Gamers have evolved. In this day where technology keeps pushing the boundaries of realism and every pixel of a screenshot is analysed to death, gamers are increasingly becoming a challenging crowd to please. Gone are the days when a game used to be successful despite carrying numerous flaws. Alpha Protocol is one such game. Dubbed as an “espionage RPG” by developer Obsidian Entertainment, this game has quite an ambitious and universally appealing concept. Who wouldn’t want to play an action RPG which lets you mimic Bond, Bourne or Bauer? Unfortunately, for every single thing the game does right, it does two things wrong, and because of that, the end product is a mildly enjoyable spy game that would appeal to only the most patient and forgiving gamers. People who have been spoiled by the Uncharteds and Mass Effects should steer clear.
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The game puts you into the shoes of agent Michael Thorton, a fresh recruit in the super-secret Alpha Protocol agency. The story begins with you investigating a terrorist attack on a civilian airliner in Saudi Arabia. As expected, things don’t go well and soon Michael becomes a rogue agent on the run from the authorities while trying to investigate what exactly happened and clear his name in the process. It’s a typical spy story (and a rather good one at that) and it surely is one of the high points of the game. It’s full of twists and turns, international locations, colourful characters, sexy women and conspiracies; pretty much all the elements of the spy genre. It definitely has more of a Brosnan/Moore-era Bond feel to it than the seriousness of Bourne or 24.
Obsidian is no stranger to RPGs. After having successfully created worthy sequels to acclaimed IPs from other developers, Alpha Protocol was their chance to introduce a wholly original franchise. On paper, Alpha Protocol looks like an exciting mix of Mass Effect, Deus Ex and Monolith’s spy shooter No One Lives Forever. But just a few minutes into the game it becomes apparent that the long development cycle and budget constraints have seemingly gotten in the way of what could have been an exceptional experience. For starters, the game looks quite dated. Flat lighting, blocky levels and character models, laughable animations, lack of physics, poor textures; all the usual complaints are here. It simply doesn’t look and feel like a game from 2010 and it would have seemed dated even if it had come out two years ago.
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But graphics are the least of your worries. Assuming you get over the looks and try to focus on the gameplay, it’s still difficult to ignore other flaws in the game. Being a spy RPG, you’d automatically be inclined to take the stealth route rather than going Rambo. Now the game would have been a lot more interesting had the stealth system been fun. Forget fun; it’s just broken. Glitchy enemy AI is prevalent throughout the game. Some mini-games like computer hacking are good in theory, but an extremely laggy mouse input (on the PC) will make sure you fail even if you’ve found the solution. It’s almost impossible to finish a mission using only stealth no matter how good you are. At some point, you will blow your cover and alarms will go off forcing you to directly exchange fire with enemies.
The shooting is reminiscent of any post-Gears of War third-person shooter. Take cover, pop-out and take your shots. It’s functional, but much like stealth, it isn’t much fun because this being an RPG your shots aren’t always guaranteed to hit. You may aim at the head but you aren’t going to pull off a headshot unless you keep the crosshair trained on the target for a while or if the behind-the-scenes calculations work out in your favour. It’s not a bad mechanic, but it surely gets in the way of the shooting. It would have been more fun if the game followed Mass Effect 2’s footsteps and made the shooting more exciting and visceral but still within the bounds of an RPG. It’s still a better option compared to the awful stealth and by the fourth mission, you’ll just want to shoot enemies with your trusty assault rifle instead of sneaking around. This is a big letdown considering the theme of the game. I must also point out that the game uses a checkpoint save system which adds a significant amount of frustration over and above the other issues.
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On the RPG side of things, you have a decent amount of options when it comes to customising Michael. The skills are built around weapon proficiencies, stealth and the use of gadgets as well as passive ones like health and ability cooldown times. There is a basic class selection at the beginning of the game, which essentially translates into how your starting stats are distributed. It also provides you with an option to distribute the stats yourself to create your own custom class. You will also unlock a specialisation after the few first missions, which lets your expand some of your skill trees beyond the allowed limits. Apart from your character, you can customise your weapons and armour with various upgrades that can be bought from the in-game black market. The game does not disappoint in this area.
Perhaps the best thing about Alpha Protocol is its dialog system. It is one of the best dialog systems I’ve seen since the original Mass Effect. Instead of having to select a predefined line of dialog as response, the game lets you select the tone of your dialog. You can choose to be professional, suave or casual. More options are provided depending on the situation. The writing and voice acting is consistently good throughout. In another interesting twist, you are given only a limited amount of time to choose a dialog option before one is automatically selected. This makes the dialog feel natural and urgent and really puts you into the conversation. On the flipside, it can also result in a choice getting automatically selected if you get distracted while playing. A character’s disposition towards you changes based on how you speak to him or her. For example, the sexy reporter you met on the plane will entertain your flirty comments, but your hot teammate may not. If a character likes you enough, you will get passive bonuses during missions that affect various stats and skills.
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Alpha Protocol is mostly a linear game. You can choose the order in which you do certain missions, but for most part, you’ll either be hanging out in your swanky safehouse, checking email, buying upgrades using your personal computer, or making it through heavily guarded enemy installations during missions. So do not expect any kind of free-roaming environments like other RPGs. Despite the linear nature, Alpha Protocol still scores high on the replayability factor (that is if you choose to ignore the wonky gameplay and play through it again). There are an astounding number of decisions that the game throws your way and unlike many other games, most of these have far reaching consequences. For example, you can kill important characters during dialog or ally with them if you choose to, which in gameplay terms usually results in additional perks and new items in the black market. With so many choices, each playthrough can potentially become a unique experience and this is definitely a point in the game’s favour.
There are some moments of brilliance interspersed throughout the game and once you get past the issues and get used to the gameplay, you will begin to have fun with it. It surely gets the whole espionage theme right, but unfortunately, the enjoyment comes at a price – patience; something that not many people have when it comes to games these days. It’s also extremely difficult to recommend this game at a time of the year when quality titles are coming thick and fast. And it also depends on what type of gamer you are. Are you someone who can overlook flaws and appreciate the good parts or are you the one who likes to nitpick on even the best of games? If you fall in the latter category, you may just want to avoid this one completely.
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This review may sound largely negative, but I personally enjoyed playing Alpha Protocol. There are some things the game does rather well. The RPG elements are sound, the story is interesting, the writing is solid, and the dialog system is excellent. Unfortunately, the gameplay itself is a mixed bag. That, along with the unimpressive visuals, will constantly get in the way of your enjoyment. All things considered, Alpha Protocol could have been a great game and Obsidian has certainly tried to create something original, but right now it stands as a missed opportunity.
(+) Enjoyable story
(+) Great writing and consistently good voice acting
(+) Huge amount of choices with far reaching consequences
(-) Bland, dated visuals and bad animations
(-) Poor enemy AI
(-) Stealth is badly implemented
(-) Too many gameplay issues will turn off players early on
Title: Alpha Protol
Developer/Publisher: Obsidian Entertainment/Sega
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Rs 2,499), PS3 (Rs 2,499), PC (Rs 999)
Reviewed on: PC