The best moments in Alpha Protocol come from choices you’re forced to make in a split-second. Should you execute a terrorist mastermind, or hear what he has to say first? Strike a deal with a crime lord, or take him down for trying to set you up? Be a strait-laced professional, or a smarmy jerk who irritates the shit out of everybody? All of these are decisions you’ll have to make throughout the course of the game, and all of them have the potential to profoundly affect the course of the story.
Well, not that profoundly. No matter what you decide, you’ll still be Michael Thorton, rogue super-secret agent working for a government agency that doesn’t officially exist. You’ll still visit the same places, meet (mostly) the same people and follow roughly the same progression of events as you try to foil terrorists and stop a sinister military contractor from sparking off World War III. But how those events are resolved, and who your friends and enemies are when they’re over, is largely up to you.
Developer Obsidian has picked up a reputation over the years as sort of a second-string BioWare, but if you’re coming to Alpha Protocol expecting a spy-flavored Mass Effect/Dragon Age/Knights of the Old Republic – don’t. Instead, what you’ll get is a fairly straightforward (and fairly buggy) mission-based stealth-shooter with light RPG elements welded on to make things more interesting. It also isn’t very good-looking, either, with dated-looking characters, stiff animation, a general unfinished look and weird facial expressions that only get weirder when you see them in motion.
Above: Does this smirk look normal to you? You may feel differently after you’ve seen him rigidly maintain it while talking
It’s also plagued by bugs across all three versions, which for us did anything from crashing the game (which happened rarely) to making certain bosses suddenly fall through the floor. Thankfully, the checkpoint-based save system is at least forgiving enough that you won’t lose too much progress when this happens.
Alpha does tell a good story, though. As you pursue Thorton’s mission, you’ll be able to travel more or less freely between Taipei, Rome and Moscow, following separate storylines in each (which can cross over depending on the order you follow them in). Between missions, you’ll hang out in souvenir-filled safehouses, where you can watch TV, read (and sometimes respond to) Thorton’s email and shop online for weapons, armor and new gadgets. (You’ll also be able to customize Thorton’s appearance a little, but that’s limited to adding things like beards and hats.) The rest of the time, you’ll be doing two things: shooting at people, or chatting with them.
The conversation sequences are where the bulk of Alpha’s decisions are made, and mostly they amount to having a few seconds to decide (from a simple menu) between three “stances” that determine your next reply: Suave, Aggressive, or Professional.
Above: Sometimes it gets more specific than that, and it’s not always limited to talking
Your stance determines not only how people react to you, but also how much they like or dislike you, and by extension what they’re willing to do for/to you. Talking to people, whether they’re informants in need of protection or creepy international terrorists, is less about saying the “right” thing than it is about learning how to manipulate them to get what you want.
Act professional around some super-serious operative, for example, and they’ll be more eager to help you, maybe even going so far as to sell you stuff at a discount or provide direct assistance on the battlefield. Act like a jackass, however, and they might end up hating or even attacking you, which can yield benefits of their own.
Above: You can make similar choices in the story’s framing device, an endgame interrogation between Thorton and villainous CEO Henry Leland
It’s an interesting approach to dialogue, and it’s fun to experiment and see how things unfold differently when you take a different approach to a problem. The choices you make aren’t limited to earning people’s trust with chat, either. Often, you’ll be faced with something that might be a clear decision in any other game, like executing that terrorist mastermind we briefly mentioned earlier: Sheikh Ali Shaheed, who appears after the first set of missions. Kill him, and you’ll remove a threat to world peace – but you’ll also ensure that his terror network steps up its violent activities. Spare him, however, and he’ll not only feed you vital information on the real bad guys down the line, but he’ll make sure that his goons treat you like an ally the next time you cross paths.
You’ll want that information too, because in addition to opening up new missions and points of interest within those missions, intel –compiled in readable dossiers that you can check at any time – can actually give you a damage bonus against certain factions and people, with the conceit that knowing more about them lets you exploit their weaknesses.
Alpha’s story is fascinating, branching and convoluted, and it’s backed up by well-written dialogue and solid acting. If there’s any reason to play through it more than once, it’s to see how differently things can unfold if you take a different approach than you took the first time. You may even find that, by making certain choices, you missed out on seeing entire characters and plot threads.
It’s a shame, then, that the actual game backing up Alpha’s shifting story and characters is a buggy, unspectacular run-of-the-mill shooter that plays a lot like Splinter Cell without all the cool environmental stuff to clamber around on. In general, your options for getting through a given stage will look like this:
A) Shoot everyone
B) Shoot everyone with tranquilizer darts
C) Blow everyone up with grenades or traps
D) Beat the crap out of everyone
E) Sneak around and instantly subdue or kill everyone before they realize you’re there
Above: Like this!
If that doesn’t sound like anything out of the ordinary for a game, well, that’s kind of the problem – the bulk of Alpha Protocol is nothing out of the ordinary, sometimes to the point of being mediocre. You can shoot around cover, set traps and sneak, but all that stuff is practically standard-issue for shooters. And it doesn’t change the fact that a game that’s supposed to be about spying and earning people’s trust mostly consists of stomping through linear environments, taking brief detours to grab loot and getting into shootouts. Shootouts with strangely animated bad guys who frequently stop shooting to charge at you, like idiots, with duck-and-run movements that make them look like they’ve got head injuries.
