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Alpha Protocol First Impressions

by Brian "Dhruin" Turner, 2010-05-31

Obsidian's Alpha Protocol has been released in Europe and Asia Pacific for a couple of days now, giving us the opportunity to post some impressions prior to the North American launch.  It's already been a rollercoaster ride, with developmental delays, contradictory explanations from Sega and early reviews that range from positive to savage mocking.  After around 15 hours with the PC version, I can say this is a game that will divide opinion but is worth a look.

Let's get this out of the way: if you demand action sequences that compete with the best, Alpha Protocol is not your game.  Obsidian has chosen to use RPG mechanics to determine hit accuracy and coupled with an inconsistent cover system and mediocre animation, Alpha Protocol makes for an ordinary third-person-shooter.  Played as an action/RPG, it fares much better.  Let this also be a lesson to other action/RPG developers: if your game looks like a shooter, players will expect it to feel like - and compete with - other shooters.

Alpha Protocol places players in the role of Mike Thorton, a new recruit to a secret espionage organisation that is designed to isolate and provide deniability to the government.  A missile shipment stolen from a US military contractor is used to shoot down an airliner and the fallout from Mike's investigation propels the player into a world of betrayal, hidden agendas and conspiracy.

The basic gameplay marries a third-person cover shooter with an overarching RPG system.  You'll spend a lot of time in the mission-based combat zones but the game really excels when you encounter one of the larger-than-life plot characters and between missions at the safehouse answering emails and buying intel.  There are no hubs to explore - you fly directly to various safehouses around the world and, from there, directly to your chosen mission.  The safehouses - swanky high-end apartments  - have a computer to access emails and mission details as well as buy equipment and intel from an underground clearinghouse, a weapons locker and miscellaneous facilities, such as being able to make (small) changes to your appearance in the bathroom.  You can't fully customise Thorton, but changing his haircut and beard or adding glasses and a hat at least adds a minor touch of personalisation.

After gathering information on the computer, exiting the apartment lets you select a mission from the list and then get dropped directly to the start of the action.  A handful of missions can selected in any order and completing these might generate new missions or provide the circumstances leading to a major encounter.

This can be quite dynamic.  The first mandatory missions are in Saudi Arabia and this is the weakest part of the game.  After that, some major plot movements kick in, players can choose to pursue options in Taipei, Moscow or Rome and suddenly you'll meet some of the game's interesting characters.  Depending on the order you do things and the choices you make, other missions and encounters may open up or disappear.  For example, one mission might include a meeting with a character who wants to trade favours - look after their interests in the next location and they'll make it worth your while.  If you'd done the missions in a different order, this conversation just won't appear.  Likewise, deciding to follow through on this offer might have a pay off with information or cash but could jeopardise another relationship.  It's amazing how often these decisions appear pop up unexpectedly - Alpha Protocol has a twisting script that weaves in and out, keeping you on your toes.

On a bigger scale, you'll get the opportunity to ally with or kill various terrorist and factional leaders.  Do you believe a terrorist weapons dealer that a bigger conspiracy is afoot or take him out for his crimes?  Sometimes these choices have major consequences for the rest of the game and sometimes they have a minor background effect.  For example, that terrorist might provide valuable intel in return for his life but he'll continue to deal weapons, meaning you'll encounter better armed opposition down the track.

You'll make most of these decisions using one of Obsidian's major - but risky - design elements: the Dialogue Stance System.  At a glance, this is similar to the system in Mass Effect but there are notable differences.  Rather than a summary of the response, you choose from three or four attitudes, such as "professional", "suave", "joking" or "aggressive"...you also only have five seconds to make a choice.  Undoubtedly this system just won't gel with everyone.  I found the pressure made for a heightened sense of tension that suits the material; a spy needs to make snap decisions in the field.

Another thing I liked is the way characters respond to different styles; it's satisfying when you "read" a character and make the "right" choices but it can be fun to be surprised.  I found the writing engaging and even though the dialogue doesn't always work out the way you hoped, the results are entertaining.  Email is another way to interact with the cast, using a similar system to reply to messages with different tones.  The results are often funny and it's this relationship building with interesting characters that is one of Alpha Protocol's strongest assets.

Regardless of your dialogue choices, you'll spend most of your time in the actual missions, which are (usually) self-contained combat levels.  While not large, the areas are big enough with two or three paths to mostly hide the underlying linear nature.   Apart from a frontal assault, stealth characters will find alternative routes across roofs, or hacking a rear door.  There are ladders, zip-lines and points to jump from building to building to mix things up and the range of locations is reasonably satisfying - although you'll spend a fair amount of time in warehouses and the like.

