The First Protocol
Touting itself as the first Espionage RPG, Alpha Protocol is up against stiff competition from the big-boys in the field of RPGS, Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age have carved themselves a chunk of RPG fandom right from the heart of the genre. Alpha Protocol is a decent effort from Obsidian but it lacks in polish and has several noticeable bugs that prevent it from being truly great.
This segment of the review is classified, all we can tell you is that you are Agent Michael Thorton and you have a mission to do. Dropped into the hot-zone and left to fend for yourself in the Middle East, a vast conspiracy unfolds that would make Tom Clancy proud.
Alpha Protocol shares many similarities with Mass Effect and works on a hub-based mission structure, with new missions opening up based on dialogue choices and reputation with certain NPC (non-player characters) contacts in the game. There's a linear feel about the actual missions themselves, but they have numerous routes that you can take to accomplish your objectives. Michael has access to several safehouses, these are where you can upgrade and modify weapons, buy new equipment, read and respond to emails as well as interact with certain NPC's later on in the game.
These safehouses are also where you'll get various mission briefs and debriefs from the handlers, and this brings us neatly onto the best feature of Alpha Protocol for those who love RPG's like this. The dialogue stance system, with its in-built timer is one of the better implementations of such a system that we've seen for a while. Not only do you have a clear indication of the kind of response that you give, but you have a reputation track with each character. NPC's have various likes and dislikes and you can attempt to manipulate each one to your whim, once you learn about them.
Doing so requires that you discover information in the form of dossiers, through missions, talking to other NPC's and basically interacting with the individual. You can choose from an Aggressive (Jason Bourne) style of reply, Suave (James Bond) or Professional (Jack Bauer) in your interactions. Each one will affect an NPC different, for example, don't try and be professional around Sie, she doesn't like those who play by the rules. Treat her in an aggressive manner and you'll be surprised what she'll do for you.
This stance system carries over to emails as well, and you can pick your reply.
Having a positive or negative rep with someone nets you different bonuses and you sometimes have special actions in a dialogue, usually they're the most direct route and involve shooting a contact, beating someone up or other effects we'll let you find out for yourself.
When you're in-mission, it's basically a third person shooter/sneaker based on the kind of character you build. There are various well thought out mini-games that actually make sense in the spy genre, hacking, lock picking and re-wiring, though don't expect to be very good at some of the security games until you put points into the correct skills. Since this is an RPG there are a bunch of useful ones, but you only have so many points and this forces you to think tactically about the kind of Thorton you want to create. We went for a sneaky security kind of guy with some training in martial arts. Then we upped our pistol and a few other things, over time...Thorton actually started to feel like a badass spy.
There are some crazy one-shot kill abilities that when racked up to the max become lunatic ways to deal with rooms full of bad guys. Stealth has the Shadow Operative ability and that basically turns you into an invisible killing machine. I'm not going to complain about it, even though it doesn't appear to be realistic at all. Every skill tree has something interesting, be it a bonus to the character or an active skill you can use.
There are in-game bonuses for certain achievements you unlock, Mass Effect style. There are also in-game bonuses for interacting with people correctly, getting the right friend can seriously buff Mike and make things a lot easier. You'll open up new avenues to buy gear from the stores at your safehouse, via the computer. You'll get access to interesting intel and more. The game says that your weapon is choice, they were not lying, and you get a lot of that from character creation to approaching the mission how you want.
The cover/shooting and mission mechanics are sound on paper, they're a bit kludgy in reality and Mike seems sluggish when moving from place to place. It works though, with some bugs and glitches now and then. Yet if you hang in there and push past those faults you can still have a lot of fun. You can move from cover to cover and blind fire, as well as navigate the environment by pre-set jump points and areas where you can interact.
The game also features an armour/weapon mod system, its simple enough to use and as you accrue cash you'll be able to buy bigger guns, more gadgets and better armour. Though you'll need to make tactical choices again because everything has statistics and whilst packing more armour on is awesome to protect you from lead poisoning it's not going to help you be the Stealh Kill Ninja Spy you want to be.
Alpha Protocol also has a checkpoint system that saves automatically, though it lets you save the checkpoint manually as well, just in case you make a mistake or you'd like to take a different approach at a mission-critical point. Generally though, if you make a wrong turn or say the wrong thing, you're stuck with that decision and that is a frustratingly awesome feature that puts real weight behind your in-game actions and decisions.