Hell, even when you’re given the opportunity to persuade enemies to become your friends, it’s rarely your first option. Usually, they’re only willing to talk once you’ve killed all their goons, maybe roughed them up a little and have them standing on the wrong end of a gun. That means that turning them to your side is often less about negotiation and more about simply choosing not to kill a defeated opponent in cold blood. That we can’t try to play peacemaker right off the bat, or avoid violence entirely, is disappointing.
Above: Hello, future friend! Hold on while I pump you full of lead, and then we can have a nice chat
The action’s saving grace – as well as one of its worst aspects – comes from Alpha’s RPG elements. As you progress through the game, you’ll be able to beef Thorton up by assigning points to his various skills… which, unfortunately, means you’re going to suck at some things right off the bat. Try and aim a gun that you haven’t earned any skill points for, for example, and shots that you might think are perfectly aimed will go wild, alerting enemies, potentially setting off an alarm and frustrating the hell out of you.
The flip side of this is that the combat gets more enjoyable as you level up, thanks to three things: you’ll be able to absorb more damage, your aim will get a lot more effective and you’ll unlock cool superpowers, like the ability to briefly turn invisible and effortlessly stealth-kill enemies while creeping around in plain sight.
Even that comes with its own problems, though. Trying to stealthily and/or nonlethally work your way through the game will earn you admiration from some characters, but the simple truth is that you’ll get a lot further a lot faster if you simply adopt a “who gives a shit” attitude and blindly shotgun your way through every hostile thing you see. Not only are you less likely to die going the balls-out commando route, thanks to Thorton’s regenerating health and the superhuman endurance granted by the thicker, noisier armors, but the only real penalty you’ll suffer is occasional gentle chastisement from other characters about your bloody methods. (That is, unless you kill “innocent” hostiles like CIA agents or embassy guards, which can have broader repercussions. It’s best to just pummel them instead.)
In fact, once you get to a certain point in the game, having taken a stealth approach actually becomes a liability, as it leaves you totally unprepared for the rushing onslaughts of bosses against whom stealth has limited uses, at best. And some of those bosses are ridiculously cheap, with a strange knack for rushing your hiding spot and dealing out massive close-quarters damage before abruptly teleporting someplace safe.
Above: Other times they just ride around in armored vehicles surrounded by conveniently placed rocket launchers
However, as infuriating as that is, it’s not the worst part of the action. No, the worst parts are the minigames.
Littered throughout Alpha’s missions are computers you need to hack, safes you need to crack and alarms you need to turn off. While you can instantly defeat any of these with an EMP grenade or a “radio mimic” (in the case of alarms), those things cost money. So the rest of the time, you’ll have to rely on your own skills.
First, there’s the minigame you’ll have to undertake while shutting off alarms (and some locks), which looks like this:
This is actually the most painless of the three, as all you need to do to win is train your eye to rapidly match the numbers to their origin points on the circuit board, and then switch them on in order. Things get more complicated when you try to hack computers, in which case you’ll be confronted with this cascade of numbers and letters:
While this seems impossible at first, all you really need to do is glance around for the two horizontal strings of data that aren’t moving, and then quickly move the corresponding backlit lines of code at the top of the screen into place over them. Once you know what to look for, it’s easy.
Picking locks, though… holy shit.
To be fair, how horrible lockpicking is will relate directly to which platform you choose to play Alpha on. If you’re playing on a PC, you’ll simply move and click the tumblers into place with the mouse, which is super-easy and almost fun. On consoles, however, you’ll have to nudge each tumbler into the exact spot where it’ll stay in place with the left trigger, and then click it into place with the right. Fail to get this exactly right, and you may break your pick and possibly set off an alarm.
On the PS3 (which we primarily reviewed the game on), this was incredibly, literally excruciating, because the controller’s triggers simply aren’t well suited for the kind of precision the minigame requires. The 360’s more comfortable triggers make the minigame mostly inoffensive, but it’s still a far cry from fun. In a game with ambitions this lofty, it’s upsetting that one of its biggest frustrations comes from a throwaway minigame.
Mass Effect 2? No. While the two games share a similar structure – they’re mission-based, with visits to “hub” areas in between – ME2 is a lot bigger (and a lot prettier), with more interesting conversations and characters. and more to do between missions than check emails and shop online. The action’s better, the story’s better – hell, everything’s better. We almost feel bad comparing them at all.
Splinter Cell: Conviction? Yes and no. Splinter Cell certainly looks a lot better than Alpha, and its action, while similar to Alpha’s, is more immediately varied and interesting. But ultimately it moves on a linear track; as much fun as its interrogations are, they only have one outcome, and you can’t ever turn those enemies to your side. It might not be anywhere near as slick, but Alpha Protocol has it all over Conviction in the interactive-story department.
Metal Gear Solid 4? No. Like Conviction, MGS4 crushes Alpha’s looks and gameplay. But Alpha does have one advantage, in that it manages to tell a tighter, more believable and more potentially interesting story in a fraction of the time that MGS4 does, and does so while giving you control over its cutscenes. So if you like your spy thrillers to be more about political assassinations and war profiteering than nanomachines and world-controlling computers, that’s a minor win for Alpha.
While its story, characters and conversations are interesting and fun to play around with, Alpha’s third-person shooting – which makes up the bulk of the game – is not. It’s a far cry from terrible, but we’d been led to expect much more.
June 1, 2010
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