Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Alpha Protocol Review

leave a comment »

alpha_protocol_header

Alpha Protocol is a game designed around choice, optimized for espionage, and works really hard at having you roleplay as the type of secret agent you want to be.  During our game club podcast, we all would refer to our handling of Agent Michael Thorton as “being in character,” which goes a long way in telling you just how immersed in the game one can get.  Before you go thinking this means you’ll feel like a true secret agent, there are many aspects of Alpha Protocol – the most notable probably being the game glitches and bugs – that will remind you time and time again that this is a game and tethered to the tropes of such.  Still, as time has gone on and the fact that we have rarely seen games quite like it, Alpha Protocol has had a lasting impression and subsequent cult following that we not so warmly embraced when it released up against the likes of powerhouses like Mass Effect 2.  It’s time to take a critical eye to this self-proclaimed “Espionage RPG” and figure out if it’s more James Bond or Maxwell Smart.

Fred’s Take

alpha_protocol_1Right off the bat, I shouldn’t like Alpha Protocol.  Agent Thorton comes off as a slick smirking know-it-all wonderboy from the academy that wants to step in and be the best agent in the world and I have to connect with him.  Furthermore he has three very locked down and distinct personalities – aggressive, suave, and professional – but if you don’t like being any of those three with the literally hundreds of situations presented to you in Alpha Protocol, too bad.  To complete this incompatible mess is the fact that as a stealth game, it kinda sucks, and as an action game the bugs and mechanics are far from ideal.  That’s why I find it so fascinating that I adore this title, flaws and all.  The way it weaves a story and seemingly provides reaction or consequence to every move you make is an endearing reminder of a time when games thought that player choice was king.  It’s also a call back to the days of the adventure genre and Choose Your Own Adventure novels, both of which I really connected with as a child.  Don’t worry too much about whether you’re playing the game right or playing it well, just sit back, have fun, and let the chips fall where they may.

alpha_protocol_2Alpha Protocol is made up of roughly three main components.  As you progress through the game you will take on missions that will either involve discussions where you make timed responses to the situation presented or stealth sequences where you are trying to complete a covert op.  Many of the covert ops also end in some sort of decision-making conversation or situation as well and while you’re not made directly aware of the consequences you are definitely informed that your actions will have consequences.  Aside from that there are a series of mini-games that are used in missions to perform your more tech savvy actions like hacking computers and picking locks, not to mention managing an e-mail and weapon loadout that can also net both consequences and relationships.  The core game itself is a rudimentary third person shooter that tries to pull off stealth and seems to fail time and time again – most of your missions, not matter how hard you try, will have a point in them where everything goes to hell.  That’s when the action comes out and the cover-based shooter portion takes hold in a less than perfect mechanic that was most harmed by the onslaught of high quality cover-based shooters at the time.  Both the enemy and Thorton have unfair advantages and it really comes down to who utilizes them first as to how the situation plays out, but thankfully the load times are quite short and the checkpoints rather forgiving so dying is of almost no penalty in this title.  If these stealth missions were the only thing this game was it would cease to be of any value at all, fortunately this is the backdrop to larger personalized story and relationships that Thorton establishes along the way.

alpha_protocol_3It’s this personalized storytelling that is so endearing about Alpha Protocol.  Being able to talk to, get information out of, become friends with, and even sleep with certain characters gives a strong focus to the relationships you have in the game and how you proceed with each response or action.  It sounds hokey but you feel bad about abandoning your handler if the two of you have shared many conversations and details about one another up to this point.  You may also decide that you don’t like someone the moment you meet them and thus be a complete jerk in all conversations to establish a negative relationship, which in rare cases can even be a help to you.  Granted, the main story will always progress in about the same form and while characters can come and go (even die), it doesn’t affect the fact that your plot synopsis will always remain the same.  If you happen to look up the consequences or differences between one route or the other, even all the way up to the game’s handful of endings, you’ll find that they are each just slightly different.  This also holds true with relationships where being kind and professional will almost always result in a positive relationship and the game’s subsequent assistance in missions later on.  Out of the dozen or so people you encounter, there may be one or two that have benefits to treating them aggressively or having a negative reputation, but if you want to play it safe you can go the professional route almost all the time and get a majority of people on your side.  Provided that you don’t do a lot of research or reading up on the different factors, you can go into it roleplaying on the fly and the game does a great job at making you feel like it’s your personal story.  In short, if you don’t think too much about it the smoke and mirrors holds.

alpha_protocol_7

Alpha Protocol is the B-tier video game concept with the A-tier storytelling.  It’s fun to play, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and spins a decent yarn.  If you allow yourself to get bogged down in the clumsiness of the stealth, the unfairness of the gunplay, and the bugginess of the experience as a whole you will walk away disappointed.  If you choose to embrace those flaws as the cost of admission for an enjoyable Choose Your Own Adventure experience, there’s a lot to appreciate about jumping into the shoes of Agent Thorton.  Thanks to the branching storylines and paths, I can even see a justification for at least two rounds with the campaign, if for nothing more than the polarization of making completely opposite decisions.  Obsidian has always been great at storytelling at the expense of programming and Alpha Protocol is one of the most compelling examples to date.

