The 1990s were a curious time in US entertainment. With the Cold War over and the Middle Eastern terrorists featuring about as prominently as European terrorism, most of the political thrillers of that era had a more domestic, seditious bend, with shadow governments and corrupt agencies. There was all kinds of super hacker talk, back before most of us recognized the gibberish for what it was, with black helicopters, traced phone calls, triangulations, rudimentary satellite imagery, and tinted Fords zipping through traffic. Back then, other, more international locals still had a bit of mystery about them. There were some great, exciting tales told then, and set firmly within that mold is Alpha Protocol. With a dash of contemporary politics, including corrupt Big Business and turmoil in the East, Obsidian has created an interactive, high-action political thriller both surprising and befuddling.
Alpha Protocol starts in a similar fashion to Mass Effect 2, with the main character, agent Michael Thorton, waking up disoriented on an examination table. Staggering about, he has to make his way out of the room and past the burly guards stationed outside the door. After a hectic escape, you find yourself being questioned by a businessman in the role of the token evil suit - that suave yet sinister professional whose motives aren’t entirely clear. The gentleman is Howard Leland, President of Halbur-er- Halbech, a devious company that’s elbow-deep into the government and world affairs – a slightly less illusive Illusive Man.
From that small interrogation room, you relive Thorton’s past adventures in Saudi Arabia, Moscow, Rome, and Taipei. Each area consists of a handful of missions, the completion of which slowly brings us closer to the present. I have to admit that I’m a sucker for this plot device, as I find working my way through foreshadowed events to add an extra layer of excitement as I try to spot the reference and tie everything together. What’s more, this technique is especially effective in Alpha Protocol because of its open-ended plot, with you being given the reins to fill in the ominous gaps – ‘Oh, you’re upset? This wouldn’t have anything to do with what happened in Moscow?’
In the end, that is what will sell Alpha Protocol: the plot. In truth, the game is an unpolished mash of Mass Effect 2 and Splinter Cell. The world is responsive to your actions, and, like Bioware’s offering, your interactions with others will have consequences as the story unfolds. But while Mass Effect 2 follows a fairly rudimentary check system of matching up a character’s comment with your general response, giving the proceedings a comfortable sense of familiarity, Alpha Protocol goes beyond with sprawling conversation branches that are constantly referenced and remembered by all characters. It isn’t an ‘Oh, I heard you did this’ reaction, either, but one that directly affects both your capabilities and how missions are resolved. Upset a character in hour two and you might be facing them in hour nine; alternatively, be nice to them and you might find them to be a helpful ally. The conversations can also play out as back-and-forth matches, as you try to feel out a character’s intentions before committing to a course of action. Often this system works marvelously, but sometimes it can go awry in the strangest of ways.
Like Mass Effect 2, responses during a conversation are chosen by the face buttons with each representing a tone – hostile, suave, joking, and even an action. The big difference here is that there is a time limit, sometimes a very strict one. Having a set time to respond certainly adds to the already present pressure of knowing that your smooth talking could defuse a situation or an insult push it towards violence, but there are also times when there are some serious kinks in the system. One source of frustration is with the timing mechanism itself; sometimes it would start to run before I could even respond, which resulted in some rash decisions. Response cues also give hints as to what will be said and an indication of what the response might be, so while you might be a ‘hostile’ character, that might be the worst approach to take, so being able to read and process the cues is crucial.
Then there are times when Thorton says something completely unexpected, to the point to where even I was going ‘Why did you say that?!’ Each relationship is gauged by a point system, and it can be difficult to know just what responses will add or take one away. It always stung to see multiple relationships damaged after one unassuming joke coming out as some horrible reference to drugs or prostitution; I was going for suave combat engineer, not lecherous jackass. Thankfully, these unintentional slip-ups were few and far between, and the game offers plenty of opportunities to help even things out.
