Review: Alpha Protocol
Alpha Protocol, from Obsidian Entertainment, is an action RPG that shares some similarities with Mass Effect, but aims to make players feel like a super spy. Is it a worthy entry in the RPG genre?
- Worth The Time?Yes, but really only for those who are extremely into action RPGs similar to Mass Effect.
- Things LovedThe narrative, the characters, the way you really do feel like a spy, how your choices influence the game.
- Things HatedThe large amounts of technical bugs, the fact that the game feels unfinished and like a lesser Mass Effect, the frustrating gameplay failures, the outdated graphics, the incomprehensible enemy AI, the clunky controls and mechanics, the repetitiveness.
- RecommendationIf you're going to buy this game, it will be purely because you're a fan of RPGs, although I'd advise against going for it at full price. It would be better to rent it, get it second hand or simply aim for a much better game.
- Name: Alpha Protocol
- Genre: Action RPG
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: N/A
- Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
- Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
- Publisher: Sega
- Price: R560-649 (PS3, Xbox360), R355 (PC)
- Reviewed On: PC
Alpha Protocol, conclusively, is an action RPG that is a perfect example of what could have been, but miserably failed to be. Except the reasons for its failure are enough to make you want to mutilate someone’s face with a cheese grater. The game has a solid premise and it has a bunch of awesome ideas, but the fact that it was released too late, so that it escaped its natural time, suffers from heavy technical issues and a host of other gameplay flaws and ultimately fails in its execution makes all the good fall away – leaving you with another bitter disappointment. I suppose giving an ultimatum like this doesn’t cut it, so let’s take an in-depth look into Alpha Protocol and run over the reasons as to why it is what I say it is.
Alpha Protocol is a game that, with its ideas, draws the dream from nearly any teenage boy. Yes, being a secret agent who utilises hi-tech gadgets, awesomely modified weaponry and kick-ass close quarters combat moves. Unfortunately, as great as all of that sounds, it’s merely the paper and ideas talking, but not the actual game. You play as Agent Michael Thorton, a government agent who, just like any American dream spy story, embarks on a dangerous mission only to be, at the end of it, betrayed by his agency, on the run and turned into a rogue agent. The betrayal should have resulted in his death, but Thorton survived, and now the company that did him in are hunting him down in order to prevent their exposure at the hands of, well, you.
Admittedly, the story aspect and the characters are most likely the best thing about the game. The problem is that it takes quite a long time until it begins to grow onto you and start gripping you, because the pacing isn’t all that fast. Only once you really start meeting the whack characters, get to know them and do missions with them and start to make dangerous choices does the game really show you what it could have been. The stakes are high, the dangers great and the missions exciting. But, unfortunately, the game itself just holds it all back from being the thrilling experience it could have been.
Alpha Protocol takes an interesting approach with the dialogue system and how you interact with the various NPCs in the game. Instead of choosing a response from a list, you’ll be selecting a “stance”, attitude or approach in order to tackle a situation. So if someone is being difficult, you might decide to take an aggressive stance and force them to cooperate, or you might try to negotiate. There will often be times where you’ll be able to either execute someone or spare their life, and both will have very different effects – for example you might gain an ally by letting the person live or gain respect from others for killing them off. It’s moments like these that make you question your decisions and think hard on them, which is a sign that the game is doing something right.
However, it’s not without its problems. In every situation you are given a short time limit to choose your response. While the point of this was to create tension, it often just creates frustration, because you’ll actually be wanting to think a little before making your move, but the game will force you to select something in a hurry. If you fail to choose an option, then Thorton will automatically respond – and it may or may not be something you’d have chosen. Also, because of the way the game has designed responses, it can sometimes be a challenge to determine what impact they will have, because the option is only one or two words in summary.
