Review: Alpha Protocol

November 17, 2010, Author: Trent Pyro

Ever wanted to be a spy? I have. When I was a kid I used to play spies with my mates, chasing them around my village with my plastic gun, catching them and interrogating them after a juicy shoot-out. Just like James Bond. Now, courtesy of Alpha Protocol from Obsidian Entertainment I can find out if I would really be any good at it. Taking its cues equally from Mass Effect and Splinter Cell, this ‘espionage RPG’ tells the tale of a super secret government organisation tasked with keeping the world in check and stopping dastardly terrorists from blowing everything up. The big question, as always is whether it’s any good. Let’s find out…

+2 to Stealth Movement!
First, the plot. The game opens with a sort of flash-forward. A shadowy character is chatting with some suit and it quickly becomes clear the game will be a series of flashbacks leading up to this conversation. The first of these introduces our protagonist, new recruit Michael Thorton; a typically dashing, square-jawed, all-American hero. Stuck in a room with no idea where he is, he first attempts to fight his way out this is before he even knows that he’s been snatched up by the most prestigious and covert government body this side of the NSA. So, a few broken security guards later and you’re introduced to the Alpha Protocol team. There’s the smoking hot analyst, the cocky field agent, the grumpy old computer specialist and the cool chief bloke who runs it all. Nothing too original here but all the characters fill their shoes well enough. After a few monotonous training bits, you’re thrown right into your first mission; find a Saudi terrorist leader and stop him selling missiles or something. The plot throughout is handled through mission briefings, sometimes text-based and the odd e-mail. It’s a bit of a scattergun approach and can feel disjointed when combined with the mission select system which I’ll explain later on.

Essentially, after this first assignment something happens (no spoilers!) and you end up having a choice between three new missions spread across the world in Rome, Taipei and Moscow. Which order you do them in doesn’t seem to matter as they’re all self-contained, although I have a feeling that some events carry over. You access a futuristic computer thing to receive e-mails and intel about the missions but you actually choose a mission once you leave the front door of the safe house. It’s a little odd and takes away from the hands-on approach to the safe house itself. There doesn’t appear to be an optimum order to tackle the missions in; it’s just personal choice.

This choice runs throughout Alpha Protocol like nerves in a body, everything is customisable, from Thorton’s general look to his armour and weapons. Even his personality is in your hands through the interesting conversation system. Rather than choose exactly what you want him to say (like Fallout 3) or even pick a general sentence (like Mass Effect) you get given a choice of three or four moods. These differ from chat to chat but usually fall into three categories; smarmy, aggressive or professional. The first leads to cheesy one liners and a cavalier attitude, the second makes Thorton sound like a thug and the last is just straightforward, factual info gathering. It’s nice to have the choice and it works for the most part but can be very vague. This makes it easy to make mistakes and when every comment can influence another characters opinion of you, that’s bad. While most other people can hate you and it has no effect, keeping your mission handler sweet is a must for bonuses. Overall, the conversations are well acted and sharply written, with only a few squiffy lines in there.

It can be hard to figure out exactly what Thorton is going to say...

Aside from the talking, Thorton can be upgraded in an RPG-like fashion. You earn XP for the usual stuff and gain AP (ability points?) when you level up. These can then be spent on upgrading the fifteen or so attributes. These range from proficiency with weapon types and gadgetry, to stealth and martial arts prowess. As you upgrade each attribute, new skills are unlocked to be used in-mission. Some more useful than others, they include enemy awareness, silent running and a myriad of other unrealistic powers. While they help out in certain situations, most are only useful every so often and there’s an over abundance of them.

Get to cover!
Gameplay wise Alpha Protocol is a mixed bag. It’s a cover shooter at heart, which is why its cover mechanic being so bad is such a detriment. The A button is used as the obligatory ‘use everything’ button but also functions as the cover button and the sprint button. This leads to instances where you pick up ammo or open a door when you’re actually trying to take cover. Considering how quickly you can go down, even with top-of-the-range armour, this is a massive problem. You learn to work around it but my point is you shouldn’t have to. My solution would be to combine the reload button with all the use stuff and keep A exclusively for cover and sprinting, like so many other games have done but obviously Obsidian never thought of that.