The other half of Alpha Protocol is the Splinter Cell-styled stealth and espionage action. Indeed, most of the stat-based role-playing elements are based around the spy game. Thorton’s abilities - strength, endurance, weapon proficiency (pistol, shotgun, sub machinegun, and rifle), stealth, etc. - are all graded and enhanced by earned Advancement Points. Dropping points into the various skill sets will do anything from decrease the stages in the laborious circuit hacking mini game – tracing a digit to its source through a web of lines – to unlocking special passive and manual abilities. You might earn a few seconds of invisibility when spotted by cameras or unlock a way to slow down time to plan multiple shots in advance.
The game really gets interesting a few levels in, after you’ve slipping into your role without realizing it. As I was bypassing hacks with EMPs and focusing firing my assault rifle, I was surprised to learn just how different of a path my game was taking when I read some other accounts of people focusing on other styles, like hand-to-hand combat and stealth. You can put points anywhere you like, though you are given an initial class to choose from that will help you get a start on leveling particular skills; alternatively, you can start as a “Recruit,” unlocking unique conversation responses but also starting with no skills and zero points to allocate. The perks you get from your relationships with others, your handler in particular, also go towards your starts – less recoil, more health per medical kit, etc. There’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than it seems.
As a field agent, Thorton is more than capable of taking care of himself on assignment. He can perform silent lethal and non-lethal takedowns, fire from behind cover, and blindfire. One particularly interest ability is how he can quickly travel from one cover object to another – rolling, jumping, and even leaping forward, in the case of columns. With all of his combat abilities and unlockable skills, everything is in place for the game to tailor itself to the style you want: stealth, combat, or somewhere in between.
But for all of the options Obsidian gives you, they make several curious choices along the way. Why, for example, can a spy not close a door? In one of the game’s strangest design decisions, you cannot close the very doors that you open. How do they close? On their own. This leads to some surreal situations due to the fact that the AI is often wanting. In one awkward scenario, the enemy saw a door open, noticed that he’s blocking the only way out of the dead-end hallway, and yet he refused to take a few steps forward to do anything -see what was behind the only boxes near the door, close the door, or simply walk away – leaving me to which crouch there and wait. That happened to me a number of times, and in each instance I had to just rush the guard. And that’s just one of the game’s many problems.
While Thorton might be a fit agent, he is either especially delicate or needlessly picky about how he does his sneaking around. Unlike in Splinter Cell, you are heavily restricted as to what you can traverse: there’s no hanging, shimmying, or crawling. Objects that can be used are highlighted with icons floating above them, which amounts to a handful of ziplines, ladders, and ledges per level. Oh, you can hang, but only in the most technical sense: you can’t hang to escape notice or circumvent a guard, as in Metal Gear Solid, but to simply break a fall. Other than that, though, you’re relegated to sneaking behind the abundant and curiously placed boxes, debris, and furniture that dot the levels. Sometimes the game does a poor job at hiding the weird sort of logic that stealth games are prone to operating under: unable to simply climb over spool of wire on a catwalk, I had to go down a ladder, navigate a maze of stationary and moving trains, and then climb a ladder find myself on the other side of the same two-foot-wide spool. As for the AI, it fumbles about with behavior that can rarely be described as normal. An enemy could just as well aim and fire in the opposite direction or turn around and - this is one of their favorite tactics - simply charge you head-on. Charging works better than you might think because of the game’s abstract hit recognition; like Fallout 3, you need experience with a weapon to earn the kind of skill that warrants a successful shot, so firing a weapon you aren’t proficient with will only result in damage and not death. But a hotel guard isn’t a giant mutant, and there is no reason why he should rush a man firing an assault rifle in his face nor be able to take three or four shots without flinching. Instead, a rushing enemy can often breach your defenses and pummel you, which will cause you to stagger back and other enemies to swarm.
If you have to resort to fisticuffs, then I hope you pumped some skills into melee because combat can get pretty tedious. Instead of a handful of combos or move sets, you just hit one button, over and over and over. It might look cool (whenever the camera cooperates) but it plays out like an unsatisfying afterthought. Although you can level up to do one particularly cool move where you can rush an opponent and incapacitate them with a one-hit throat shot. The game needed more of that.
