Your weapon is choice. That's what Alpha Protocol proudly declares in this spy RPG with more than a shade of Mass Effect about it. Developed by the fine folk at Obsidian, Alpha Protocol has been a most promising prospect since it was first revealed, and the mixture of choice-laden RPG with secret agent shenanigans made for quite the irresistible cocktail.
Of course, having good ideas and having a good game are two different concepts that are rarely brought together, which leads us to the all important question -- is Alpha Protocol a choice worth making, or is it less James Bond and more Inspector Clouseau? Read on to find out.
Alpha Protocol (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Released: June 1
If you want to save time, let's get this out in the open right now -- Alpha Protocol isn't very good. In fact, it's absolutely dreadful and it should not have been released in the state it's in. It looks and feels every bit like a game that has been subjected to patches, fixes and panicked over-development, yet still managed to hit its (perpetually postponed) deadline without being finished. Alpha Protocol is a mess, and that's putting it kindly.
The game is split fairly evenly between token RPG efforts and third-person action, although it's clear that this is far more of an action game than it is a roleplaying one. As Agent Mike Thorton, you join the ranks of the Alpha Protocol, a clichéd clandestine organization that specializes in deniable ops. The game is designed for multiple playthroughs, as the story can change with every choice you make. In this regard, Obsidian has certainly done something right. How you speak to characters, who you choose to kill, and how you perform your missions can all have an effect on the game, and for once they're effects that you can actually feel throughout the course of the game, with long-standing repercussions for your decisions.
Alpha Protocol is innovative in that you never quite know how your words and actions will alter the situation, and unlike other games, where the conversations can be influenced with charisma stats, the interactions of this particular title are determined entirely by whether you choose to be aggressive, professional, or humorous. Intuitively getting a feel for the situation and the temperament of NPCs takes precedence over shallow and meaningless dialog choices perpetuated by other RPGs. In the background, Alpha Protocol is still taking you through formulaic and preordained conversations, but the illusion of a natural choice and flowing conversation is crafted surprisingly well. In terms of the way a story is told, Alpha Protocol is a success.
However, Alpha Protocol's story never gets very interesting, rendering all the clever narrative tricks rather worthless. The characters aren't compelling in the least, the narrative is convoluted and feels completely alienated from the overall experience, and Agent Thorton himself is a rather dull character who doesn't seem to change all that much regardless of your dialog choices. Frankly, he comes across as a moronic dick no matter how you "choose" to play him. Great news for moronic dicks everywhere, but bad news for anybody else.
With a narrative and characters that have all the dimensions of a sheet of paper, the game really needs to rely on its thrilling spy action to remain interesting. That reliance is soon revealed to be a terrible, terrible mistake. It's difficult to describe just how bad the game is, because it's one of those things so unbelievably abominable that one has to experience it for oneself. However, since playing this game is not recommended, I'll certainly try and evoke the putridity of the gameplay in text.
First of all, enemy AI is an astonishing shambles, almost to the point of being impressive. Opponents run around with seemingly no direction whatsoever, apart from the ones who will charge directly into your bullets because they want to punch you in the face. No joke, one in three enemies want to do nothing but punch you in the face. He won't fire his gun, he'll just sprint towards you, dodging from left to right like a headless chicken, then he'll punch you in the face -- once -- and slowly back away, shooting you. It makes absolutely no sense, and yet it seems to have been deliberately programmed into the game's AI because that's all the enemy soldiers ever want to do. That is, when they're not conjuring up endless grenades to spam with alarming regularity.
There is a cover system, but it doesn't work. Most of the time the enemies will just shoot through the cover and kill you, and it's also impossible to tell what works as cover and what doesn't. Some surfaces can't be hidden behind, but you won't know until you try, soaking up extra damage in the process. Once you do find cover, you then have to hope Thorton will actually stick to it, and later you'll hope that he unsticks when you want to move on. It's very much a "touch and go" situation as to whether or not Thorton will behave the way you want him to. In other words, Thorton will decide when he wants to pretend he's in a competent third-person-shooter, not you.
The game is supposedly able to be played one of three ways -- using stealth, using brute force, and using gadgets. Stealth is no good because the enemy AI is so unpredictable and spotty, not to mention the useless camera and poor graphics make spotting enemies ahead of time difficult, and the complete lack of hiding places negates the idea of sneaking around. The gadgets are a cool idea, but nothing too innovative, and playing strictly as a gadget-based character mostly means throwing grenades around. That leaves you with a combat-oriented character, but combat is so crap that it's not really very fun.
It seems as if Obsidian tried to mix RPG combat with real-time shooting action, and it doesn't really work (what a surprise!). All it means is that sometimes the guns will miss even if the reticule is dead on target. You can stay still and watch the reticule close in an enemy for a critical shot, but the opponents are running around like the aforementioned decapitated poultry, so good luck with that. Steadying one's aim is next to impossible with the insane characters who are either running towards you, running in circles, or running nowhere, with Thorton stuck in the middle of this chimp's tea party surrounded by grenade spam and broken cover systems.
A big deal is made of the close quarters combat, but I don't know why because it's terrible. It consists simply of mashing one button and hoping for the best, especially as there's no targeting system for melee attacks and Thorton will frequently just punch the air in front of an enemy's face while they shoot the crap out of him. Unfortunately, it's almost essential to keep upgrading Thorton's melee skills because of those enemies who are obsessed with punching him.