Where the game succeeds is with its relationship building. Please someone, and you gain a positive reputation point with them, make them upset and you lose one. Sure the issue is that it’s shallow and very easy to build a relationship, but the great part is that it’s really difficult to please everyone and it’s very interesting to have to work out each character and what makes them tick, so that you can change your approach towards them efficiently. To put it in perspective, one female character might like you being flirtatious with them, but another might prefer you to remain professional. It really is a mix of emotions, as some characters want to see your dark side and will encourage it, others will value honesty and directness and some will like the fact that you put the mission first.
Alpha Protocol plays like a third person shooter, but unfortunately the gameplay is where all the problems kick in. It really is something, that the game was originally supposed to be released at the end of October 2009, but ended up being pushed back to the 27th of May 2010, which is a seven month delay. You’d think all that extra time would result in a much more polished game, but it’s quite ironic that Alpha Protocol’s biggest problem is that it is just unfinished – and it lacks a huge amount of polish. There are so many things that either could have been done better or are overall just bad in their execution. The thing is, it isn’t just a few areas of gameplay that are the problem, but rather every single aspect of it comes fully equipped with a host of annoyances and issues. They may not always be game breaking, but they definitely raise your anger levels dangerously.
Depending on the class you pick at the beginning of the game, you’ll start out with different guns. In your arsenal, there are pistols, sub machine guns, shotguns, assault rifles, items – which are things like grenades, gadgets and first aid kits – and your skills. With guns, you’re able to simply blast away or get behind cover and do it that way. However, the biggest problem is that the weapons are just so damn inaccurate. With each weapon type, aiming through your sights and locking on an enemy will slowly make your overly large reticule go smaller, until it’s a perfect lock on, which, depending on the gun, will give your next shot a special bonus. For a pistol, it would be a dead-on, critical hit, while for a shotgun it would be a knock down shot and so on. But really, it takes so long for the reticule to focus, and there’s practically no chance of hitting your enemies by just aiming at them, and even when you’ve poured points into the weapon skill it still takes long enough to get you shot a good few times. Not to mention that blind firing is actually more accurate than firing down your weapon’s sights. No jokes.
The enemy AI doesn’t help. They are so obscure and random that Alpha Protocol might just have even created good AI in the twisted sense – it’s shocking. They’ll often run around in the most random directions that locking on them is virtually impossible, because even slight movements of your crosshair widens the reticule again, so you’ll frustratingly have to go kill them up close and personal. They will spam you with grenades with detonation times so short that getting out unscathed is hard, and if you get out you’re just going to get shot. They’ll spot you from miles away randomly, shoot you while you’re behind solid cover, stand there doing nothing allowing you to kill them and overall just be absolutely incomprehensible and senseless. To make it worse, during alert phases and such you’ll often see enemies spawn out of thin air, magically, appearing near you.
As far as getting up close and personal is concerned, the melee combat system is damaged to the point of frustration. It consists of one button entirely, so when you get close to an enemy you’re just going to button bash. Thorton doesn’t interact with the enemy when attacking, meaning he just hits in front of him. The result is often that, if you misjudge the distance between you and an enemy, or if he makes a spastic movement just before you strike, you will be attacking the air while he pumps you with lead. It’s further disappointing that melee combat is strictly non-lethal, and you can’t even cap someone unconscious, as the bullet goes through them and hits the ground, so it’s possible to end up disappointing a friend because you left too many enemies alive. Also, sneaking up behind an enemy gives you two options, to silently kill or take them out in a non-lethal way. For the most part it works, but there are too few animations for these kills and some of the takedowns are long enough for another enemy to spot you.
The class system is simple, in that earning enough experience levels you up, allowing you to put your “action points” into select fields like toughness, skills and weapon proficiencies. Once you reach a certain level, you can specialise further, to become a more advanced spy, commando, techie or your own thing, but I won’t elaborate because it doesn’t change much. I certainly didn’t see new unique skills or abilities crop up afterward. Moving on, a massive cause for irritation lies with the mini games, such as hacking, lock picking and bypassing closed doors and alarms. They start out easy enough, but later they become hazardous to your health, save for lock picking which remains doable. Each mini game gives you a time limit, as if Alpha Protocol gets sadistic joy out of annoying you. However, for non-essential things, like deactivating alarms, unless you’ve upgraded your skill in these areas, they later become impossible, because you’re simply given too little time. It’s frustrating because the game doesn’t tell you that you lack the required skill to hack, but rather lets you go at it again and again as you fight with the damn thing. Since failure in these mini games results in an alarm going off, it really can darken your mood.