Final Score: 4 out of 5  (review policy)

Jam’s Take

Alpha Protocol is that game that you probably brought for your collection at some point, usually cheap, and it’s just been sitting there waiting to be played. The problem is, it became shadowed by various other games and you’ve just had no excuse to pick it up since. This is why Gaming History 101 exists, our game clubs give you that excuse you need to raid that collection and crack open that old game and play it. But if you don’t want to go through all that trouble then this review will tell you my personal thoughts on the title.

alpha_protocol_5Alpha Protocol is a game about spies and espionage that loosely takes inspiration from 24, the Bond films, and the Bourne series. The plot is filled with twists and turns, similar to what you would expect to see in the above inspirations. The problem I had was I really didn’t care for the main character and in turn really didn’t get immersed into the story. When it came to making a decision towards the game path, I only occasionally cared about the outcome. What Alpha Protocol does differently from most games though is that the choices from dialogue conversations are very vague, and you really don’t know what the consequence of your decision will be. I like this a lot as it indirectly takes some control out of the players hands forcing you to deal with the consequences (providing you don’t get upset and reload a save or look up a guide). I preferred this aspect of the game design more than the actual plot. I also really didn’t care for the boring main character you play as Michael Thorton, he came across more wooden than male Shepard in Mass Effect. Unlike Mass Effect you are stuck with this robot for the entire campaign. Its not all that bad but some of the lines of dialogue he comes out with certainly made my eyes roll more than a few times.

You play the game in the third person perspective and if you played a lot of games from the same generation as this game you would be forgiven for playing this game like a typical third person cover based shooter. The game has some surprisingly deep RPG elements to it. When you aim a gun at a enemy the game is number crunching your skills in the background to see if the bullet will connect or not. The problem is a lot of gamers might not have the patience for a game designed in this way. If your skills have not been levelled up enough then you may just loose your mind watching your bullets completely miss despite your crosshair aiming directly at an enemies head.
The game really encourages you to use a lot of stealth but this is one of those games where the enemies are far too sensitive. Even if you are crouching it is possible to be detected. Yes, this is another design that can be improved by equipping better gear and levelling up your stealth but its a heavily encouraged design choice for the player right from the beginning. I found myself alerting guards constantly to the extent where I just said sod it and played the game aggressively. Fortunately, the game doesn’t disqualify you for playing this way. If your playing the game for the first time I would encourage you just to avoid stealth and sink your experience in weapons and play action focused. If the game sits well with you then try replaying in stealth, its harder so only for the brave gamer.

alpha_protocol_6

Graphically Alpha Protocol really doesn’t stand out. The character models are a pretty standard affair and the game itself lacks a style and design to make it really stand out from the crowd. This is not to say its not presentable its just there was a opportunity here to do something different. You get to characterise the character ever so slightly by adding a ridiculous beard (which I totally went for), some eye wear and a hat if you choose. You travel the world in the game and visit various places nothing particularly surprised me except the safe house in Taipei, but I will let you discover that for yourself.

By this stage it does sound like I’m being quite harsh on the game but Alpha Protocol has something that does make it stand out despite its issues and that is charm. For some reason I was constantly compelled to return to the game and keep pushing through to the end. Sure the story didn’t hook me, but the gameplay style and the fact I wasn’t entirely sure of the consequences of my actions did maintain my attention. I loved the amount of customization in the game and how the game actually will have elements that are just too difficult if you don’t level up certain perks. For example, you can hack computers from the beginning with a simple mini game but if you don’t choose to level up your hacking it will make later computers near impossible to hack. This all sounds good but one area it can shoot you in the foot in is the boss fights. Some boss fights were infinitely easier if you level up certain weapons, but since my character was a Bruce Lee knock off I found out fists alone were completely terrible against certain boss fights. There really is a way to play through this game and make life a lot easier for you but where would the fun be in that, go into the experience blind and learn from your choices in the next playthrough.

alpha_protocol_4Alpha Protocol is a fairly long game my first playthrough took me around 15 hours. Your decisions have quite the influence in this game and if you manage to be favourable with different people it will actually unlock more options. This makes the title highly repayable for that reason alone. You can of course try to replay the game with a different style and favour other weapons or just do what I did and rely on your mits.

Overall, Alpha Protocol really could have been so much more but what we are left with is a game that shows promise and great ideas but if you look at it from a game design point of view. It’s a shame that it doesn’t quite meat those levels that would escalate it to something truly special. Alas what we have left is a game that is an absolute hidden gem, which you should do yourself the service of finally picking it off the shelf and giving it a try. This is review I really struggled to rate as I feel it is something everyone should try for themselves. However, to reference the great Fred Rojas and his Evil Within Review, a game can still rate average and still become something you want to re-visit. I personally will re-visit Alpha Protocol in the future and like a fine wine I can see this game being more enjoyable if you just take your time.

Final Score: 3 out of 5

It should be noted that for the purposes of these reviews, Fred played the PC (Steam) version and Jam played the Xbox 360 version.  This game is also available for the Playstation 3.  The Steam version is currently compatible with Windows 7/8.1/10 without any modding for most users.

Need information on release date, other content on this game, box art, or value?  Check out our profile page.

Written by jamalais

August 6, 2015 at 11:00 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: