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Backlogged: Alpha Protocol - Destructoid

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About
Formerly "akathatoneguy".

I've been on D-toid for quite some time, and I got into video games back in the NES days.

My console history pretty much goes like this...NES->Genesis->Playstation->PS2->Xbox 360 (+PS3). I've also briefly owned an N64, Dreamcast, and a bunch of portable systems. Because I missed out on a good three generations of Nintendo, I've also missed out on plenty of classics. Plus, I had years in high school where I didn't play games much at all, or stuck mainly to (gasp!) sports games. Have no fear, fellow gamers...I have since renounced my evil ways and opened myself up to worlds of amazing games that don't involve sticks, or...er, balls. Okay, I worded that awkwardly.

I'm also into sports, movies, and other stuff that is pretty much enjoyed by most everybody. My main hobbies are MMA (mostly watching, although I do jiu-jitsu and have done some kickboxing), the Chicago Bears/Cubs, and video games. I read comics when I have time in an effort to become a more well-rounded nerd, also. I'm finishing up college right now and I haven't worked a "regular" job in about five years now. Instead, I've been a freelance writer and written MMA columns at various sites (currently Fightmania.com).

I would LOVE to write about video games professionally, and I think I'm ready to do so. I've resurrected my c-blog going again partially in an effort to reach that goal, and partially because I just like to be able to connect with other people about the games I experience and topics in the gaming industry.

Inquiries, love letters, marriage proposals, and amazing job offers go to akathatoneguy [at] hotmail [dot] com.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter @ItsJonHartley. I'll be happy to follow back fellow Dtoiders!

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Just about every gamer has a backlog, and I am no exception. To try and keep mine managable, I will regularly pick a game I've been meaning to get to and complete it (or play as much of it as I can stand) before reporting my thoughts. That's what Backlogged is all about: the dream of finally getting to all the games I've been meaning to play. And no, it has nothing to do with being constipated. Finally, don't worry, I won't including anything other than very light spoilers past the first hour of gameplay without warning you.


Not pictured: Awesome "Se-gaaaaa" opening credit

The Backstory

Alpha Protocol is a game that I read about regularly before its release, immediately being interested in the branching paths and interesting dialogue system. Of course, the game was delayed for over a year and upon release, was panned by many critics (including our own Jim Sterling, who gave the game a woeful 2/10) for poor shooting and cover mechanics, along with technical issues.

Nevertheless, the wide range of review scores (as low as 10, but with several others in the low to mid-80s) and the praise I've heard for the RPG aspects of the game kept me somewhat interested, and I finally snagged a copy for all of $11.69 at GameStop in February. Despite hearing that the game often gets frustrating due to the shooting sections not being well done and the difficulty being uneven, I finally gave it a try this last week.

Easy Does It

I'm not "reviewing" this game, per se. As such, I am freed from the responsibility to try out different difficulty levels and so forth. Instead, I simply aimed to play it, enjoy it (if possible), and clear it out of the ol' backlog. Because of that, I made the decision early on to play the game on easy.

Why? Well, I'm okay with a good challenge if a game's mechanics are sound and the difficulty isn't ridiculous. To date, there are only a handful of games I've ever played through on easy (this and Catherine being the two that come to mind), and in both cases it's because I was more interested in the story than anything else. When I heard that this game had shoddy combat and that you had to invest in certain skills to get anywhere on the standard difficulty, I figured I'd have a better time saying "eff it", playing on easy and doing whatever I wanted, instead. Although very few sections stand out that seem as if they would have been frustrating on harder levels (besides the helicopter attack from the last mission), I think I made the right choice.

Getting Started

You get to choose classes in Alpha Protocol, which is only slightly made confusing by the fact that later on, you also choose specialties. I chose "Soldier" in part because it indicated that my character has "natural language talent and quick wit." Sounds about right, if I do say so myself. Ahem.

My first official act within the game? To hit on the first woman I spoke to, the horrifically-named Mina Tang. Mina has disastrous bangs and a mouth that looks like it belongs on the head cheerleader of Uncanny Valley High, but I decided right off the bat that like all secret agents, my character would be all about the tang. Even Mina Tang.


Little-known fact: Mini grew up in East LA, which is why she still shaves her eyebrows off, then pencils them in

I noticed right off the bat that the game likes to provide you with choices. One of the easiest of which: "Open Door" or "Break Open Door". Well, shit. If you put it like THAT...why would I ever NOT want to break open a door? I'd kick in the door to Subway whenever I wanted to get a sandwich if I could get away with it. I was less impressed with the melee combat, which looked decidedly last-gen and like it was tacked on at the last minute. "Oh shit guys, what do players do against all of the enemies who will run through their gunfire and attack them with kung fu? Better program some melee in quick!"

