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April 2014

Alpha Protocol

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: SEGA
Developer: Obsidian
Release Date: June 1, 2010 (US), May 28, 2010 (EU)


PS3/X360 Review - 'Alpha Protocol'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on June 7, 2010 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Taking you on a suspenseful ride in the vein of James Bond, Jack Bauer, and Jason Bourne, Alpha Protocol has you work your way up the ranks as rookie agent Michael Thorton to become a bona-fide super spy.

Alpha Protocol tells the story of Michael Thorton, a government agent who works for a black ops program called Alpha Protocol. Michael is a newcomer to Alpha Protocol and is sent to a mission in Saudi Arabia to hunt down stolen missiles. Once there, he discovers that the "stolen" missiles were actually sold to terrorists in a plot by Halbech, an American weapons dealer, to start a new Cold War. They also have the Alpha Protocol program on their side and have declared Thorton as a rogue agent. Now Thorton has to figure out some way to prevent Halbech from raising international tensions and starting a global war before all of mankind is pushed to the brink of annihilation. Fortunately, he has moles inside Alpha Protocol and gets help from some of the most deadly and skilled people in the world, ranging from Saudi terrorists to Moscow weapons dealers.

Alpha Protocol has perhaps the most fluid story I've ever seen in a video game. The number of ways you can alter and change the plot is absolutely amazing. Every conversation you have, every action you take, and everything you do tends to have consequences. Characters live and die based on choices you made, conversations change tone and meaning, allies can become enemies, and countless other variations. Characters remember how you were and will respond appropriately in future conversations. Options are gained or lost depending on how Michael acts, which missions he takes, and how he does in those missions. It's difficult to describe the huge variation in the gameplay, since so much of it involves heavy spoilers, but it is really shockingly impressive. My first and second playthroughs of the game may as well have been different games with a similar plot. Altering the way Thorton reacted to people changed a number of things. Characters I'd never seen before showed up in places I'd never visited, and information about characters I thought I trusted came to light. It's really quite impressive, and while the story is pretty standard spy stuff, it is really amazing because of how interactive it is. In some ways, it even beats pseudo-movies like Heavy Rain.

A large part of this is due to how conversations work in Alpha Protocol. Similar to Mass Effect, Michael has "stances" he can take in conversations: aggressive, professional, special and suave. Usually, you can only take one of the first three stances, and the special stance becomes available if you've met certain conditions for that conversation. All conversations occur in real time, so as Michael is talking to someone, you'll have a brief period to decide the stance for his next action. This makes conversations the most intense and interesting part of the game, as each choice you make can influence the characters you're meeting. Someone who likes you may give you extra info, but they may also be hesitant to do something dangerous. Someone who dislikes you may want you to die but is also susceptible to being goaded into doing something foolish. Conversations are almost like battles, where your choices can alter the outcome. It's a better system than even Mass Effect's, and it really sets a new standard for how video game conversations should be handled.

Perhaps the only real flaw with Alpha Protocol is that the fluidity isn't perfect. The game will occasionally break in unsatisfying ways. Because of the way you can alter things, characters can vanish from the game without a trace, leaving their plotlines unresolved. Certain characters show up very briefly, so this can feel incredibly awkward. Certain options don't always work correctly either, especially in regard to killing or not killing innocent people. One mission involved breaking into a heavily armed marine camp. If I were clever and talked my way in, the game said I didn't kill any marines. If I snuck in, the game said I killed marines, even if I didn't so much as look in a marine's direction. Major characters vanish at a moment's notice or show up as major characters when I haven't seen them for half of the game, and this detracts from the "spy movie" feel. Of course, when it works, it's absolutely amazing.

Like Mass Effect, Alpha Protocol is a shooter/RPG, although with a much greater emphasis on the RPG element. The game gives you experience points for completing missions and defeating or sneaking past enemies. Earn enough points and you level up, which earns you 10 AP per level, and AP can then be spent on learning various skills. Skills cost between three and six AP per level, and Michael can also specialize in three of the skills, allowing him to learn high-level abilities that he couldn't otherwise access.

Leveling up is a permanent matter. Except for one early occasion when you're given the ability to change, Michael is stuck with whatever he has learned. There is plenty of AP in the game, and you'll occasionally find extra AP through perks. Depending on the actions you take, Michael will gain special bonuses. Investigate a CIA listening post without harming anyone, and you'll earn a bonus to an ability. Learn how to sweet-talk a Russian weapons dealer, and you'll get a discount upon buying from him again. Even little things, such as altering your conversation stances often enough, will give you passive bonuses, encouraging players to explore.

Since it's a spy game, you'd expect stealth to be a big part of Alpha Protocol, and it is — sort of. The stealth in Alpha Protocol is awkward at best. It's a weird combination of sound and visual distinction, but it's less polished than any current stealth games so it feels archaic. A large part of this is due to the enemy AI, which is quite bad. They don't react logically to most situations, and they only have three modes: alerted, curious and off.

