Alpha Protocol is an Espionage RPG developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Sega on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2010. The titular organization is an American black-ops institution so secret the rest of the government doesn't know about it. The game follows their new recruit, Mike Thorton, who is tasked with investigating a missile strike on a civilian plane performed by a Saudi Arabian terrorist group using American missiles. This sends agent Thorton down a rabbit hole of international conspiracy as he tracks down who is responsible.
Speaking as someone who has never read Tom Clancy, Alpha Protocol is the Tom Clanciest thing I've ever played, beating out Metal Gear and Syphon Filter by a wide margin with how many black ops conspiracies have been crammed into a 20-hour experience. It's frankly ridiculous how many factions and people have their fingers in this clandestine pie.
It's so damn confusing that there came times where I ran into a group mid-mission and either had no idea who they were, or assumed they were part of the group I was already fighting. With about a dozen of organization and 20 people with detailed backstories to keep track of, the story is rather messy. International affairs are complicated and it serves the roleplaying aspect of the game quite well, but as a story I got little out of it.
It's all put together quite well (I wouldn't say there are any plot holes), but the end product feels so plain in spite of all the work that went into it. Our main character Mike is like a slice of stale bread on legs and most characters feel like stereotypes with their entertaining characteristics toned down. There's still this air of remaining campness that keeps me from engaging with the story seriously. The only character that stands out in the cast is the psychopathic "CIA agent" Stephen Heck, who steals the spotlight in every mission he's in by being properly 110% campy at all times, so props to Nolan North for that performance.
So yeah, it's less a story to enjoy, and more a function in service of the roleplaying systems, which are pretty grand. The first thing of note is the conversation system, which is based on three JBs of spy fiction: James Bond (Suave), Jack Bauer (Aggressive) and Jason Bourne (Professional). Each of these options are presented to you during conversations and must be picked within a time limit, hastening dialog by a lot when compared to other RPGs. The intent is to keep you on edge and even allow for the odd mistake to happen.
But that's not as infuriating as it sounds, as the game has the foresight to treat "negative" actions as valid by rewarding you with a variety of perks depending on your choices. The most obvious ones are the perks you get from your mission handler, which are dependant on how much they like or dislike you. But for certain characters, getting them to hate you can be more beneficial as it might give you a better perk, but it can also restrict your options during certain conversations.
As you go through the game making allies and enemies, there comes a point where people you spared or befriended come back to help or hinder you as the endgame solidifies. It's very rewarding to have an RPG with so many variables in play matter, if only a little. The endings aren't that different, but the game respects your choices by letting you team up with people of your choosing for the end.
The Mission Makes The Man
The structure of Alpha Protocol is quite interesting. Every area of the game puts you into a really swanky safehouse (furthering the spy fanatasy) where you can customize Thorton a bit, shop for mission-specific favours (detailed maps, on-site weapons, lower security), equipment and even engage with the other characters through email. Once you're ready, you pick between the available missions and set off with your chosen loadout. The order you do missions in within each area rarely matters unless you're deadset on skipping some, which can have repercussions for later on. Usually, contacting the locals opens up new missions that will help you during the area's climactic mission.
After completing the prologue, the game really opens up by giving you the choice between three regions of the world to go to. Each one must be completed, but which one you pick first determines who your earliest allies can be, altering events ever so slightly. For one playthrough, I befriended the faction G22 in Russia, so when I ran into them in Taipei, I knew who they were already and decided to stay my hand, which solidified them as my allies for the endgame.
For my other playthrough, I went there first as a gun-toting moron and decided to shoot up everyone, since I had no reason to trust them in-universe. My intent there was to befriend Stephen Heck in order to abuse his "skills" as much as possible to cause mayhem, but the shooting mechanics started to bore me at that point (shotguns are stupidly good), so I gave up on that playthrough. Still, I'm quite happy with the choices you can make here.
Now for the actual gameplay. The best way I can describe Alpha Protocol is by calling it something inbetween Spy Fiction and Metal Gear Solid. It's not as cheap as the former, but not as deep and detailed as the latter. Levels are small and focused (also kinda ugly) with limited ways of interacting with the enemies and the environment. What stood out most to me was that you can't move bodies, nor can you freely jump over cover or drop down ledges. Being a game from an RPG team, I can only assume they were smart and tried to keep the game's scope in check, which is commendable.
Movement is nothing special, Mike can really only crouch, run, climb ladders and ride ziplines to get around. The cover system is rather awkward, as not only is it hard to discern what counts as cover, sometimes the game glitches out, making cover not work or somehow disables your aiming reticule. It wasn't constant, but it happened every other mission or so. Thankfully, the game is so easy that I didn't really mind.
As you level up, you get the choice of specializing in a variety of fields, but the main ones are stealth, gadgets, melée and the 4 weapon types. All of the ones I played with (stealth, pistols, fire grenades, shotguns, assault rifles) were absurdly strong after only a few levels of investment. I'd rather have it like this than make certain things useless, but it's kinda ridiculous what you can get away with doing in this game compared to its peers.
And it's not just because you can freely activate invisibility or mow people down with a single shotgun blast. It goes deeper than that and I've come to the conclusion that Alpha Protocol does some things other stealth games should learn from.
First of all, getting caught isn't as much of an implicit failure state as it is in other games. Even if an alarm is raised, there are only so many enemies present and if you prepare just a little bit, you can easily take them out. And the game rarely cares if you kill people, so it strikes this good balance of making the player want to stay quiet for as long as they can until they stumble and have to deal with the consequences. The game autosaves at check points, so there's no quick save abuse and the tranq ammo for the pistol is both rather limited and not an instant win button like in other games.
Still. for as easy as it is, patience is still key, as gun sway and recoil severly hampers how often you can fire. It's not early-game Deus Ex levels of unhinged, but you really need to plan shots and wait for Mike's aim to stabilize. Treating the game like a standard third-person shooter will only make the experience worse.
The game really is its own thing in spite of all the clear influence in its story and mechanics. Of course, given that it's the only Espionage RPG in existance, that shouldn't be surprising. A shame we haven't seen more devs explore this sub-set of the genre more.