Obsidian's promising espionage RPG, Alpha Protocol lives up to its name for all the wrong reasons. (PC, Xbox 360, PS3)
It's really difficult to know what to say about Alpha Protocol. SEGA has had the hype machine working for the game for quite some time and so it was always going to have a tough time but what we expected and what we got were two very different things.
Now that the game has arrived it's best just to cast aside the preconceptions and just look at the game as it is. Unfortunately what Alpha Protocol is, is confusing. From the very first time SEGA and Obsidian divulged the game's concept – an espionage RPG – it was clear that Alpha Protocol was going to be something different. Of course in hindsight different is the most diplomatic way to describe the game.
How very James Bond
Alpha Protocol is a mass of contradictions. It at once embodies the very best and very worst elements of game design in one gloriously flawed package. You begin the game as a new recruit to an ultra-secret organisation called Alpha Protocol that exists to carry out the kind of missions that would put Jack Bauer at a stretch and still maintain plausible deniability for the US government. Your first mission is to investigate how NATO weapons got into terrorist hands and were used to shoot down a Western airliner in the Middle East.
The mission takes you to the savagely mispronounced Saudi Arabia in search of a terrorist organisation called Al-Samad, locate their leader Shaheed and either arrest or assassinate him. Working out of an Alpha Protocol safe house you trackdown various leads by infiltrating a few locations with links to Al-Samad and Shaheed.
The first mission in Saudi Arabia gives you a taste of the kind of choice that you will be given during the rest of the game. This ranges from the ability to buy extra intelligence for various missions, extensively customise your weapons and event affect how people react to you in conversations through a rather interesting conversation system. The conversation system is actually one of the high points of the game. It presents you with up to four types of responses rather than a choice of particular statements. It is also time restricted so it forces you to play on instinct. This works very well as it makes conversations flow very naturally and allows you to respond more realistically in these situations. The plot is actually tied to your conversations as how you interact with everyone from your handlers, to assets and even your enemies will affect how situations play out. A good relationship with your handlers, for instance, conveys a bonus to your stats and will vary depending on how close the pair of you become.
The plot of the game is another high point. At first glance, it's a standard cautionary tale of big business engineering world politics for financial gain with you caught in the middle. As you get into it though you realise that there are enough twists and turns in the storyline to keep you playing on to the end despite the game's shortcomings. The variety in the plot related to your actions is something of a revelation actually. The game also puts you in plenty of Catch-22 situations to really test your moral mettle. Much of the game's storytelling and morality is comparable to that of Mass Effect in it's execution. You really do end up engaging with most of the game's main characters and when you make a decision which means that one of them dies (and this will happen) it will have an effect on you.
Proof that a balaclava is never a good fashion choice in the Middle East
In fact, the game has everything you'd expect from a good spy film. There are stony combat veterans, cold-blooded megalomaniacal villains and the mandatory love interest. The agency also manages to introduce a rivalry between you and one of the other agents early on before you are forced to go rogue, at which point your slightly stereotypical rival is assigned to hunt you down.
As the game develops on, just as in Mass Effect, you have the opportunity to develop a romantic involvement with some of the women you encounter with your handler becoming one of the main focusses. This also adds a bit of tension to the whole thing as getting too involved can actually begin to hamper your operational abilities with the handler bonus becoming a negative if the emotional ties are too strong.
Taking full advantage of the jet setting lifestyle that the international espionage game offers, Alpha Protocol allows you to travel the world and kill people in exotic locations as diverse as Rome, Moscow and Taipei. Borrowing slightly from the design of the original Deus Ex, Alpha Protocol offers an impressive and interesting array of missions in each location with every mission adding something to your overall picture of the conspiracy you are working to thwart.
Now we come to the hard part as we start seeing the faults in Alpha Protocol. The main gameplay mechanic is that of a third person shooter with a cover mechanic. Sadly the cover mechanic lets the game down somewhat. It should be simple enough. Run up to a piece of cover and push X. The problem is it doesn't always work, in fact it fails more than it works. Entering cover actually ends up being something akin to searching for hidden doors in the original Wolfenstein 3D running along a wall jamming X repeatedly until something happens.
This isn't the only problem Alpha Protocol has. There are graphical glitches – a lot of them. There are jaggy edges, poor clipping, occasionally odd lip syncing, all of which are inexcusable in a AAA title. The final nail in the coffin of Alpha Protocol is the crashes. It even manages to crash the ever-stable PS3; repeatedly. One sequence crashes three or four times in succession and required a full system restart to rectify. It it wasn't for the generously-spaced save checkpoints in the game this would have been a controller-through-monitor moment.
An impromptu session of Just Dance takes a turn for the worse
It would be unnecessarily harsh to say that Alpha Protocol is a disaster of a game. In many ways it became a victim of it's own hype as the pressure built up it became impossible for Obsidian to be able to delay it until it was truly finished. It is truly sad to see a game which has such immense potential hampered by some basic mechanical failings. Whilst the game is not broken by any means the lack of polish really takes the sheen off Alpha Protocol's strengths.
ALPHA PROTOCOL VERDICT
Obsidian has clearly got the ability to produce really superb AAA titles but seems to lack the clout of their rival Bioware in terms of being able to say when a game is ready or not. The tragedy of Alpha Protocol is that, hidden behind the mass of technical failings is a superb action RPG bristling with choice and driven by some inspired storytelling. Each glimmer of hope that you see through the cracked venir of graphical glitches and all to regular system crashes will spur you to play your way through the game and maybe even try it again to explore some alternative character choices. Still, you will be haunted all the way by the game that could have been had Obsidian been given more time.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Being forced to choose between the life of a close contact and the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians. Those Jack Bauer moments are what almost make the game worthwhile.