The bottom line for the gameplay is that it's structurally sound with some annoying issues; you'll often find that you can't stick to some objects as cover or you'll stay glued to the wall for too long. The camera also has some issues, often appearing to be a little too close to Mike at times. It has some nice ideas though, such as the critical hit system for pistols, aim at someone for long enough especially at the head, and the crosshairs will come together until you get a one-shot kill chance. Pull the trigger on the target and they should die.
Each weapon type, shotgun, pistol, machine gun and assault rifle, has its own particular shtick too.
If you're expecting the next Mass Effect 2 or Uncharted 2 and so on, prepare to be a little underwhelmed. Alpha Protocol isn't a great game graphically. There are some texture issues, low res textures abound, there's frequent pop-in though it's nowhere as bad as Mass Effect 1 in that regard. What's there is functional, it doesn't really wow you with any of the locations but it's not the worst game that we've seen graphically. Simplistic textures on many of the games objects, characters and environments do little to immerse you into the various locations but they are functional enough. The lighting and use of shadow is very lack lustre and at one point there was a shadow sticking through the ceiling above us, it was extremely useful to spot where the bad guy was though.
A low quality runs through most of the animations, they're not polished or really well implemented and guards often look as if they're floating along the floor when they're little legs are moving too fast for their walking pace. Moonwalking Russian mafia are not scary, take note. Michael's hand to hand combat is a little better, but whoever designed the guy's sneaking/crouch animation and pose should be shot. I don't think I have seen such a constipated secret agent move in my life. He's got to have serious back problems tucked in like that. Conversations are basically animated, there's some life to the characters via movement and facial interaction but it all seems somewhat lack lustre again.
It has a low level of physics; those are way over the top at times too. A single shot to a character's head from Mike's pistol can flip them over as though they've been hit by a freight train for example. It's kind of satisfying but again, too over the top. The explosions are lacking and basically there's no real feeling of weight to anything in the game. Fight moves may look nice but they don't seem to connect with any force.
It works and it doesn't, when it works it does so well enough, enemies can hear you if you move too quickly, they have 3 states of alertness, when they're yellow they can actually spot you a mile off even if you're ducked behind cover sometimes. That seems to be a prevalent bug and some cover doesn't appear to exist to these x-ray vision bad guys. They use cover and flanking moves, or they'll just run and charge you. Now this isn't actually a bug it seems, there are various AI styles for the different bad guys that you'll encounter. Your basic mook will be stupid and aggressive, using grenades to flush you out and making some stupid mistakes. Your elite bodyguards won't be as easy to take down; they'll stay in cover and sneak shots at you. You can discover all this from the intel screen in the game as you build your dossiers. It's nice to see varied levels of AI and as we said, when it works, it works really well.
Alpha Protocol has a fairly decent sound suite, there are some glitches now and then with it apparently, but we didn't encounter any sound errors at all. They're not awesome sounds and some of them appear to be a bit tinny, but the ambient and spot effects are nice enough, weapons sound Ok and there's nothing overly much to grumble about. It's sound, what more do you want?
The music for Alpha Protocol is fairly in keeping with the spy genre; it kicks up a notch when things go into action and dials back in the various locations when you're sneaking or exploring.
The voice work is not bad, we've heard worse and it's nice to hear Nolan North appear in the game as a particular character (Steven Heck). The rest of the cast do a decent job and the dialogue system makes their acting stand out in tense situations. The writing is a bit hackneyed in places but it fits the overall genre and that's what really matters.
A few years ago, Alpha Protocol could be forgiven for its lack of polish and buggy gameplay. The minute to minute action doesn't quite have that adrenaline burst that Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age managed to deliver yet there's something there if you keep going with it. If you can push past the bugs and kludgy gameplay you start to enjoy the game, or we did. The levelling system is reminiscent of Mass Effect but provides a better spread of skills and rewards.
The bottom line is, whilst it's not a great game, whilst it has tonnes of bugs that may or may not show themselves with the dodgy AI. There are worse games, we can't recommend that you buy it at full price unless you're a real spy genre fan, we can recommend you get it at budget or rent the game.
We so wanted to basically rave about this, but in the end it wasn't quite up to par.