When not dealing with a ruined combat system, players can have the action completely broken up by an overabundance of lockpicking and hacking minigames. You'll be pleased to know that they are the worst lockpicking and hacking minigames ever developed. The lockpicking, for example, forces players to gently squeeze one trigger/shoulder button to put a very tiny lock in place, then push the other trigger to set it. They need to do this multiple times with an absurdly strict time limit in place and it is twice as frustrating as it sounds. Sometimes the locks won't work, either, meaning you have to cancel out of the minigame and get back into it to reset things. At first the lockpicking is not so bad, but as the game goes on, you have more locks and less time on the clock.
Hacking is very much the same situation. Too much to do, and not enough time to do it in. Code cracking involves a grid full of rapidly changing symbols, except for two codes hidden within that remain the same, almost like a wordsearch. Players have to move two code overlays across the grid, but if they're too slow, the codes move elsewhere on the grid and need to be found again. Not only that, but the overlays move across the grid so slowly that even if you find the codes in time, there's no guarantee you'll get the overlay in place before it moves. All of this must be done before an overall time limit runs out. As with lockpicking, this already convoluted system becomes stricter and more difficult as time goes on, to the point where most sane players will give up entirely and ignore all hacking.
As if that wasn't enough, there's another form of hacking, mostly used for door locks and alarms. In this system, players must match corresponding numbers by following a short maze between the two figures. The maze paths can intertwine meaning that quick eyes and swift action are required. Out of all the minigames, this one isn't half bad, but don't worry, they find a way to screw it all up. Basically, the game thinks it's frightfully clever to increase the amount of numbers that need matching without adequately increasing the time limit. As soon as you see an alarm with ten numbers that need matching, just forget it, because it's not doable. The time limit is simply too short and the controls are too slugging and slow to deal with it. Not only that, but you can't rush the game because any mismatched number will shorten the already too short time limit.
In fairness, there are stats you can level up to make these minigames less abysmal and easier to d eal with, but Alpha Protocol masquerades as a game about choice, and if you choose not to max these stats out, you will basically be screwed over later on. You're never warned just how abundant these minigames are, with a new lock to pick or computer to hack appearing literally every five minutes, usually in clusters. Basically, if you want to enjoy Alpha Protocol at all, you need to max those stats or face hours upon hours of locked doors and untouchable computers that will reward your efforts with nothing but misery and rage. Choice is an illusion.
Alpha Protocol's RPG elements aren't half as bad as the combat and general gameplay. Thorton can be customized in a number of cool ways, from his personal history to his various skills and proficiencies. Gaining skills in different guns won't just increase his damage with them, but they will confer unique special abilities, accuracy upgrades, and critical hit chances. Thorton's actions during the game will also result in special perks that will stick with him throughout the game. Damage bonuses, health upgrades and more can all be won simply by talking to somebody in a certain way, or choosing to spare and end different lives. If Alpha Protocol has managed to do one thing in a new and impressive way, it's weaving an RPG experience throughout an action game, rather than keeping the two elements completely distinct from one another. It's just a shame that such clever and thoughtful development is wasted in this complete travesty of a videogame.
As with any good RPG, there are all sorts of special skills and buffs that can be unlocked while leveling up Thorton. It's a shame that very few of them are actually useful, though. Generally, you'll find one or maybe two special skills and stick with them, especially since selecting gadgets and skills requires pausing the game to bring up a radial menu in order to select what you want and then going back into the game and pressing a different button to use it. Most games, better games, just let you automatically activate a skill from the radial menu itself, but Alpha Protocol isn't a good game, so you have this pointless little process to go through instead.
Speaking of pointless processes, the mission selection is a complete pain in the backside. After every mission, Thorton has to go back to his safehouse and engage in rambling conversations before he can do anything. There are all kinds of time wasting activities, such as reading emails and buying weapons, but all these actions are accessed via pointless wandering from one destination to the next. Running upstairs to your computer to read vapid emails from dicks in between every mission just isn't fun. But then, nothing else about Alpha Protocol is fun so at least it's keeping with the theme.
The game's graphical presentation does a good job of matching the atrocious quality of the gameplay, with textures that frequently pop in and out, all manner of visual glitches such as floating objects or unresponsive targeting, and just good old fashioned bad animations and sub-par effects typifying the game's commitment to being bad. This is all topped off with mediocre voice acting, mediocre sound effects, and mediocre music. Essentially, Alpha Protocol looks exactly how it plays -- like a bad budget game that isn't even worth $20, let alone the $59.99 asking price.
Generally speaking, writing a bad review is never fun, and only a sadist would derive pleasure from crucifying a videogame in public. However, when a game comes out that's so bad only the willfully ignorant could deny its awfulness, harsh and cruel criticism is thoroughly deserved. Because there's no excuse for pap like this. There's no justifiable reason you could have for essentially conning people out of their hard earned money for a game so badly cobbled together. There are games in their beta stage that are more complete, better designed, and more worth paying for than this mistake.
It's disgusting that a game in this forsaken a state is asking for a single thin dime, let alone sixty bucks. Even if it was free I wouldn't recommend it. Alpha Protocol, to its slim credit, has its basis in noble and ambitious ideas, and those ideas are even well executed on the whole. However, while the ambitious stuff hits the mark, the bog standard gameplay has suffered beyond measure. You can build the most magnificent castle in the world, but if the foundations are made out of wet feces, everything's going to crumble and fall apart before your very eyes. Alpha Protocol is a castle that's collapsed in crap. Proof that even the most accomplished of visions are worthless if the fundamentals aren't in place.
Obsidian and Sega, like the US government portrayed in this very game, are better off denying all involvement in this failed operation.
2.0 -- Bad (2s are a disaster. Any good they might have had are quickly swallowed up by glitches, poor design choices or a plethora of other issues. The desperate or the gullible may find a glimmer of fun hidden somewhere in the pit.)
reviewed by Jim Sterling