Gadgets are a big part of the action here and there’s more than enough to choose from. Whether you choose to be loud or quiet, there’s enough range in the tech to help you out. Grenades and mines will be useful to the more gung-ho of us, while EMP bombs and radio transmitters will assist the more stealthy players. Some of them can be used in smart ways but most do what they say on the tin. Radio transmitters are used to call in fake ‘all clear’ signals to the enemy, turning off any alarms. EMP bombs can, when used with the right skill, disable electrical equipment and bypass the annoying mini-games used to access them. They can also be used to unlock doors by shorting out the alarms and letting Thorton kick them in. Yeah, every locked door must have an alarm right? This crowbarring in of loose end-tying technical bollocks is very common and feels like an attempt to force realism where there really isn’t any.

I mentioned mini-games. The bane of many gamers lives these days, Alpha Protocol not only indulges in them; it makes them essential. They come in three flavours; picking locks, bypassing alarms and hacking computers. Lock picking is, well, lock picking. Squeeze LT to raise the pin to the required height and hit RT to lock it in. Repeat until door is unlocked. It’s simple and gets old quickly. Bypassing involves a sort of children’s maze game in which you have to figure out which nodes connect to which ends and select them in the right order, again, gets old. The hacking is by far the worst, a massive grid of constantly shifting characters is presented to you, along with two passwords. You have to scan the grid for the passwords (the only characters that aren’t shifting) and then guide each password to its place in the grid. The left one uses the left stick with LT to lock it in, the right one the same on the other side of the controller. The issue here is the time limit, your eyes are immediately shot by the shifting grid, making it tough to find the passwords. That’s the point I suppose but when it barely gives you a chance to adjust before it runs out of time, it’s not really fair. When the red bar at the bottom reaches its peak, not only does it set off an alarm, it resets the places of the passwords in the grid! So you’ve just adjusted your eyes and all of a sudden the password moves. Sometimes you’ll have found it and will be jerking the password to its slot (which is achingly slower than it should be) when it changes place. It’s infuriating and unnecessarily hard. While most of the hacks are optional, one mission tasks you with clearing a room of tough enemies, then hacking two computers to defuse two bombs. In three minutes. The woefully inaccurate shooting and previously mentioned cover system make every gunfight a carefully tactical affair, so rushing the fight to get more time with the hacking is suicide. This is just one example of how terribly unbalanced Alpha Protocol can be.

Like I said, the shooting can be an abysmal struggle. I understand that Mr Thorton has to get better and more accurate as you level him up but he can’t hit a guy standing five feet away with a straight shot! I’m not the best shot in the world but when my cross hair is aimed slap bang in the middle of a guys chest, at spitting distance I expect my shot to hit its target. Not so here, even the apparently accurate assault rifle is shocking. It’s a massive misstep that almost condemns the game completely. Although you get to choose between a few different backgrounds for Thorton, they all involve shooting of some sort so why can’t he shoot straight? It reminds me of Mass Effect, where shooting was tough until you levelled up a bit, although much worse. I can see what Obsidian have tried to do, giving you realistic recoil and stability with the guns but when it means a usually easy shot is a hit or miss affair it’s not on. What’s even more puzzling is why they bothered. Alpha Protocol is not the most realistic game ever, in fact much of the time it’s plain fantasy. Many of the aforementioned skills are extra-sensory nonsense, which is fine but I don’t believe in mixing fantastical powers with crushing realism and this brings me nicely onto the bosses.

I'm honestly surprised he got a kill, even from that distance...

