Espionage RPG Is Flawed, But Fun
It’s always exciting to try new things, and an espionage RPG set in modern day really fits that bill. Especially if that RPG is for the console platform, where there’s a real dearth of clever gaming (though Alpha Protocol is also out for the PC.)
I kind of had visions of the venerable Deus Ex in mind when I popped AP into the PS3. And while Alpha Protocol falls well short of that mark, it is an enjoyable game to the point that most of us are probably willing to overlook numerous flaws. I went through the game completely twice, and not because I needed to do that for this review. I did it because I really enjoyed playing, and wanted to see how different characters in the game ended up if I did different things in the main story.
In many ways Alpha Protocol is a lot like the stereotypical spy we see in movies, lovable but also tragically flawed.
You play as Agent Michael Thorton, who can have a variety of backgrounds depending on how you make your character. My favorite Thorton was a Splinter Cell-like build where I could easily hack computers, was incredibly stealthy, and handy with a silenced pistol. But you can also make a hand-to-hand ninja character that talks with his shotgun if you like. Whatever you choose, you are pulled into Alpha Protocol, a secret United States government agency with no accountability, so they can act in secret. A civilian airliner has been shot down with stolen missile technology, and Thorton is needed to track down the terrorists responsible, recover the missiles and deal out justice. But what starts out as a straightforward mission quickly becomes anything but typical. Thorton is left out on his own, and you need to build up your own allies, plot your own course, and survive in the shadows while still trying to complete your original objectives.
There are a lot of ways you can build out your character, which is nice. You get to pick three main skills that can be leveled all the way up to 15, though all the others can still go to ten. You are given ten action points every time you level your character, and a handful here and there for completing hidden objectives, like doing a lot of research before each mission, or sending e-mails to your contacts. Skills cost different amounts to level up too, so increasing your pistol proficiency might be five points per level, while becoming a better hacker will cost three points. Some skills like Stealth cost six points, though it’s worth it later in the game when you can make yourself invisible, which is pretty silly, but is very helpful for taking out large groups of bad guys.
As you work through the game you will visit three different main mission locations. Besides the Middle East where you start, you also will get to perform operations in Taiwan, Italy and Moscow. The order that you do these missions is up to you, and how you accomplish objectives will have a lot of impact on how hard or easy future missions are, or how well different people react to your Thorton.
In fact, the colorful characters you meet along the way are one of the joys of the game. Instead of dialog choices, you are given a variety of stances. And as you find out more about people, everything you learn is noted automatically in your intelligence dossier. That way you can more effectively pick a stance that they will respond favorably toward, if you pay attention and read it over.
For example, one character might respect professionalism above all else, while another might enjoy suave and witty banter instead. Still another might want you to be aggressive in your dealings with them, seeing that as a sign of strength. If you do the right or the wrong stance, you will see a relationship change of plus or minus one or two points. That way, even if you don’t know anything about a person, one good response gives you a clue of how to act moving forward. Of course some characters are a bit schizophrenic, but that’s another matter. It’s much better to purchase or find intelligence on a person before a meeting however, or to look them up for later talks.
If you get some characters up into Trusted or even Friendship level, they might offer you special deals on weapons, or unique advantages on missions within their territory. There are even four possible romances in the game, which is always nice to see, though you will have to work hard at most of them to trigger it. I triggered two of them in my first play through, though I’m pretty good at getting people to like me in games.
The plot of the game is also top notch. There are betrayals and double betrayals. You may find yourself working for the very terrorists you are supposed to kill in the early levels. I was surprised how easily my character warped from the straight-laced gung-ho America-is-always-right type of agent I envisioned when I started, to the more practical, work-with anyone-but-watch-your-back and live in the shadows type I ended up with. But that freedom is left to the player, which is nice.
There are a variety of missions from having to kill someone, to having to prevent someone from getting killed, to searching for data or even bugging an office. You know, spy stuff. Generally you have one overall objective in each major location you visit, but before you can go after that mission, you have to do a bunch of sub-missions to get enough information to accomplish your main goal. Most of the time you will be ready to go after the main mission while at least one sub-mission is still available. You learn enough to bring the main mission choice online early. But I would still recommend going on that extra side mission anyway, because all the missions are pretty fun, and you will need the XP for the eventual endgame.
So it sounds like I really enjoy this game, right? Well, I do. But it’s also heavily flawed. My three biggest concerns are the linear nature of the missions themselves, which is way out of place in a role-playing title, the horrible combat engine, and a plethora of annoying bugs and oversights.
