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RPG Codex Review: Alpha Protocol

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RPG Codex Review: Alpha Protocol

Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Sat 12 January 2013, 20:53:32

Tags: Alpha Protocol; Obsidian Entertainment

[Written by TNO]

In this review, our user TNO looks back at Obsidian's espionage RPG to see where it succeeds -- and why it fails.

Alpha Protocol should have been awesome. Its story navigates the spy thriller tropes with good craft and lilting humour, and the same applies to its cast of characters. It stands at the very apex of computer games in terms of giving consequences to your choices. In fact, almost everything about the game deserves praise. Everything, alas, except for the actual gameplay itself.

The good things first.

Story

Alpha Protocol's plot follows the standard tropes of the spy thriller. You are Mike Thorton, a new recruit into the titular secret agency to perform black, deniable operations for the US government. Your life is plunged into chaos when your investigation of a terrorist attack on an airliner reveals other forces at play, leading to a globe-trotting adventure to uncover the conspiracy amid a perfect storm of factional interests, double agents, and deceit.

So far, so generic (and you can spot several of the 'plot twists' basically as soon as the game starts). But although the smorgasbord of factions isn't much to write home about, the plot trundles along neatly enough, and several of the reveals manage to hit the sweet spot between being hard to predict in advance and yet making sense in retrospect in light of what the game has been telling you.

What lifts the vanilla story up is the tone. Alpha Protocol takes a tongue-in-cheek slant on its own plot, and the writers toss in plenty of one-liners into the snappy dialogue to keep you smirking throughout:

News report: However, one of our sources said, "Dude had enough coke in him to make a baby whale say 'Jesus'"​

Thorton: Look old man, you can talk big all you want, but at the end of the day? You're a corporate drone collecting a paycheck. You answer to a cardboard cutout half your age with the fashion sense of a screaming child. He spends thousands on his fucking hair.​

Madison: When is it going to be safe for me to leave here? I don't appreciate being kidnapped, and I don't appreciate not being able to go home.

Thorton: Kidnapped? Who the hell would want to kidnap you, you're a pain in the ass!

Madison: Me? Look at you. Your jaw must hurt from all the macho tough-guy talk. Ever heard of anger management?

Thorton: No, because I killed all my therapists.​

This carries through into the characterization: fairly strait-laced sidekicks, crime lords and spymasters share the stage with femme fatales, East German bimbos with M60s and a dominatrix complex, psychopathic conspiracy theorists, mute teenage girls who dual wield revolvers, profanity spewing coke fiends obsessed with the 80s, and so on. It's a credit to the writing that it manages to play with this kaleidoscopic cast without breaking suspension of disbelief in the main thrust of the narrative. (Credit is also due to the voice cast, who give a solid ensemble performance).

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SIE, the aforementioned East German bimbo with an M60.

Another neat wrinkle is the dossier/intelligence system. During the course of the game you can gather information on the main organizations and characters. And while Alpha Protocol doesn't really follow through on its promise of being able to use this intelligence often (it does occasionally give some fairly pedestrian hints on how to deal with certain characters, and it can be used in conversation a couple of times, but that's pretty much it), it is nice to dig up the dirt on your rivals for its own sake.

A further pleasant surprise is the romances. Women who seem to have their own agency outside of orbiting the main character? A system where I gain favour with them by talking about things that aren't their assorted childhood traumas/daddy issues/wangst? Dialogues that have characters talk about sex in a manner that suggests they've already passed puberty? A game that doesn't subject me to looking at character models engaged in poorly animated smooching/snuggling/dry-humping in their underwear? Yes! Take me now!

It isn't quite perfect, though. The main defect is lack of development: although their relationship towards you can vary markedly, the characters themselves don't change throughout the story - partly a function of the fact that you just don't get that much face time with them, and partly just an oversight, in that none of the characters get a story arc of their own. Another problem is the dialogue system where different characters respond better or worse to different sorts of approaches, which, although generally engaging, remains a little too vague in what your character is actually going to say: will the 'aggressive' response lead to an insult or a punch? Is my 'suave' rejoinder going to be gentle sarcasm or a sexual innuendo? Etc. All in all, though, jolly good stuff.

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Your emails let you get money, blackmail people, and send off flirty messages to your budding conquests. It's just like your ordinary desk job.

Choices & consequences

Alpha Protocol well and truly lives up to its tagline of 'choice is your weapon'. The game practically shows off with the degree to which it tracks what your character has done, who he has talked to, and in one instance even what sort of armour he's wearing. The feedback isn't just cosmetic flavour text, either: you can befriend, alienate or kill almost any character you meet in Alpha Protocol, and their absence or animosity is often felt significantly later in the game. Your behaviour can gain (or lose) you allies over the course of the game, influence your access to equipment, who you're fighting and who your handler is. In one case you can make an NPC hate you so much that you can manipulate said NPC into doing what you want.