This game has the laziest, most irritating and infuriating bosses in the history of mankind. I love a good boss, one that is well constructed and requires solid tactics to defeat. They should be tougher than the usual grunts and seem unbeatable but once you get the rhythm down it’s just a matter of time. The bosses here are so poor I cannot believe they left them in. Regular guys (one is even an elderly man in a suit!) that have an unreal amount of health and follow one basic pattern; they sit at the other side of the room, where you can’t hit them of course, due to your shitty, inaccurate guns. They take potshots at you which will most definitely hit you unless you’re in full cover. Then, once you manage to drop their armour and a little of their health, they pelt toward you and beat you down and here we come to a hole in the melee system. Thorton can knock out a parade of kung-fu moves, dropping even the toughest grunt in an instant and it’s pretty cool. Against a boss however, it’s useless. Thorton can’t block and does little damage even with high martial arts proficiency. The bosses, however, can block all your shots and kill you in about five hits. The only option is to run, at which point they whip out their gun and shoot you dead. The first boss I faced I managed to kill, just. The second took me twenty attempts and I still didn’t find a working pattern. I just had to hope he didn’t run over and batter me or that he’d get stuck behind a pillar or something. It’s piss poor boss-making and it’s disgraceful.

The first big fight in the game is against a tank. You have to run about grabbing RPGs and blasting it until it blows up. It’s been done before, sure but at least it makes sense. There is no reason why these bosses should be able to take clip after clip of assault rifle ammo. We’re crippled by the hyper-realistic recoil and accuracy of our guns, while the bosses get to live in game land and take a million hits? It’s bullshit and ruins the game for me.

Overall, Alpha Protocol it a decent play. The story keeps you interested and the conversations are stimulating. The combat is below standard compared to its cover shooter peers but the addition of stealth techniques and gadgetry balances it out somewhat. I just can’t get over the shooting and the bosses.

Your jaw is so… square!
There’s not much to say about Alpha Protocol’s looks. They’re well up to standard, although some of the textures should be better. Each mission has its own locations and areas but most of the crates, walls and staircases look the same. I’m just nitpicking though; overall it’s pretty and believable.

Try this on a boss and you're screwed.

The facial animation is above average for a game of this type but can’t quite reach the levels of, again, Mass Effect. While the expressions are solid, the level of conveyed emotion is low in most cases. It’s hard to tell if a character is frowning, grimacing or moping. It’s not a massive flaw; the voice acting is what carries the talky bits.

One other thing; the explosions suck. Grenades pop and kick up dirt but don’t really boom. Where there are big bangs, the fire looks poor, like something out of a PS1 game. It’s a pet hate of mine and, unfortunately, I’m seeing it more and more in games these days.

Guns go bang, right?
The sound is pretty basic here. Guns go bang, footsteps thump along and stuff blows up. There are some nice, squelchy tech sounds when gadgets are used but that’s really the only thing of note.

The soundtrack is a mix between James Bond and a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster action flick but not as good as either of these. It serves its purpose and there’s a good transition between quiet, stealthy sections and all out gunfights. A nice blend of orchestra and synth, it reminds me of modern soundtracks from movies like Die Hard 4 and Hitman.

The real class here is in the voice acting. All the characters are well cast and very well acted, adding tangibility to the cutscenes and allowing the characters to be fleshed out through conversation rather than boring dossiers. The actor playing Michael Thorton is able to do all the attitudes well enough and is believable in the role although once he starts to get hot under the collar with a female character he seems to go all Mr Bean. Which is weird.

It’s a matter of taste…
Alpha Protocol is not a bad game. It has a lot to offer as a spy-styled espionage experience but is let down terribly by its inability to decide what it is. One minute it’s an inch-perfect shooter grounded in real ballistics, the next you’re fighting an arcade-style boss with an inordinate amount of health. The ability to use stealth is nice but not well catered for and much of the time you’re forced into a firefight. The gadgets are cool but the inability to carry lots of them at once, relegate their use to assisting you rather than being on the frontline. Shootouts are exciting and usually well balanced but hampered by over-realistic guns and poor cover controls.

If you’re looking for something a little different than your average cover shooter and are willing to overlook its glaring issues, Alpha Protocol will keep you occupied for a weekend. If you require your shooters to let you hit things and take cover when you want, I doubt you’ll get on with it. It’s a shame because the plot, characters and stylish swagger all make it a game you want to play. Shame it’s so damn awkward to do so…


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