Alpha Protocol is the kind of game that comes along once a generation. Some gamers will adore it, others will loathe it, but most will respect it. The culmination of pieces that Obsidian has put together creates a game that stands head and shoulders above the competition in certain areas, while lagging embarrassingly behind in others. It is evident when you are playing Alpha Protocol that the developers really had some passion behind their creation, and at times it shows in some truly revolutionary gameplay. What this all boils down to is that Alpha Protocol is a game that you really need to know what you are getting into before deciding to drop your hard earned cash down for.
When you begin the game you wake up on a hospital bed, drugged and completely unaware of where you are. As you make your plans for escape you begin to mold your story. As it turns out this was all a test by your new outfit; the secret organization known as Alpha Protocol. Once you get the basics down you are given a chance to customize your character. Don’t get too excited as you really only get to change your hair style, facial hair and some accessories. You play as Michael Thorton and the game enforces that by not allowing you to change any of his features, though it seemed a bit weird that my character magically grew a beard and more hair in a span of a few seconds.
The plot in Alpha Protocol plays out like any other spy/espionage action story you have seen before. There are plot twists, betrayals and plenty of bad guys to take down. You will travel across the world to several locales and meet plenty of interesting people along the way. Think of it as a combination of all your favorite heroes such as James Bond or Jason Bourne and you get the idea. What sets the game apart from others like it though is the dialogue system. Conversations between characters are no longer static interactions, but more like a way for you to mold the outcome of the story. We all know Mass Effect also does this like many games before it, but Alpha Protocol takes it to an entirely new plateau.
First let’s talk a little about this amazing dialogue system. Much like Mass Effect conversations in Alpha Protocol are not just cut scenes. Instead during integral parts of the conversation you are given a chance to answer in a variety of fashions, most of the time you have the option to answer suave, aggressive or professional. There is no time to sit and debate it here as there is a set amount of time you have to choose before the game automatically answers. This keeps conversations flowing, and more organic as you have to really decided how to respond quickly. I found myself frustrated at this at first as I am one of those gamers that likes to try and play the game the “right” way the first time, but after a while I came to appreciate how much more dynamic this makes your experience.
The reason it works so well is because your responses don’t just alter minor points to the game, they can change it completely. Conversation choices can literally open up or close entire sections of the game as well as your relationships with various characters. The interaction between people in this game feels more natural than any other I have experienced. I actually cared when I upset a character that I liked. The sheer scope of things that you can mold really lend to multiple playthroughs of the game, just to see how things play out differently depending on your responses. For example in one of the very first missions in the game you can opt to not kill a specific character, thus opening up an entire conspiracy that changes several key components to the story. This is the stuff that next gen dialogue interaction should be about.
Another area where I really enjoyed the game was the leveling system. While character progression in an RPG may be standard stuff; applying it to an action game takes some getting used to. For instance you would think with a free-aim mechanic that a headshot would always be a headshot. That is what gaming has taught us. Well in Alpha Protocol that is not always the case. Your actions are entirely based on your stats, thus if you do not have a high enough level in your pistol category, headshots are not always a given. There is an array of areas to upgrade your stats and they will depend on what kind of game you want to play. If you want to go the stealth route that should be the first thing you upgrade, although there are also some quirks to the system.
For instance upgrading stealth will allow you to basically walk nearly in front of enemies without being noticed, while when not upgraded enemies can pinpoint your location with seemingly Jedi accuracy. It becomes frustrating when trying to play the game as an action experience. Furthermore the shooting mechanic works under the same principle. This all is nothing new to RPG aficionados, and you probably expect it going into the game, but if not it will be a rude awakening. We round out this area with a very cool weapon upgrade system that gives you access to tons of parts and weapons that make upgrading them a real treat. Adding a new scope or barrel that actually affects the way the weapon handles and looks, is a small, but appreciated feature. There are also a host of minigames that pop up from time to time to break up the action. These range from novel, to downright frustrating. I enjoy the lock picking mechanic, but matching the numbers in a sequence of moving digits is definitely an eyesore.
Unfortunately where the game begins to crumble is in the production values and gameplay quirks. There are numerous things that simply make the game feel like it was designed on a last generation console. Problems such as camera issues for contextual actions, ridiculous AI and a wonky cover mechanic round out the problems you will face when trying to enjoy the experience. I found attempting stealth before maxing out the bar was pointless as enemies always found a way to see or hear me, regardless of how careful I was. It also doesn’t help that some of the character models and animations look downright goofy at times. The camera also has its fair share of hindrances as it finds itself hidden behind objects when appearing from behind cover, and choosing to display the worst possible angle when descending or ascending ladders and ledges. These are all problems that you know have been ironed out in other games, and further enforces the assumption that this game was simply not complete before it shipped.
Visually the game is hampered by poor textures and stiff animation. Michael has the most uncomfortable crouch animation I have seen in all of gaming. The game is built on the Unreal engine, and at times you would think it was the original version of it due to serious draw-in and texture pop-up. The game is certainly not ugly just dated on almost every front. I do love how each locale has a specific color palette, lending to the diversity of each area, but as a whole the game just feels downright bland. The sound fares a little better with some decent voice acting and a solid soundtrack. I do have to admit I am not a fan of the main character’s voice, but there are plenty of stand-out performances in the mix. The music is your standard action affair, but it ramps up at just the right times.
Alpha Protocol is not a terrible game by any stretch of the imagination. Instead it is a collection of truly next-generation ideas wrapped in a last generation package. It is hard to ignore all the faults and technical hiccups the game brings with it, even if the dialogue system is truly revolutionary. If you know what you are getting into before taking the plunge the game definitely can satisfy your number crunching RPG need. Everything is based on stats and dice rolls, and as mentioned the branching story and interactive dialogue truly is amazing to see pan out. Alpha Protocol is a game with fantastic ideas that simply falls victim to the staples of poor game design and shoddy production values.
Review copy provided by publisher.