I Am The Alpha and The Omega and Everything In Between.
Alpha Protocol is the kind of game that turns the entire gaming community into a hotbed of opinions that have the same rational backing as government conspiracy theories. And the world of professional reviews is not immune. Scores for the game range from 20 to 86 on Metacritic, Alpha Protocol spawning death threats in forum threads over those that are too negative (or too positive… talk about a lose-lose situation) and even an editorial comparing the US and UK review scores. Though the wide spread of scores might seem to devalue professional reviews as a whole, it emphasizes one thing: We’re people too, and people are different. For your purchasing purposes, the point is to listen to reviewers that share your tastes.
[image1]This makes reviewers like me, especially after having 20/20 hindsight, wish that I could hand out multiple grades. Not because I don’t want to be authoritative and uninfluenced by outside forces, but because I want to be right. To be precise, the underlying reason for the difference of opinion is that Alpha Protocol is a mixed hybrid, one part commendable and one part regrettable. As much as it would like to be “The Espionage RPG” emblazoned on the front of the case, its true face is a pastiche of multiple genres – an average third-person shooter sliced and diced into a modern, provocative RPG.
Alpha Protocol plays much like The Bourne Conspiracy if it was given the Mass Effect treatment, replete with timed, decision-based dialogue trees and action sequences that can be completed using stealth or shotgun-to-the-face aggression. Hopping from one international city to the next, Agent
Jason Bourne Michael Thorton has that blank-slate Banana Republic look coupled with special ops tactical training (of course). His mission: To uncover the buried secrets behind a global conspiracy, which has already taken down a passenger airliner in Saudi Arabia. Let’s just say that 9/11 is not the only “current event” that inspires the story.
This sense of urgency is built around a branching story and can change drastically given how you choose to deal with fellow agents in the clandestine agency Alpha Protocol and international figures in the military and in political office. Not to mention the fact that there’s about a four-second time limit for each dialogue window for tension. Selecting certain conversation choices can make or break alliances with organizations that can assist you with additional intel and weapons on the black market, or block your progress toward completing a mission. With that in mind, the number of ways the final mission can vary is staggering and complex.
Like other fast-paced stories about modern super spies, it can be difficult to connect with so many characters in so little time. Every city has a unique cast of figures, many of whom you meet for a few cut-scenes and then never see again. So having many of them like or dislike you doesn’t mean anything. Thankfully, the dialogue and script-writing is not only well-written but fully and strongly voice-acted, ranging from witty comebacks to hostile threats and professional tact.
[image2]Where it all breaks down, though, is in the shooting, cover, and stealth systems, which depending on whom you ask are either unpolished or just not important. But in truth, they’re passable – good enough to ignore yet bad enough to criticize. Comparing it to Splinter Cell: Conviction, Metal Gear Solid 4, or Uncharted 2 might sound unfair, but that’s what Alpha Protocol is up against when it’s mostly about wielding firearms, taking cover behind unbreakable crates and pillars, and sneaking around cameras and behind the backs of unfortunate soldiers.
It only takes thirty minutes to notice the flawed texture loading, the occasional blurry surface (like a jpeg zoomed way too far), and the odd animations. While facial animations are pronounced, characters lack believable body gestures and appear more as talking heads than actual people. The way Thorton tiptoes around while crouching makes him look like a Looney Tunes ballerina, and moving between points of cover animates too quickly and makes the camera go haywire.
Everyone runs awkwardly, and enemies tend to have “run straight at you” mentality and can sometimes get hung up on an A.I. path, particularly around choke points like doors, ladders, and zip lines. It also doesn’t help that every level is linear to a fault, with those spy-proof crates and boxes that imperviously block hallways, and were all the rage a couple generations ago. More shortcuts would also have been better instead of going through a menu every time you want to use a different ability or gadget.
Some missions require more sleight of hand than brute force, but in general, you can choose which method to use on the fly. Perks are given based on whatever method you prefer. The trouble is that you need to level up those skills and purchase better equipment before they’re worth using. Firing a pistol as a Level 1 rookie has a success rate of hitting an enemy about fifty percent of the time, and that’s even if the entire reticule is over the enemy’s face.
[image3]Stealth can be a viable option, but without higher level skills like Silent Running and Shadow Operative, getting caught is almost certain, especially during unavoidable gunfights. You can’t lie prone, either. It’s actually much easier just to hold down the trigger for a critical hit, or in my case, knock a poor soldier down with a shotgun and then stomp on his face for a quick one-two. On a side note, though, no human boss should be able to take more than thirty shotgun blasts at point-blank range.
Still, none of these complaints completely break the game, and there are sporadic moments of brilliance. The mini-games for hacking, bypassing, and lockpicking are more challenging and make more sense than those in Mass Effect 2 (though difficult lockpicks tend to be too, uh, picky). Objects in the misé-en-scene are rendered beautifully, and coupled with the soundtrack which incorporates local instruments, bring places like a Taiwanese garden filled with ponds and shrines and the sounds of a Chinese violin to life. You can also attack enemies from dialogue for surprise ambushes and fast-forward through cut-scenes for brevity.
If there’s one thing that is certain about Alpha Protocol, it’s that you’re going to have an opinion on it that at least one-third of gamers will disagree with. Ignore the RPG part and you might trade in the game after two hours; ignore the third-person shooter part and you might replay the game three times over. In short, it needs a sequel to get everything right. Look beyond its obvious faults and Alpha Protocol isn’t frustratingly bad, but frustratingly good; that is, if you care to look that hard.