Beyond the mechanics, there are some rather serious technical issues as well. The cutscenes feature some terrible screen tearing, and there is consistent pop-up, primarily with textures, and clipping. I didn’t fall through a catwalk or walk through a mountain, but experienced more minor problems, like having to remount a gun before being able to walk away or see my gun clip go through a pipe. The game has a bit of a dated look but, save for a few creepy character models, I really didn’t mind the visuals. There is minimal detail and awkward character animation, but I wouldn’t say it’s ugly.
If there were one situation when all of Alpha Protocol’s problems collide into one big mess, it’s in Moscow. The already ridiculous and anticlimactic boss fights are made worse by an encounter with an ‘80s-obsessed crime lord who battles you in his private disco and becomes nearly invulnerable when coked out of his mind. Not only does he brush off your rounds and blows, he also swings wildly with a knife, which somehow finds its way through your defenses with ease. He and Sie (re: Brigitte Nielsen with a chaingun) manage to cross that delicate line between interestingly eccentric to ridiculous that it is actually jarring. And then there is the embassy mission.
The infiltration of the embassy went smooth enough, with patrolling Marines delicately knocked out with tranquilizers and sleeper holds. It was after I found my target and explained the situation that everything went awry. After we made our way to the bottom floor, he decided that the best way to stay alive, and for me to keep him alive, was by running out in the middle of the raging firefight between the Marines and assaulting mercenaries. If that wasn’t enough, a Marines immediately rushed my position and others spawned all around me whenever I made my way outside. Not only did they appear right next to me, but they wanted my head on a platter. Between the mercenaries killing my objective, Marines killing me, and mercenaries killing me, I died well over a dozen times. If the situation wasn’t difficult enough, the engine falls apart with excessive slowdown and screen tearing. The problems that had cropped up here and there before became apparent in full force in those last few minutes. What made it all the more galling were Leland’s hollow condescending post-mission remarks about my disregard for innocent lives, going on about how I let Marines die whenever I didn’t kill any and didn’t even fire a gun until the mercenaries invaded the complex. What I wouldn’t have given to have been able to punch him in the face.
After all of this, you must be thinking, “Then why would I ever want to play this game?” The fact is that some of you wouldn’t and shouldn’t, but there are those out there that, despite all of its shortcomings, definitely should. In the end, Alpha Protocol isn’t so much a bad game as it is a sloppy game. What Obsidian set out to do - create a rich and complex world of character interaction and consequences – much less in a framework so foreign for the genre they did very well. While the action and stealth elements might teeter around the average mark, the dialog options and interaction are excellent.
It becomes incredibly addictive and involving working your way through each event to see how your decisions influence the world around you. It might be some timely assistance, a new contact in the black market to buy new weapon and items from, or even a sudden shift in the story, taking you in directions that you didn’t expect. You genuinely become invested in the world and characters, and it becomes exciting to see if a character will turn on you or what other shady organization is going to rear its head; like any good political thriller, it keeps you on the edge of your seat. That same Moscow level also provides a good example of how your actions have an impact: an ally helped me with the boss level by leaving a sniper rifle to help clear patrolling guards and later bombed a courtyard to clear the way to the man himself. Not knowing what would have happened had I angered that same ally is one of the many nagging questions you’ll have afterwards, and it’s one that will be strong enough to pull some right back in.
Alpha Protocol isn’t going to do much for many people, but for a few out there, it will offer a truly unique experience. How much you get out of it will depend on which aspect your interests lie. If you’re going in for the stealth and combat, then you would be better served with other titles; however, if you’re going in more to play in a world full of dynamic relationships and interesting plot twists, then you’ve found your title. Even then, however, you’re going to need to be a patient person – its problems are as frustrating as they are heartbreaking.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)