Alpha Protocol Review
We really enjoy the stories of persevering studios, those that managed to work through a series of setbacks and delays to eventually provide gamers with a polished and appreciated product. You will often hear about these feel-good results for years after the embattled developer releases an impressive title, but the failures fade into obscurity. Sadly, Alpha Protocol falls into the latter category. We’ve been waiting on Obsidian’s “espionage/RPG” for quite a long time and on the surface, the concept and premise were both very promising. The apparent goal was to expand on the sci-fi, plot-based structure of an epic like Mass Effect, and then combine this with the covert spy atmosphere of James Bond. Sounds quite appealing, no? Well, if you can somehow find a way to overlook the mediocre gameplay so as to enjoy the storyline, you might just be able to work your way through Alpha Protocol. …but it’s far more likely that the glaring flaws and severe lack of refinement will prove far too disappointing and frustrating.
The graphics vie with the gameplay for the dubious honor of being called the worst part of the adventure. These visuals very much remind me of a PC game from about a decade ago. It’s very bland and stark; far too much of the environment is merely painted in, the entire atmosphere feels lifeless and decidedly devoid of intricate detail, and the animations can be stiff and jerky. There are a myriad of technical issues as well, including major clipping, silly collision detection issues (has anyone caught on to the fact that PC-based software, or software from PC-oriented devs, seems to suffer from this one significant flaw more than anything else?), and boring, generic effects. We can interact with almost nothing in the immediate vicinity; level design is standard and rarely allows for much in the way of exploration/approach ingenuity, and when up close and personal, most everything fails the critical inspection. I suppose the one highlight might be some solid face detailing and animation, but beyond that, it’s just ugly.
The sound is a bit better, mostly due to some decent voice acting and a soundtrack that is fitting yet repetitive and uninspired. There is a great deal of talking, so that can be a benefit; the main character, Michael Thornton, sounds all right and there are a few other characters who sound quite genuine and realistic. Unfortunately, they put little to no effort in giving us a musical score that really enhances our immersion; it’s appropriate, yes, but it’s nowhere near prominent enough. And the big technical problem focuses on the terrible balance issue: music and effects can be all over the place; one minute, one greatly overrides the other and the next, it’s vice versa. It’s just another example of the buggy nature of this lackluster role-playing experience, and it even seemed to get worse the more I played. There are plenty of different weapons but far too many sound exactly alike, some of your skills and abilities don’t receive any help from accompanying effects that can often disappear entirely, and overall, the graphics and sound are well below par.
If Obsidian had still come through in regards to the gameplay, we could’ve overlooked at least a few of the visual and audio shortcomings. Besides, even if there are a few problems with particular elements of the gameplay, maybe we could’ve advised you to simply avoid sneaking and treat it like a third-person shooter. After all, the entire purpose of Alpha Protocol is to promote choice and freedom: you can choose the type of operative you will be, you can distribute experience points however you see fit, and even better, there are literally hundreds of different ways to interact with those you meet. The latter feature is by far the most attractive part of the game but before we get to that, we have to address the serious issues that plague the general mechanics. Sure, you can choose to be a Soldier and specialize in weaponry and explosive combat tactics, or you can stick to the shadows and enhance your stealth and gadgetry knowledge. But either way, you end up with a mostly poor setup; i.e., it’s either a dreadfully mediocre Splinter Cell or it’s a dreadfully mediocre third-person shooter.
Let’s take my experience as an example (and I guess you kinda have to): being a fan of games like Splinter Cell, I really wanted to create a Field Agent – “an intelligence specialist” who excels in “both stealth and infiltration” – with a special emphasis on shadowy, deadly effectiveness. For the record, your other options are the aforementioned Soldier, Tech Specialist (“mastery over computers and electronics”), and Freelancer (“an independent contractor who has chosen his own way”). But anyway, back to my quest. So one of the first things I do is sneak up behind a foe and perform a takedown with the simple press of a button. That was kinda cool. I noticed that snapping into and out of cover was a little jerky and erratic, but I figured it would suffice. Than I went to shoot an enemy with my tranquilizer dart and immediately encountered the first major flaw; the aiming reticle was trained directly on his upper back and I missed. Worse yet, he somehow knew I was firing at him and he turned and attacked. The next strike came when I nailed a dude with my dart when he was just inside a doorway… He collapsed, the door inexplicably closed, and when I opened it, the body was gone.
You don’t even have the option of carrying bodies out of the sight of other roving enemies, and that sight scope is all sorts of screwy. Sometimes, they’ll see a body from a ridiculous distance and other times, they’ll fail to notice when their felled comrade is right nearby. And no matter how you build your character, you never have access to some of the really cool gadgets you often see in stealth-based adventures. It got exceedingly boring just sneaking up behind people and taking them down, only to return to the shadows, rinse and repeat. So I tried the straightforward approach and started over with the intention of attacking the game as a third-person shooter. Okay, so more collision detection issues – regardless of the weapon I have equipped – and overall, just a lame, generic shooting mechanic that gets tiresome within the hour. It really seems as if there’s a lot of inherent depth; there are plenty of available skills and tools, for instance, but none of them really seem to add any flash or flavor.
Then there are the downright awful mini-mechanics used for hacking computers, bypassing alarm systems, and picking locks. Okay, that last one isn’t too bad; you just carefully hold the R2 button so the pins line up and then hit the L2 button to snap them into place. That’s just fine, I suppose. But the other two…holy God. To hack a computer, you have to stare at a screen of blinking code and somehow manage to find the small group of letters and numbers that match a designated string before time runs out. And, you have to do it twice. Then there’s cutting circuits for bypassing alarms; this requires you to trace a circuit to the outer edge, where you’d cut the wire by pressing a button. It sounds easy, but you have to cut each in order and tracing the maze-like circuit out of the box with your eyes is a ridiculous chore; the circuits all blend together and again, it’s timed. It’s just a mess. I also noticed that certain gadgets you could utilize didn’t function effectively or reliably.
Like I said earlier, the only good part is the fact that you can adopt different “stances” when dealing with other characters. In certain situations, you are given the opportunity to respond and you can choose from a variety of options, including Professional, Aggressive, and Suave. Depending on how you respond, the character will say something different and this does indeed directly affect the storyline. Furthermore, you can conduct research on any character you will interact with, thereby allowing you to figure out what approach would work best with them. There are even times when you can perform an action during a conversation to take the other person by surprise. Due to the large number of times you select a stance, there are any number of branching possibilities, and the many characters can respond to you in a bunch of different ways. The only downside is that you have a certain amount of time to pick a stance, which wouldn’t be so bad, but the time bar starts counting down before the character has even finished their statement or question. This leads to times when you have mere seconds to pick a stance once you’ve heard everything you need to hear.
But hey, it works out well. It’s really a blessing because it’s the only thing that kept me playing for a while. Eventually, though, all the severe problems began to pile up and infect most every movement I made. Nothing seems catastrophically bad but at the same time, nothing seems right, either. This game feels and looks very, very outdated and anyone who plays it will recall many games that did something better; we’ve seen far better role-playing, action, and stealth mechanics and in all honesty, I doubt this game would’ve been considered anything special even four or five years ago. We’ve already heard bad things about the development process and in the end, this is one project that should’ve been nixed. I just can’t figure out why someone somewhere didn’t stand up and say this would bomb…I mean, it’s painfully obvious. I just don’t get it.
6/1/2010 Ben Dutka