Inside Pulse 12

Review: Alpha Protocol (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Alpha Protocol
Genre: Action RPG
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 06/01/10

The first impression one gets when looking at Alpha Protocol is that it’s an attempt to crossbreed the RPG action of something like Mass Effect with the spy-fiction storytelling of something like Splinter Cell, and that’s not far from the truth. Obsidian Entertainment is best known for making RPG’s, including Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Neverwinter Nights 2, and the team is made up of ex Black Isle studios employees, meaning many of the people on board have lots of RPG development experience on top of that. Further, Alpha Protocol is indeed set in a spy fiction sort of world, not unlike that of the Splinter Cell series, including secret organizations, super spies and plot twists aplenty, and the game is more than a little action based, not unlike a solo Mass Effect. As such, the comparisons are certainly fair in the sense that they have a reasonable basis in reality. On the other hand, such a comparison isn’t entirely fair in the sense that Alpha Protocol never really manages to be a good enough experience to merit such comparisons. While it’s certainly not a bad game by any means, considering the amount of time it has been delayed and the games it’s attempting to emulate, it never manages to achieve the level of quality it’s so desperately aiming for.

You take on the role of Agent Michael Thorton, the newest member of a top secret US government organization known as, yes, Alpha Protocol. The agency is about what you’d expect: they operate discreetly and advertise no ties to the US, and their sole purpose is to perform various secret missions without drawing attention to themselves or the government, with the end goal being the security of the US government. As the game begins, Michael has been recruited in covert fashion to conduct investigations into a missile attack on a civilian airplane, which leads him into a massive double-cross and a branching series of missions that will take him across the globe looking for answers but finding only questions as he goes. As spy fiction storylines go, Alpha Protocol isn’t bad, as the characters are generally well written and the plot makes a pretty solid amount of sense all around. There are plenty of twists and turns, multiple endings to see based on your reactions to events and how you treat people, and interesting developments as you go, and the whole gimmick of having to deal with the seedy underworld of political espionage instead of the governmentally endorsed stuff is interesting, and all in all, the plot is one of the best elements of the game pound for pound.

Alpha Protocol is generally solid looking, though some noticeable technical issues keep it from being any more than that. The character models look nice and are generally detailed, and combat animations generally look very good all around. The environments look as one would expect, whether you’re in the depths of a secret agency headquarters or in the middle of a Russian tundra, and the various military equipment also looks very true to life when it shows up. The game makes solid use of special effects, and explosions and light sourcing are used to acceptable effect as well at various points in the game. On the other hand, the character movement animations look weird and stiff, the visuals aren’t up to the level of what the 360 is capable of producing, and the game features that weird texture rendering effect fans of Halo 2 and Mass Effect are familiar with, where the base character models appear first, followed by their detail textures a second or two later, which is quite disconcerting at this point. Aurally, the game delivers a more consistent experience from start to finish. The music is your expected swelling orchestral fare, but it’s generally solid all around and very fitting considering the game’s subject matter. The voice acting is quite good all in all, and the voice actors get into their parts nicely, crafting characters who are believable and interesting each time you see them pop up. The sound effects are generally fitting to the game, from gunfire to explosions and beyond, and everything generally sounds appropriate all around.

For those who are familiar with the third-person shooter genre, Alpha Protocol will be easy enough to slip into without an issue. The left stick moves while the right stick looks around, A allows you to interact with the environment and dash when used while moving, X reloads, and B engages in melee attacks. The right trigger allows you to fire whatever ballistic weapon you have equipped at the moment, the left trigger allows you to aim your shots as needed, and the right bumper allows you to use whatever secondary item you have equipped at the moment. The D-pad can be used to switch between various items on your person, including weapons, items and other such things, though you can also switch between weaponry on the fly with the Y button. Clicking in the left stick allows Michael to crouch and move in a more stealthy manner, allowing you to sneak up on enemies for silent dispatching, and the game also employs a cover mechanic similar to game such as Mass Effect 2 and Gears of War. Pressing A near a location that allows you to take cover makes Michael either stand or crouch behind said location, allowing you to look around corners or take shots from cover. You can blind-fire with many weapons while in cover by simply pressing the right trigger, though you can also lean out from cover and aim with the left trigger if you wish. Various locations offer context-sensitive movement positions as well, such as ladders you can climb, walls you can vault and roof edges you can jump from as needed. Most of the above should be familiar to anyone who has played any sort of game in the genre ever, making it accessible to fans, and new players should find the controls easy enough to pick up between the simple mechanics and the easy to understand tutorial missions.