Even better is how these choices (barring a few too many 'Arbitrary dilemma! Would you rather have A or B?' instances) arise organically from the story, and the consequences feed nicely back into it, too. The main 'hub' missions (Rome, Moscow and Taipei) can each end in several different ways. For example, you can conclude the Moscow mission with a gentleman's agreement between you and the head honcho crime boss, him being killed by the hand of his protégé who you can choose to save, killing both of them, killing neither, and probably other options I have forgotten. There are two main endings, but with dozens of different variations depending on who is around to help or hinder you during the endgame.

All in all, Alpha Protocol is probably unsurpassed in the depth and interactivity it offers with regard to choices and consequences. If only other games were willing to follow its fantastic example.

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The dialogue system (and one of the game's better characters). Generally, the option on the right is the professional "Jason Bourne" approach, the left option the suave "James Bond" approach, and the top one the aggressive "Jack Bauer" approach. Different characters will end up liking you more or less depending on the options you pick.

Gameplay

So, Alpha Protocol has a good plot, lots of clever characterization, and unsurpassed C&C. That means it should be great, right?

Well, too bad the gameplay sucks.

There are missions that are entirely performed through dialogue choices and the occasional 'set pieces' (e.g., sneaking into a mansion with a sniper rifle looking for a particular target), but most of Alpha Protocol consists of infiltration missions - getting in, getting the macguffin/confronting the boss, and getting out. Generally your choices are either sneaking or shooting (the design implies a third, 'tech' path, but tech really just trades worse sneaking or shooting for some extra toys). So far, so similar.

It was great at first. I decided to go for the archetypal secret agent with stealth and pistols. My first proper mission was catching an arms smuggler in his compound. I bluffed my way inside, and my first encounter had four guards talking to each other, then fanning out into a patrol. They frequently crossed paths, and if I tried to knock them out one by one, the others noticed the body and became alerted. As a consequence, I had to carefully thread my way through their patrol patterns to evade them. Sneaking through the rest of the plazas with dozens of troops without being detected was similarly satisfying, and the magic power that let me see which way the mooks were facing proved invaluable.

However, it all goes downhill from there. You get invisibility powers (Shadow Operative) which make you invisible, and you can knock out bad guys in front of their comrades without decloaking. Stacking the right skills and winning the right perks can keep you undetectable for nearly a minute (another skill, Evasion, triggers a short invisibility period upon being spotted, which at higher levels is long enough to have the time to walk up to the enemy who spotted you and punch him in the face). The optimal strategy soon became popping invisibility, walking up in front of a bad guy (the 'takedown animation' is longer if you approach enemies from the back, costing valuable time) and knocking him out in plain view. When that happens, the nearby enemies' AI obligingly alerts them and has them run to the spot where you just knocked their buddy out, which only serves to allow you to sucker punch them too. From the mid game onwards, I was knocking out about half a dozen enemies at a pop with literally no risk whatsoever. It looked like this.

Even worse is that the map design seems to imply this kind of stupid overpoweredness - many of the later maps do not even have a stealth route that wouldn't rely on the invisibility spell. This makes 'ghosting' a map an exercise in popping invisibility, walking past the bad guys, and finding a spot to cower in for the one minute recharge time. Not that you'd want to ghost, though, as there is no gameplay disadvantage to hitting the 'silent takedown' button on every mook you see. And while Alpha Protocol follows Deus Ex in having inorganic security like cameras and turrets on which your invisibility spell doesn't work, you can get another kind of invisibility for these too, not to mention that the turrets are not bulletproof and you can destroy them in front of the fleshy guards without them even reacting).

The maps themselves are small and depressingly linear, with the objective waypoints being unnecessary when there is usually exactly one route to take. A large part of the fun in stealth games is exploration - recall the massive maps of Thief or Deus Ex's infiltration missions. Alpha Protocol mates stealth mechanics with a corridor shooter, which results in an awful frankenstein-like hybrid-gameplay child. Stealth-wise Alpha Protocol starts off being a second-rate (but serviceable) Splinter Cell knock-off and later goes to become a sixth-rate Splinter Cell knock-off (cast invisibility spell, walk up to a baddie, hit the 'silent takedown button', repeat until the spell runs out, wait for it to recharge).

However bad it may be, though, the stealth gameplay is the best Alpha Protocol has to offer.

The combat is hobbled by atrocious AI, whose behaviour before spotting you amounts to milling around aimlessly or standing still (even when they are a hit squad summoned to kill you), and their alert level cools down all too rapidly. In combat, they pop out a bit, move pointlessly from cover to cover, and occasionally rush towards you; harder difficulties have them toss grenades semi-effectively. Combine this with the clunky weapon handling, and combat will be reduced to you spraying rounds ineffectively while waiting for your weapon's magic power to recharge. Perhaps the worst offender is pistols (probably the most commonly picked and 'secret agent-esque' weapon) - they only do significant damage by either getting headshot criticals (which entails not firing for several seconds at close range to charge up your FMJ hadouken) or activating your magic power, Chainshot, which lets you unerringly plant up to six bullets in super slo-mo mode. I think the designers' intent was to allow cool stuff like rescuing a hostage by headshotting all her captors simultaneously - in reality, though, its main value is to do insane burst damage to enemy bosses. Pistol is by far the most effective weapon skill, with Shotguns and SMGs too situational and Assault Rifles handling too poorly. In the end, though, all guns are more or less clunky in Alpha Protocol's uninspiring cover shooting combat.