No, I realized that my door-busting ways were already over; stealthy was the way for me. Using my stealth skills, I snuck up on an unsuspecting enemy and immobilized him with some typical judo-rate that would only work in the confines of a videogame. I also got my first taste of the lockpicking, hacking, and other minigames, which were not bad! At least, at first. But hey, I've yet to find a similar minigame that hasn't gotten old after doing it a couple hundred times.

After kicking the shit out of all kinds of nameless thugs, I found out that it was all just a training exercise and part of the recruiting process. OF COURSE! That makes perfect sense! I customized my character (a pair of aviators and five 'o-clock shadow seemed great for his douchey, womanizing demeanor), got trained up, and was set to go.

Betrayal! Suspense! Intrigue! Sexual Innuendos!

The story of Alpha Protocol is a mixed bag. On one hand, I loved the characters, who may not have been believable in all cases (and often were caricatures), but were always clearly-defined and in most cases, either instantly loveable or hateable. On the other hand, the story was a whole lot of crap about terrorists doing terroristy things, evil corporations working with arms dealers, missiles needing to be recovered, and blah blah blah, you get the point. I'll be honest with you: a fair amount of the time, I set off on a mission not really knowing (or caring) why the hell I was doing what I was doing.

What I did care about, though, was my interaction with the other characters. Sure, it was fun clumsily trying to seduce women, but it was also fun figuring out the motives of shady characters or deciding which way to approach conversations in order to get them to do what I wanted them to do. Investing in them made me similarly invested in big choices that occurred later in the game, which were occasionally among the harder ones I've been asked to make in a videogame.

Your character, no matter what you do, seems to be locked into the persona of Drake from the "Uncharted" series' extra-snarky older brother. You can choose to be professional, suave, arrogant, aggressive, and so on during conversations, but when you don't get to choose what you say (as in some cutscenes or communications during missions), Agent Thorton often makes dry wisecracks, anyway, such as when he wonders aloud in a monotone voice whether a terrorist under arrest "likes waterboarding".

Sometimes, to keep the story on the path you've sent it on, characters will do things that seem out of character, or just plain weird. For instance, after a misunderstanding with one character, I was able to end the confrontation without violence, which is fine, but it seemed weird that he would just let bygones be bygones when I had just mowed down dozens of his men during the mission. Other times, though, you can convince someone who openly dislikes you to help you out if you appeal to the correct motivation, which you use your own intuition and the information you've collected on them to figure out.


Judo-rate! Keeeyaaaa!

Choices, Choices

The game's dialogue system is great. Options of what attitude to assume in a conversation appear as other characters are finishing their statements or questions, and you have a finite amount of time to choose how to act or respond. I found that the one to two-word descriptions were usually pretty fitting with what Thorton would actually say. The really great thing, though, was seeing how your choices affected not only the gameplay itself, but how your missions went and what options you might have in the future.

Alpha Protocol has all kinds of different paths that you can take, ranging not only from how you deal with the game's villains and main characters to who you ally with, and sometimes who lives and dies. Here's a vague and only lightly-spoilery description of a scenario I dealt with early on:

I had the choice to either extort, arrest, or kill an arms dealer. Because I wanted to get information from him, I chose to arrest him. Doing so hampered intelligence gathering in the region, but also lowered terrorist weapon supplies. In another mission, I chose to fulfill a side objective that helped a friend, but also caused a security lockdown, making the mission more complicated.

Later on, the game also throws some tough "you can only accomplish one of the two objective" scenarios at you, but it goes back to the well with them a little too often and they lose some of their power as a result.

Love Machine

For me, this game was one part murder simulator and one part sexual harassment simulator. Although I found the combat to not be quite as bad as others have, you can guess which part I enjoyed more. From the start, my Thorton hit on, flirted with, and generally made uncomfortable every woman that he came in contact with.

And there are so many to choose from! From the afore-mentioned Miss Tang to the predictably career-minded photographer (with red hair and named Scarlet, no less) to the classic damsel in distress (Madison Saint James, who Thorton correctly notices has a porn star name), there is quite a range. None is as entertaining as SIE, though, whose name is spelled in all caps for no apparent reason, besides maybe the fact that she murders professional soldiers in the snow while wearing a tube top and pink sunglasses, so she can pretty much spell her name however the hell she wants.


Completely appropriate attire for gunfights in Russia in the dead of winter

All have their own personalities, which makes interacting with them a little more interesting than in, say, Bioware's offerings, where you know you pretty much have to listen to their boring stories and pretend to be interested in their problems to earn their favor. Sure, Bioware's method may be more realistic, but in Alpha Protocol you can actually try to woo a woman and fail miserably for awhile when not knowing what she wants.

Another difference from Bioware's games is that you can be a complete man-whore and sleep with everyone in one playthrough. I failed, as the undoubtedly sadomasochistic pleasures of SIE were undiscovered by my character, but it's the thought that counts. The romance scenes, of course, are nothing to write home about, with just the insinuation that you, to use one love interest's innuendo, "planted your tracking device" in the women.

Who's the Boss?