Alpha Protocol steps away from being a conventional third-person shooter once it begins to get into its more RPG oriented elements, which is where the Mass Effect comparisons can come in. On a gameplay front, this amounts to the ability to use special abilities to enhance your performance in a number of ways, from being able to see enemy locations around you to being able to aim better to being able to deal or take more damage and beyond. Active abilities can be enabled by pressing the left bumper, and can be switched out as needed with the D-pad radial menu, while passive abilities stay enabled at all times. You can also earn various perks based on how you handle missions and conversations, which add additional boosts to Michael’s performance, allowing him added benefits in and out of battle. Their influence isn’t as obvious as those of your skills, but they stack over time and, in the end, can be just as vital to your success. The game also makes it a point to differentiate your weaponry based on four types: pistols are weak but allow for aimed Critical Hits and silencers, submachine guns are inaccurate but fast and allow for Critical Hit chains, shotguns are powerful close range weapons that allow charged Critical Hits that knock down opponents, and assault rifles are good for long range damage and allow for critical hits after aiming for a while. Each weapon can be outfitted with various enhancements and can be augmented by various skills, so it’s in your best interest to decide on your favorites early, though each has its strengths and weaknesses in various scenarios. You can only carry two weapons into battle, mind you, so picking the right tool for the job is a priority in all cases, though if you’re careful you can make nearly any choices work for the task at hand.

There will also be various points where Michael will have conversations with the various NPC’s who populate the game, be they friend or foe, and the game will allow you up to four potential choices on how to respond to various questions they pose. Pressing the A button, when offered, will end the conversation at that point, but it’s the other three options that present the more interesting aspects of the conversation gimmick. Basically, Michael can respond to conversations in a suave, aggressive or professional fashion, based on the situation, and each character responds differently to different conversation options. There’s a timer on each choice, as well, meaning that you’ll have to make your decisions quickly about how to respond and whether you want to annoy or appease whoever you’re talking to, which makes figuring out the various NPC’s, through observation and dossiers, an important part of the game. Finally, Michael can also perform various hacking and cracking tasks to earn money, unlock new entryways to areas and disable computer systems, either through a code hacking minigame which asks you to align two lines of code in a changing computer screen, a circuit tracing minigame where you trace out lines in order to disable or enable machinery, and a lockpicking minigame where you set tumblers to open locks. These are all simple enough to learn, though the challenge of each game depends on the location and Michael’s aptitude at said task, which can be influenced through various means.

There are other less gameplay oriented mechanical bits to Alpha Protocol as well, for those who want some more RPG elements in their game. Michael can level up, as one would expect, by earning experience points in various ways throughout missions. Each mission area is divided up into one main mission and several sub missions, each of which offers various small and large tasks to be completed. By completing these objectives, as well as by defeating enemies and performing successful hacks and cracks, Michael earns experience points, and after earning enough he levels up. Leveling up gives you points which can be spent on various skills, allowing you to deal more melee damage, make better use of weapons, perform better at stealth and hacking, and so on, allowing you to build the best possible character for your play style. You can also buy new gear through the Clearinghouse, a black market weapon and armor vending website of sorts, which allows you to buy better weapons and armor, as well as consumables and enhancements for said gear. You can also sell items you don’t need anymore in addition to acquiring cash through missions if you’re looking to pick up a useful new tool of some sort or another. You can also use the Clearinghouse to acquire information for missions and secondary missions for a little cash, as well as check your E-mail, which can help you make friends and gain intel at various points throughout the game.