The bosses are almost always obligatory combat encounters, even in situations where it should be possible and more sensible to run away instead, and are almost always exercises in gimmicky game mechanics and frustration. It's not just that the bosses have massive health and shield pools (with its invisibility spells and SMGs having the 'endless bullets for n seconds' power, Alpha Protocol is not gunning after hyper-realism), but that the bosses cheat. One example is a boss who, once you've knocked off enough of his health bar, turns into a coke-induced knife-charging kamikaze who will almost certainly kill you in melee. And even though Alpha Protocol has a variety of ways of immobilizing or incapacitating opponents (the shotgun power guarantees a knockdown, overcharged grenades auto stun, etc.), said boss is immune to these tricks for no apparent reason. What he isn't immune to (again, for no apparent reason) is your invisibility spell, and moreover, when he is at a distance from you he reverts from his lethal knife wielding mode to his pretty innocuous shooting mode. So I activated stealth, hid behind a wall where he couldn't see me, waited for my stealth to recharge and hit him with a 'pop out of cover, chain shot, pop into cover, pop invisibility' combo, and went on to repeat this two minute cycle of zero-risk cooldown (as noted, you can't 'lose' invisibility, and like the mooks, the bosses just stand still where they are like lemons) about six times to chip away his health. For another example, there's a boss near the end game (consisting primarily of irritating boss fights) who spams you mercilessly with half a dozen grenades thrown across the map. I eventually beat him with the stealth+chainshot combo - and I've been told you can find certain 'blind spots' on the map where you can shoot him with impunity and he doesn't respond.

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Camping behind a pillar whilst the boss looks on bemusedly as my powers cooldown. The mainstay of Alpha Protocol's boss battles.

And now, having cleared the borgia of the boss battles, we plumb to the very cocytus of Alpha Protocol's gameplay. Minigames. There are three of them: hacking, lock picking, and electronic bypass. Out of these, lock picking is at least tolerable. The other two are exercises in irritation: hacking is so poorly explained I had to look it up online (there are many "how the hell does hacking work" threads), and for no good reason the difficulty of both skyrockets late-middle game, so that it is barely possible due to the piss-poorly optimized controls to move the cursor to the right points before the time runs out, leave alone actually figure out the order they should be clicked in. Most of the time you can ignore them or spend consumables to bypass them, an option I strongly recommend. However, one of my enduring memories of Alpha Protocol was spending half an hour repeatedly attempting to bypass a hard electronic lock, then exasperatedly looking online for a cheat or trainer that could do it for me for another half hour, and finally bashing my head against the minigame for another 20 minutes until I finally fluked it. (As an aside, that was a part of a 'chase' scene - happily, via the powers of scripting, you can waste 20 minutes in-game and you'll still catch your target just in time).

For the sake of completeness, we shouldn't let Alpha Protocol's technical issues slide. The game crashes fairly frequently. There are all sorts of graphical glitches (e.g. enemy weapons don't have ammo clips, all circular objects are rendered as octagons, etc.). The control scheme is lifted straight from consoles without even an attempt at optimizing it for mouse and keyboard, requiring you to navigate through 3-deep menu schemes for functions that should be accessible via a hotkey.

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Look, ma! No magazine!

Conclusion

Games can be crippled by a single bad gameplay element. Every element of Alpha Protocol's gameplay - from stealth, to shooting, to bosses, to minigames - ranges from bad to awful. Incredibly rarely does it all come together to something interesting: the game forcing my stealthy character to crack out the big guns to clear the bad guys from the ticking bomb in Italy is the only thing that springs to mind. The rest of the time it varies from easy tedium to dashes of irritation.

I wanted to love Alpha Protocol - it does a lot of things right, and there is much in it that other games should strive to imitate. These elements would be more than good enough to carry a merely mediocre gameplay experience: such was the case of Planescape and Arcanum or, for example, Deus Ex, which had below average stealth and shooting but gained a lot in the way it mixed these elements. Sadly, Alpha Protocol's gameplay isn't just mediocre - it is plain monstrous. It's one of the few games I found both boring (the 'stealth bits') and painful (the bosses, minigames and shooting) to play.

In the end, Alpha Protocol is an interesting experiment, but ultimately a failure. For gamers so addicted to climbing the heights of the (let's face it, pretty low lying) field of computer game storytelling that they're willing to go through the purgatory of playing this game, it's worth a go. Otherwise, steer clear.

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