In off mode, the enemies are pretty brain-dead. They'll ignore you as long as you're not walking normally or directly in front of them, and they sometimes react to situations. You can snipe guards or bodyslam them directly in front of their friends and they won't react ... but sometimes they will. It's a crapshoot. Sometimes they'll walk right by a friend's corpse, and other times, they'll go into curious mode and sound an alarm. Once an enemy is alerted, he basically becomes Superman, capable of tracking your character through walls without any effort. It'll remain that way unless you shut off the alarm. It's vaguely reminiscent of the old Metal Gear Solid games, but with much, much more simplistic AI than even the original Metal Gear Solid. There are cameras, but they're simple to avoid, as they have giant glowing green cones that show where they are looking.

The most serious problem with stealth is that if you decide to invest in stealth, the game can't figure out how to deal with the powers it gives you. Spending your AP on stealth unlocks a few abilities. Some of these are absolutely essential for all characters, like the game's radar, but others are useful only in limited situations, like Stealth Running, which quiets your footsteps. The rest are mind-numbingly powerful. The Evasion power turns you invisible if an enemy is about to spot you. It takes some time to cool down before it activates again, but considering how easy most of the stealth is, you have to really be trying to be caught.

The second major ability, Shadow Operative, is the game-changer. Shadow Operative turns you invisible at will. You can sneak (or, in higher levels, run) around and the enemies simply can't see you. This lasts for about 30 seconds and breaks the game because while you're invisible, you can't shoot, but you can use instant-kill martial arts takedowns on enemies. Walk up to an enemy, press the B button, and they're instantly disabled (or press A to kill them). While invisible, you can do this from any direction, and enemies are helpless. Even if an enemy sees you do it, his AI is not capable of responding. You can walk through a whole room punching guys in the neck, and all the AI will do is stand there, confused.

The stealth falls apart in one area of the game: boss battles. They're required fights, and bosses are basically immune to all the useful aspects of stealth. The only way to hide from them is to use the Shadow Operative ability, but they're immune to your stealthy takedowns so if you decide to play the game as a sneaky hacker type, you're pretty much boned in these fights, at least at early levels. Gun combat in Alpha Protocol doesn't reward players who choose to not focus on fights. Despite there being plenty of valid skill trees that don't revolve around combat, Alpha Protocol doesn't allow you to be a clever sneaky type. You're going to fight, and you're going to like it — or you would, if gun combat were engaging.

Gun combat in Alpha Protocol is full of interesting ideas but is flawed in execution. Despite looking like a regular shooter, Alpha Protocol actually punishes you for playing the game like one. There are four kinds of guns: assault rifles, pistols, shotguns and submachine guns. Submachine Guns are useful against multiple targets and gain damage bonuses when you're fighting multiple opponents. The Assault Rifle gains accuracy as you target a foe, but it's nearly useless from a distance. Aim at an enemy long enough, and you can basically snipe him, although you lose this bonus if you move or change your aim. Shotguns gain knockdown power, making them a lot more effective if you can target an enemy for a while, although they're still pretty powerful if you don't. Pistols are perhaps the most hit-or-miss of the lot. If you don't target a foe, pistols are worthless. Their damage spread is ridiculous and they do minimal damage. If you do target an enemy, the crosshair slowly shrinks and turns red. At maximum charge, the pistol gains a ridiculous damage bonus and pinpoint accuracy. At this point, a headshot is an instant kill or a near-instant kill.

The problem with the gunplay in Alpha Protocol is that it's all or nothing. If you don't invest your skill points in guns, they're worthless. Even if you invest a low level of skill points, they turn everything in the game into an absolute joke. Enemies don't have the ability to stand up to high-powered weapons, especially the pistol. Early on in the pistol tree, you get some hilariously insane skills, such as the ability to target a critical hit from cover, or the ability to slow down time and perform two instant critical hits on enemies. At higher levels, you can kill six enemies in one turn or snipe enemy heads from halfway across the stage. Even bosses are helpless against this, and the pistol can wipe out 80 percent of a boss's health at once. The problem is that it makes the game either frustrating or boring. If you don't spec for combat, Thorton is pretty useless, and his stealth abilities are nullified in certain fights. There's very little middle ground between useless and overpowered, and it turns most combat sequences into a joke.

The third set of abilities involves tech skills, which are poorly balanced. Michael has access to gadgets, such as alarm-disabling devices and various kinds of grenades. These gadgets can be useful, but due to the way combat works, you're much better off with any weapon. A Chain Shot from your pistol is way more effective at clearing groups of enemies than a grenade. The important part of your tech skills involves hacking. There are tons of locked objects in the game, including those sealed by traditional locks, keypads or computers. Each of these is unlocked by playing a minigame. The traditional locks require you to pick the lock by pressing the pressure-sensitive shoulder button to move the tumblers and then pressing the other shoulder button when the tumbler is in place. Rewiring keypads involves picking the right selection of wires in a short time frame. Hacking computers involves finding two "unmoving" codes among a field of moving codes and positioning your cursors to them. The minigames seem kind of interesting but are plagued with little flaws.