The game can be completed in around fifteen to twenty hours, depending on how dedicated you are toward completing the sub missions provided, though there are a lot of options available to the player who wants to return after the fact. Michael can be customized in a number of different ways through the level up system, so you can build his stats a number of different ways based on what skills you want to specialize in. Completing the game once also unlocks the ability to play through with the Veteran background, and while this does not count as a New Game Plus in the strictest sense, it allows you to start with significant statistical improvements to your character and new dialogue options to pick from. There are also multiple difficulty levels to take on, multiple endings to see, multiple different pieces of gear to acquire and different achievements to unlock, so those looking for some depth to their game will find value in Alpha Protocol, as it gives the player plenty of options should they wish to return to the game.

The biggest issue hindering the experience of Alpha Protocol is that the gameplay never really feels quite right. The game is sticky about context-sensitive actions, meaning that taking cover, climbing ladders and other such things can be awkward and can require multiple attempts to perform, which gets frustrating after a while. The AI is also not especially well implemented, as while the enemy forces will often take cover and lob grenades, they’re just as likely to stand out in the open, rush you when they have the tactical advantage by staying back, and in a few instances fail to return fire entirely as you pick them off. Despite its interesting concept and story, the game often feels like direct plagiarism from the aforementioned Splinter Cell and Mass Effect titles, but it never manages to quite match up to those games at any point. There’s not as much depth to the combat or strategy of the missions, nor is the experience as much fun as it is in those games, and while the game can be fun at various points, the fact that it never quite matches up to what it’s trying to emulate hurts its appeal to anyone who has played the games Alpha Protocol is trying, and often failing, to emulate. It’s also unfortunate that the game lacks a true New Game Plus or ability to significantly customize your character, as part of the fun of Bioware’s epics was carrying over your own custom character from one playthrough to the next, stats intact, instead of making a new, somewhat upgraded Michael with a few minor changes to his appearance.

Alpha Protocol isn’t a bad game by any means, but it is a disappointing one, as it seems to want to be so much more than it actually manages to be in a lot of respect. The story is very solid all around, the graphics are serviceable, and the audio is nice as a whole. The mechanics of gameplay are simple enough to understand but in-depth enough to be interesting, and whether in a battle of words or weapons there’s some interesting elements to the game. The RPG elements are strong enough to be interesting but not too overpowering, and between the lengthy campaign and the numerous options available to a player who wishes to go for a second playthrough, there’s a lot of promise to the experience at first glance. However, there are some technical visual problems that make the game less impressive than it should be, as well as some gameplay quirks that make the game more frustrating than one would want. Further, the AI is unimpressive, the game is heavily unoriginal and incapable of living up to the reputations of the games it borrows from, and the lack of true character customization or the ability to actually carry a character over from one playthrough to the next hurts the replay value a little. In the end, Alpha Protocol will appease players looking for a solid spy fiction action RPG to play around with, but someone looking for Splinter Cell RPG or a Mass Effect killer may come away disappointed.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: GOOD
Originality: BAD
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Alpha Protocol is a solid, if unspectacular, effort from Obsidian Entertainment, and there’s plenty of fun to be had with the game, but it isn’t as impressive as it could or should have been overall. The story is strong and interesting, the visuals are acceptable for the most part, and the audio is generally good all around. The game is simple enough to learn and play, but offers a good amount of depth in its interesting and well designed RPG elements. There’s a solid amount of depth to the various systems in place, between the various skills and enhancements you can earn and friends or enemies you can make, and between the variety of branches the plot can take, the multiple difficulty levels the game offers, and the enhancements available on additional playthroughs, there’s plenty of reason to come back if the game does something you’re interested in. Unfortunately, there are some gameplay and visual issues that make the game less impressive and more frustrating than it should be, and the spotty and occasionally inane AI doesn’t help this any. Further, the game feels incredibly familiar if you’re a fan of games like Splinter Cell and Mass Effect, which is unfortunate because the game never lives up to the pedigree of those titles, and the lack of true character customization or a real New Game Plus hurts the game a little. In the end, Alpha Protocol will interest you if you’re a fan of the action RPG genre, third person shooters or spy fiction, but how much it will interest you will depend on how much you’re willing to overlook the game’s flaws.