As mentioned, the combat uses RPG mechanics.  This makes the early combat feel awkward but it improves significantly as you add points into weapons  or martial arts skills.  Holding the aim on an enemy slowly reduces the size of the reticule for a more accurate shot - and ultimately, a critical shot.  Adding skill points also unlocks new abilities, such as Chain Shot, which freezes time and then unloads a sequence of aimed pistol shots.  These elements mean the combat isn't going to please players looking for fast-paced twitch-play but with enough points in a suitable weapon and using the various skills, combat flows quite well.

I found a stealth character (or at least, a cautious character that doesn't rush in) to be rewarding.  Using cover (which could be better), watching guard movements and carefully choosing the best route meshes with the slow aiming for critical shots and using different abilities.  While I enjoyed the stealth play, it could be better.  The level design could offer more choices and there's no real use of light and shadow; anyone expecting something like Thief or Splinter Cell will be disappointed.  Because stealth is more about watching guards and hiding behind objects than melding with the shadows, the advanced stealth skills are underwhelming.  Shadow Operative, for example, simply makes you invisible for a limited period.  It works well enough but breaks the suspension of a real world setting to simply press a button and walk past guards unseen.  In practice, it's probably not that different to other stealth games but it does stand out in the supposedly realistic setting.

Stealth characters will also have to deal with the mini-games more than action types.  Lock-picking is simple and the circuit-board hacking works well.  Computer hacking, on the other hand, is likely to try your patience.  This game involves locating two codes in a moving field of numbers; simple enough in theory.  In practice, the controls are diabolical (and clearly designed for consoles).  The first number uses the cursor pad and space, while the second uses the mouse.  The cursor pad is unresponsive, while the mouse dances and jerks around - I couldn't count the number of times I had the puzzle right but the cursor suddenly jumped around as I clicked.  Surprisingly, I still enjoyed the tension: get these wrong and an alarm usually sounds, undermining your stealth.

It's a shame that boss encounters often throw all that stealthing out the window, with big, dramatic firefights, rocket launchers and all hell breaking loose.  They can be quite memorable but it's disappointing a game that does such a good job with choices along the way forces at least a handful of big fights on the player.  While I haven't played enough to say categorically, I find it hard to see how anyone could achieve a completely non-lethal game, as promised.

From a technical viewpoint, Alpha Protocol lacks polish but I didn't encounter any substantial issues.  The graphics on PC are serviceable, although the animation is lacklustre.  The game ran very smoothly on my low-end rig and was essentially bug-free.  I encountered one scripting error when I took an unexpected path through one area, but that was it.  The AI is mediocre; not as bad as reported but it does ignore some simple things, such as open doors and missing companions.  The PC version does have console conversion issues: checkpoint-only saves, no double-clicking and unreliable scroll-wheel use are annoying but not uncommon these days.

Beyond the obvious issues outlined, I feel Alpha Protocol is unsure of its own identity and this sends mixed messages to players, resulting in mixed reactions.  The combat is affected by the RPG elements but the RPG systems don't quite stand on their own; I would have liked a deeper skill system and stronger stealth mechanics - including the boss fights.  At a deeper conceptual level, Alpha Protocol presents a real-world setting but then uses skills that act like magic and exaggerated characters inspired by '80s Bond films.  I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and writing but they seem an uncomfortable fit with the realism.  Ultimately, I think Alpha Protocol would have been better with a more stylised, graphic-novel theme.

But Alpha Protocol is better than the sum of these parts.  The intricate plot changes, character relationships and quick-fire choices with consequences are miles ahead of any other action/RPG - and many traditional RPGs for that matter.  Despite the niggles and missed opportunities, I look forward to getting back to the game and uncovering the conspiracy.

Box Art

Information about

Alpha Protocol

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Modern
Genre: Action-RPG
Combat: Real-time
Play-time: Unknown
Voice-acting: Full

Regions & platforms
World
· Homepage
· Platform: PS3
· Released at 2010-05-28
· Publisher: Sega

World
· Homepage
· Platform: Xbox 360
· Released at 2010-05-28
· Publisher: Sega

World
· Homepage
· Platform: Xbox 360
· Released at 2010-05-28
· Publisher: Sega

More information