonder how much anything they've said has really mattered. Your relationship with some of the more crucial contacts seem almost pointless whether they are your best friend or sworn enemy by the time the story has fully told itself, and sometimes the player can't help but feel like there really was no point to some of it. To avoid spoilers however; I feel its a good criticism but at the same time one that I'm having a hard time pinning directly against the game's story without asking the developers to design and test dozens or even hundreds of possible endings (although maybe a few more years in the oven for this game could have fleshed that out). Still overall, the dialogue and story progression feel like a breath of fresh air in the genre, and despite their weaknesses the game ultimately delivers on the promise of making dialogue and character matter.
The characters themselves are great. Maybe not all of them are the most interesting archetypes you might expect, but they're still well done. Thorton himself definitely needs some recognition on this. Hell he comes off as a better comedian than special agent to me most of the time; whether he's commenting on the various paraphernalia associated with his contacts around the safe house, choosing the "Suave" option even when not appropriate, or just churning out some juicy responses to the dozens of emails he gets (to keep it quick: the emails in this game are brilliant and the one thing that need absolutely nothing done differently), the man just made me laugh more than most other games do these days. Even Nolan North's character (who is a very nice change in this game compared to his usual roles) is fantastic and believable, accentuating a great, well rounded cast.
But if I really had to sum up Alpha Protocol in one word, the best I can think of would be...incomplete. There are bugs but not as prevalent as many would believe, some questionable technical issues, and some serious control issues. On the flipside there is a fantastic dialogue system that doesn't feel like its exploring enough, an engrossing story that doesn't feel like it answers the questions it needed to, and a serviceable combat and item system seems like it needed slightly more depth. Ambition is extremely high in this game, and despite my overall enjoyment, I can't help but feel a little empty when all is said and done. As an experiment I'd consider Alpha Protocol a success, as a long hyped AAA title I'm significantly less optimistic. The love and ideas are there, but something somewhere in either Obsidian or Sega felt the need to push the game as it stands right now. The game feels a mixture of rejuvenating and frustrating as a result; with great ideas gone neglected, a FPS not designed as best it could be, and and RPG that should be doing so much better than it is. Alpha Protocol is a game that after playing, I want to see more. But at the same time, the tumultuous development cycle of the game more than likely forbades this, steps taken back equal to steps taken forward, many of the questions the game asks will go unanswered, and many of the facets not displayed as well as they should have been. This is a game that is fantastic for what it is, but also pains me to know that it could have done so much better. The resulting sensation is a mix of satisfaction and depression, at this game I've completed, this "hybrid" or experiment.
Is Alpha Protocol worth your time? The game feels fresh and new in its execution; but too short to fully satisfy the niggle of curiosity in most consumers. If money is of no concern and you are looking to try something different, then this game is absolutely worth playing through at least once. If you're expecting an AAA title with firepower to bide you over until Mass Effect 3 and an equal amount of polish to boot, I'd suggest waiting to see it go on sale first. Know that the game has some technical issues you will have to work around, but also a fast paced, unique dialogue system. Know that for every strength there may be a weakness. But despite this, know that Alpha Protocol is different. And if that's what you really want, then know that it might be worth your undivided attention at least once. Maybe not at its current pricepoint, but maybe down the road. There's no rush.
Xabu's Verdict: 74/100
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