Let’s start with the linear levels. For a game that gives you so much freedom to build your character and interact with people, it’s disappointing that everything comes down to a corridor shooter. There is usually one path that winds its way through a level, and you can’t do anything to get off of it. Your objectives within each level are just basically to reach the end of the corridor, then the next one, then the next one. You have side objectives like planting bombs on weapon caches, but I’m not sure why the developers even bothered. Since there is only one path, of course you are going to run across the side objectives as you travel. There are a lot of doors in the game, but the developers only let you open or pick the locks on very few of them. The others are only there for show.
My biggest concern with this is not so much Alpha Protocol, but the fact that Obsidian Entertainment is working on Fallout New Vegas. If they don’t know how to create a non-linear game for AP, what hope is there that New Vegas is going to be good? It really looks like they don’t know how to make a free-roaming RPG, and here they have the sequel to an RPG of the year to create? Hopefully Bethesda gave them a lot of support, because it looks like they will need it.
Secondly, the combat engine is horrible. I’m also currently reviewing Splinter Cell Conviction, and it’s like night and day with the polish of Splinter Cell and the clunky nature of Alpha Protocol. The AP AI is simply brain dead. They will charge straight at you instead of firing with the machine gun in their hands. They won’t mind that you kill their buddy right beside them. Bodies disappear after about ten seconds, so you can kill a guard and when another comes by, everything will look normal. Guards get hung up on objects in a room, or even each other. I’ve even seen a guy just stand there doing nothing while I shot at him with an assault rifle. Couple with that a terrible aiming system that is far too sensitive when zoomed in, but as slow as molasses in winter when trying to free aim, and you have a recipe for frustration.
Because my main character build was a sneak and peek warrior, these combat flaws didn’t affect me too much. I would sneak into an area, zoom in on a guard and kill them with a headshot, which didn’t initiate combat. But there is also a cover system in the game that is somewhat flawed, and that got me killed quite a bit. You have to push a button to "stick" to cover, but not everything in the game is "stickable." You can’t stick beside all doorways, or even pieces of furniture or debris in the middle of some areas. Because some of my best stealth skills are only triggered when in cover, like the ability to aim while still safely behind cover, not being able to officially activate and "stick" to cover was frustrating.
The final category of bugs are actually the least annoying of the bunch. These are things that Obsidian could have quashed with a slight bit of play testing. An example was a mission where I had to infiltrate a US Embassy. I could have apparently talked my way into the embassy by chatting up the guards, but instead I snuck in through the roof (a rare double path moment in a level). When the mission was finished, I got an angry e-mail from my handler complaining that I gave up my identity when I walked right up and started talking to the uniformed guards. Only I didn’t! The game probably only has one e-mail to send you no matter what you do on that one. Other bugs include many graphical glitches where corridors look like walls, until the PS3 loads the background texture in, where it looks like a hallway again. Thankfully none of the bugs compromised the game in any way, but they should be absent entirely in a polished title.
Graphically, Alpha Protocol is passable, or at least not too bad. Textures are a little blocky here and there, but nothing too horrible. More annoying is that corridors can be blocked by little things like barstools, and since you can’t jump or move objects, that means having to go back and take another path. You can also go back and change the appearance of your character very slightly, but not really enough to write home about.
The sounds in the game, like the graphics, are fine but not great. Guns sound rather generic, and the music for the game is mostly an annoying pop-like soundtrack that plays at inappropriate moments. Like if I got into a firefight that lasted less than ten seconds, I had to listen to the pumping combat music for the next ten minutes before it finally died back down, which is annoying when you are trying to sneak around again. Its annoying enough that you will probably turn it down or off in the options screen. Voice acting is surprisingly good, with every character I ran into sounding very much like I pictured they would. The main character is a bit snarky, but that’s how I played him anyway, so that was fine with me.
What saves this game for me is that the characters are all very well fleshed out. I actually began to care about most of them, or even loathe them depending on who they were. I really wanted to know what happened to them, and that pushed me through the game, twice in fact. This and the fact that the dialogue interactions are so strong (whoever came up with that system gets a gold star) that I was able to forgive the flaws in other areas.
The fact is that Alpha Protocol fills a missing niche in the industry at the moment. It’s a descent espionage title, and there aren’t very many of them. As a shooter, it’s below average, but thankfully you can play without going that route too much, except in a couple missions where hardcore combat is forced. Alpha Protocol pulled me away from Red Dead Redemption for a full week, and that is saying something, though I’m a sucker for a great plot and very fleshed out characters. That alone won’t save New Vegas, which pretty much has GOT TO BE PERFECT, but is good enough to earn Alpha Protocol a respectable 3.5 GiN Gems and our recommendation, if you like that type of sneaky spy-like gaming.