The game is structured in a very simple way. There are three main story arcs that take place in three different locations, and you can decide in which order you’d like to tackle them in. Basically, each location contains a safehouse where you can change your outfit, buy, sell and organise your weapons and equipment, read through your emails, reply to them and head out to engage in missions. You can modify your weapons with silencers, sights, grips and other useful tools to increase their performance, but the whole system can be disheartening because your money is lost very quickly, but gained slowly. The email idea is interesting, as the various characters you interact with in the game will send you emails, and you’ll be able to respond to a select number of them in similar ways to the dialogue system. However, the problem is that you’ll often get very lengthy emails which can turn the game into a reading chore, so soon you’ll become far too bored to read them all and so you’ll miss out on story and character happenings. The next problem is that, like the long emails, there are so many other tedious things involved, like the fact that after almost every mission you’re forced to go through lengthy dialogue sessions in reflection on them.
We’re at the final and most horrid section – the technical side of the game. You know, Alpha Protocol might have even been good if the game wasn’t such a technical nightmare. As I said earlier, the game is just unfinished and lacks polish. Bugs are everywhere, and bizarre ones too, with the enemy AI, with you going through objects and with you sometimes dying inexplicably on full health. Then there’s the graphics, which are below average, and really don’t fit this game into the current year. There are texture issues, really stiff animations often enough and an overall bad presentation. Graphically, Alpha Protocol falls miles behind what’s expected of games of today. It would have been forgivable, because graphics aren’t everything, but all of the technical and visual problems just make the presentation sloppy and crap.
Other problems include the clunky and unresponsive controls, the radial menu for selecting abilities and gadgets and the game design. All three of these things relate to each other. The controls, combined with the game design, can make the cover system a real pain, because it’s hard to distinguish between what you can and can’t take cover behind – some work, others just don’t. Switching cover spots hardly ever works and just exposes you to fire, trying to take cover quickly doesn’t either, and overall the controls force you to be slow and choppy even when you’re experienced with the game. This happens with the radial select menu as well, because you may only have one skill and one gadget equipped at a time, and in order to choose something else you have to enter the radial menu, which pauses the game, then only can you choose new ones and use them. It would have been far more logical to allow you to maybe cycle through your skills with a button or use them directly from the radial menu.
I won’t really speak about the sound tracks, because they’re hardly noticeable. In fact I can’t even remember hearing any – that’s how unimportant they were. The voice acting may not be top notch, but it’s mostly good, and the sound effects are decent enough. All in all, there is a welcome amount of hours to spend playing the game, which clocks in at round about twelve hours. However, there’s a good chance you won’t return for a second play-through, or even complete your first, unless you really enjoyed this game or are hectically bored, because of all the frustrations and tedious events you’ll have to go through will stop you. Alpha Protocol may get a few things right, but it’s a much better example of wrong. It’s both shameful and a bit shocking that the game turned out like this, especially when taking the extra development time into consideration.
When Alpha Protocol gets rolling, it can be addictive and it can even be very entertaining, but unfortunately it takes far too long to get into it and all of its issues just keep it back from being anything more. This game, on its own, can be seen as a mediocre action RPG at best, but in the face of far better competition, it ultimately falls flat. In this day and age, we can’t afford to spend money on games that are merely “ok”, and so, despite everything said, coming purely from me personally: Do not buy this game, rather get something far better. If that doesn’t stop you, then at least don’t get it at the full asking price, because it’s just not worth it.