Alpha Protocol Review

Last September we compiled a list of our most anticipated games for the remainder of that year. Coming in at 8 was Obsidian Entertainment’s espionage-RPG game, Alpha Protocol, which to our dismay was put on SEGA’s backburner for about six months. It’s unclear if the delay was strictly to distance itself from Modern Warfare 2’s chart dominance, or if Alpha Protocol needed some more refinement. Now, after playing through the game, we have to believe (and hope) the delay was simply a matter of time because instead of an interesting and unique take on the classic RPG formula that we were promised, SEGA has released a game that is severely flawed, and not in a way that is easily ignored.

Alpha Protocol is dubbed as “The Espionage RPG,” largely because it takes ideas from both genres and attempts to combine them into one solid concept. Released by publisher SEGA and developed by Obsidian, the game puts players in the shoes of Michael Thorton. As a new recruit of Alpha Protocol, an agency which runs different espionage contracts for the government, Thorton is not only on set out on a task given by his new employer, he is also seeking more information about Alpha Protocol, and why he was mysteriously recruited.

Right off the bat you are thrown into the best and worst Alpha Protocol has to offer. The opening sequence, after the initial cut scene, has you essentially auditioning to be an elite member of the espionage team. You’ll learn all about the dreadful duck and cover system, how to fire your weapons (which sadly underperform your martial arts abilities), and you’ll learn about the game’s several spy-style mini-games. There may be some people out there who enjoy these mini games, one of which has you staring at a screen of changing numbers, attempting to find a series that are not actually changing – painful to the eyes, but required. But for the most part, the spy mini-games hold a nugget of the general theme of the game, namely so many great ideas, yet so poorly executed.

The story in Alpha Protocol is pretty good on the surface. It hits all the hot buttons in today’s heated political climate, but fails to make the player care about the protagonist. As the game opens, you see a highly technical missile destroy a commercial airplane. Without uncovering too much of the story, your first mission is to travel to Saudi Arabia and eliminate whoever was responsible for the terrorist attack. Since you are such a good spy, you deal with the problem – or so you think. Everyone proceeds to betray everyone else, and Thorton decides to do a bit of globe trekking, hopping from Moscow, Taipei, and Rome in which ever order you decide. In each city, you have access to a safe house, complete with a TV that broadcasts nothing but relevant news, a computer with email access, and mini weapon stockpile. Alpha Protocol rides in style, and Thorton, while he may have gone rogue along his mission, gets to live the good life while he’s in his safe house.

That concept, progressing through the game as you decide, is easily Alpha Protocol’s biggest attraction. As this is an RPG, you get to call the shots in just about every situation. If you want to go do missions in Moscow first, go ahead. If you want to level up your pistol abilities before your SMG, go ahead. If you want Michael to focus more on martial arts and his technical aptitude, that’s your choice. If you want to disarm all the cameras in a level, you can try, or you can simply sneak around them hoping to hide in the shadows. As the player, you call the shots.

One way the game does a great job of drawing the player into decision making is through the dialogue system. We say system, because it really isn’t as simple as ‘click Triangle to say this.’ During conversations, you are given a few seconds to decide how you will respond. There are three choices (occasionally there is a fourth, but the fourth option is an action, not necessarily a response). You can choose to be suave (Square), aggressive (Triangle), or professional (circle). Your attitude will guide the conversation and occasionally earn you bonus relationship points with whomever you are speaking with. Through certain exchanges, you can unlock additional background information, a dossier, or advantages (like increased stealth) in an upcoming mission. This is more than just a ‘choose your own adventure’ kind of gimmick. Sure, the main plotline will go on regardless of who you piss off for being too flirtatious, but for the most part the system of dialogue lets the player feel important to the plot development. This dialogue system, and other decisions you make in-game, provide you with many, many endings.

The game also does a decent job of involving the player in Michael’s progression from recruit to lean-mean killer. In the beginning of the game, you’ll pick Michael’s background. There are several choices, like soldier, freelancer, or tech specialist. Beyond his background, you get to pick his specialization, which you’ll carry throughout the game. As you level up, you earn points, which can be spent in categories like martial arts, toughness, shotguns, or stealth. In true RPG nature, the further you progress in the different ability’s tree, the greater the reward. Unfortunately, Alpha Protocol is drastically overshadowed by some glaring flaws, so much so that we wonder why the six month delay wasn’t invested more in refining the experience.

As mentioned, the graphics are decidedly underwhelming, plain and simple. In fact, there are times they are downright horrible. Enemies often look like they are doing the reverse moonwalk, while guards hiding in towers simply disappear if you turn the camera just right (or wrong, we should say). The camera, done in third person, also does a horrible job of keeping up with the action, and it frequently gets stuck behind Michael when you are trying to sneak off a silent bullet at an unsuspecting enemy. If you want to climb up a ladder or drop from a ledge the camera does a little flip to a top-down perspective, making it extremely disorienting and awkward. You can’t really decide on your own when and where you want to climb or jump on something, but the few times you do get to secretly sneak down a ladder, it’s pretty pointless because by the time you reach the ground, you are completely disoriented. We suppose the camera and visual niggles can be overlooked, but it just takes so much away from the whole espionage-themed experience that it’s hard to really take Michael and the game seriously.

Beyond the graphical and camera issues, we found ourselves nearly outraged at times with the cover system. You use the X button for a number of actions, including cover. It’s not that the system doesn’t work (okay, sometimes it doesn’t) it’s that it usually doesn’t want to let go of you. It’s nearly impossible to fire off a few rounds at approaching enemies while in cover. Instead, Michael moves slowly against whatever he’s taking cover behind, and needs to be at the edge to fire his weapon. Sometimes he can’t even manage to toss a grenade from cover. These problems slow the action down to a standstill, and frequently made us question if this was in fact a PlayStation 3 game, or if this a really a PS2 game that found its way into our Blu-ray drive.

We suppose there’s something that can be said about the depth of the game. There’s a lot to do that’s not really action oriented. You can learn all about the people you are interacting with, check out their background information, and research the best weapons for whichever scenario you’ll face next. This isn’t our cup of tea, at all, but some gamers may enjoy this aspect of the game. Even the combat is decent, although quite lackluster. It’s odd that in a game where you have access to some pretty powerful weapons, your best bet is usually your fists. It should be noted that gun battles are not solely determined by player’s accuracy; rather, there are numerical values that determine whether you hit and how much damage you do.

Alpha Protocol falls victim to an abundance of ambition that is apparently without a budget to produce a game worth $60 USD. There are few moments where the game shows promise; for instance, we enjoyed the finely crafted dialogue, and even liked sneaking around corners and given a guard the old hand-of-death. However, overall Alpha Protocol is so riddled with flaws that when we finally found ourselves interested, we were quickly distracted at the crud in front of our eyes.



The Final Word

Alpha Protocol is all ambition with little follow through. This espionage-RPG attempts to draw players into a world of lock picking, Saudi terrorists, and secret government conspiracies, but does it so ineffectively it is hard to maintain interest past the first mission.