The biggest problem is that the tech skills suffer from the exact same skewed difficulty of the rest of the game. In theory, not all locks can be bypassed. At higher levels of the game, the minigames become impossible for low-level characters because you have to do too much in too short a time period. Leveling up your Sabotage skill tree makes this easier, but the very first skill renders the rest of them worthless. It allows you to spend one EMP grenade to instantly hack anything. Since it only costs three AP, it is worthless to invest any more AP in the skill. Since you can buy an unlimited supply of EMP grenades from your home base, hacking becomes pointless. Every player will be able to do it with equal ease and get all the rewards, which feels quite out of place in a game about making hard decisions. On the plus side, it nullifies the annoying minigames, although that just removes further challenge from the game.

This might be more forgivable if the level design in Alpha Protocol were stronger. Unfortunately, it isn't. Levels are straightforward and linear to the extreme. There are one or two branching paths you can take, but you can usually label them "combat" and "stealth." What separates this from Mass Effect 2 is that the level design isn't up to the task of making you forget how linear it is. Levels are large and open, but they're large and open in an incredibly forced way. Michael can only interact with the levels in pre-designated areas. He can't climb a fence if the game says he can't, even if you can climb an identical fence in the next area. He can't jump or vault over small railings unless, again, the game says he can. While other linear titles like Mass Effect make sure to design their levels so that you don't notice you're going forward nonstop, Alpha Protocol feels more like Final Fantasy XIII. To be fair, there are a few levels with serious branching paths, but those are usually connected to the plot, not a player's option. Even more annoying, there are a lot of levels where the doors mysteriously lock behind you, preventing you from going back to see if you missed items. Luckily, you can buy intel before missions to make them easier.

Alpha Protocol is a fairly short game, and you can probably burn through it in five to seven hours, assuming you do everything available. As mentioned, the game is strongly designed to encourage you to replay it over and over again. Going through the game multiple times will severely alter the things you see and do, although there is some repetition in certain things. You even have the option of going through the game as a Recruit, who begins three levels below the norm but gets special dialogue options. Finishing the game as the Recruit lets you start as a Veteran, who begins the game with a ridiculous amount of AP and gets special cut scenes and dialogue choices based on his amazing skills. The only real problem with the replayability is that you're forced to go through the tedious gameplay more to get to the fun changes. A Veteran mode runthrough helps, as you can invest in the super-powerful skills from the outset and run through everything as quickly as possible. It still feels weird that the best thing about replaying the game is not having to replay it as much. 

Unfortunately, Alpha Protocol is a pretty buggy game. I mentioned the occasional story breakage earlier, but the gameplay is more awkward. The enemy AI is prone to breaking at a moment's notice. There were a number of occasions when the AI would just stop working, leaving the guards staring helplessly at the wall. There was one forced fight sequence that became quite easy when all of the alerted guards suddenly forgot where they were and stood around helplessly as I shot each of them in the head. There were also some nasty game-breaking glitches that required multiple restarts to proceed. One boss fight required me to lose after the boss fell through the floor, making it impossible for me to hit him. It was only on the fourth restart, when I killed him very quickly, that I avoided this problem.

The distinct lack of polish in Alpha Protocol is also visible with the graphics. The character models are passable, but not great. They have strong facial expressions, which are visible during the game's excellent conversation scenes. Outside of battle, the animations look extremely dated, and there is very little fluidity or natural movement to them. The only real standouts are the close-quarter combat attacks, which have a very nice impact. The levels are unique, but not particularly memorable, and they feel a lot more like pre-designed video game locations than actual places. There is also some absolutely atrocious pop-in for textures, with the game often taking a second or more to "fill in" what you're looking at, making the already subpar graphics look even worse. This really isn't enough to ruin the game, but considering the lack of polish everywhere else, it gives the entire product the feeling of being half-baked, especially since it's published after other similar, but far nicer-looking, games.

The voice acting in Alpha Protocol is a mixed bag. Some of the voice actors are reasonably good. They're not up to the high standards of some other games, but they do their job well enough and have some intensely good moments. There are some actors in Taipei and Moscow who are so ridiculously stereotyped and bad that I had to wonder if it was an intentional and poorly designed parody.  These voice actors are not enough to ruin some of the game's good scenes, but there is such a gulf that it really stands out, especially for minor NPCs. The soundtrack is solid but pretty much unremarkable. Even a few days after finishing the game, I can't recall a single memorable song, and while the soundtrack fits the title's tone, you're certainly not going to be buying it from iTunes.

Alpha Protocol does one thing really well, and it may be the absolute best game in the genre for what it does. The fluid and engaging plot is designed in such a way that you can have completely different and surprising outcomes to a lot of plotlines. The writing is sometimes a bit unpolished but does the job, and while Michael Thorton can be a complete ass much of the time, there's something about him that is oddly likeable. Unfortunately, aside from the one thing that it does really well, everything else in the game ranges from mediocre to broken. Almost all of the RPG mechanics are badly designed, the level design is linear and straightforward to a fault, the graphics are mediocre, and the voice acting ranges between good and awful. If you enjoy the one thing that Alpha Protocol does well enough, you'll probably be able to overlook its downsides. There is little else to recommend Alpha Protocol, so if the idea of the fluid story line doesn't get you excited, then this game isn't for you.

Score: 7.0/10

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