I generally tend to think that boss fights are a silly, unnecessary and outdated part of gaming that have overstayed their welcome. They either require you to abandon the core mechanics of the game for a gimmicky one-off battle or they lazily through a suped-up version of a regular villain at you just to add some articifical challenge to the proceedings.

In shooters, the problem is ten-fold, as it's impossible to suspend your disbelief when you have to shoot someone dozens of times in the face to kill them. In Alpha Protocol, you run into a teenage girl who appears to be fighting you in street clothes, yet somehow takes several bullets to the face before realizing she's probably lost the battle. Later on, I faced an enemy who I shot over 30 times, almost always in the head, before again subduing- not even KILLING- him.

The only saving grace for what would likely be very frustrating experiences on the harder difficulties from these bullet-absorbing supervillains is that if you level up certain abilities, the fights are almost an afterthought. With all but a couple of bosses, I simply used a pistol ability where you freeze time, load up a bunch of targets (all of them to the bosses' head, of course) and let them all go at once to make quick work of them. Still, what place do boss fights like that have in a game like this?


Her hoodie is...bulletproof, I guess? Hell, I don't know

Shooting: Dice-Roll Style

Some people were put off by the combat in Alpha Protocol, and I can't blame them. Due to the RPG aspects of the game, there are times when you'll aim at someone's head and simply miss for no apparent reason, for instance. That's hard to defend. Then again, how do you properly show progression if all of the success rests on the player's individual ability level, which by and large doesn't change a whole lot?

I also found that if you stick to a couple types of guns and just level them up, the shooting wasn't quite as frustrating. Having to wait a few seconds for your reticle to converge for a critical hit felt strange (especially when being shot at), but since your enemies have just about zero accuracy on the lowest difficulty level, it wasn't such a big deal for me.

The stealth aspects of the game were not as bad as I'd heard. I didn't feel like enemies who shouldn't have known I was there detected me very often, and an ability you can earn fairly quickly that works like the "Detect Life" spell/ability in the Elder Scrolls series was pretty helpful, too. That said, my stealth style is best described as "stealth...eh, fuck it", as I would generally use stealth just to get the drop on a group of enemies and start confrontations to my advantage, not to sneak through entire missions unnoticed, which seems as if it would be fairly difficult in this game.

Some missions only required for you to use your conversational skills, and another mission has you using a sniper rifle to zoom in on suspects to find the right one before carrying out an assassination, which was a nice change of pace. However, a lot of the missions required the same "stealth...eh, fuck it" play style and didn't have much variety as the game went on.

Many Different Paths

When I came to the end of the game, I felt pretty satisfied. Even with one playthrough, I can testify to the many different ways your Alpha Protocol game can end. I re-loaded my last checkpoint right before the final boss fight and changed a couple of choices right at the end that gave me different endings, for instance, one of which was radically different (and patently ridiculous, but whatever).

Looking around online, it seems that there are many parts of the story that branch off and can cause the ending to be completely different. There's also an extra rundown at the end of the final mission that ties up some loose ends via a few paragraphs of text, which is also done at the end of previous missions to help you understand the gravity of your decisions.

(SPOILERS)In the end of my playthrough, Marburg apparently escaped scot-free, but I brought Leland to bloody, beautiful justice. I saved Mina and we floated off into the sunset to make little Tang-Thortons. Of course, when I reloaded and chose to let Leland live, I literally had my jaw drop as Thorton was shot by a sniper who turned out to be Scarlet herself. Turned out that Scarlet had made the assassination attempt on Taiwan's president earlier in the game, too. I give Obsidian props for making two very distinct endings from what would be two nearly identical playthroughs, but the Scarlet-as-assassin ending was pretty far-fetched. If you've played through Alpha Protocol, let me know how your ending was!(END SPOILERS)


In real life, I always choose "suave"

Remaining Questions

-If there's no new game plus, why did I earn XP at the end of the final mission?

-Why does SIE's accent sound Russian, not German?

-Seriously..."Mina Tang"?

By the Numbers

19:55 time logged
24 achievements unlocked for 675 gamerscore
576 enemies killed
108 enemies subdued
49,336 XP earned
928 children orphaned (no really, the game tells you that)

Final Thoughts

Alpha Protocol exceeded all of my expectations. I'll go as far as to say that I really enjoyed playing it. Now, it had started to wear out its welcome with repetitive gameplay and mission structure near the end of the story, but the interaction between characters kept me interested, nonetheless. While I felt that the combat and overall gameplay coule be improved, I didn't find them to be as bad as was indicated in many of the reviews I've read.

Alpha Protocol reminds me of LA Noire a lot in that while the game was far from perfect, there were some solid ideas that I'd like to see taken further, if not in a sequel, than in another game entirely. Overall, I liked Alpha Protocol a lot, and I'll likely replay it in the future to see some of the other things that could have happened in the story.

If you've played the game, too, let me know what you thought of it in the comments!
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