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Alpha Protocol Review
developer: Obsidian Entertainment
|ESRB rating: M
release date: Jun 01, 10
|» All About Alpha Protocol on ActionTrip|
Experienced gamers no doubt recognize the name Obsidian Entertainment. Now, while I respect what these guys have done in the past, I never understood how they never managed to polish their games before launch. Both Knights of the Old Republic II and Neverwinter Nights 2 suffered tremendously on account of shoddy programming and lack of polish. It's almost as if they are always too eager to make their work available to the public and as a result they treat us to technically underdeveloped games. We were hoping this would change with Alpha Protocol, an action flavored espionage-themed RPG, placed against a modern-day backdrop, involving plenty of well-known locations such as Rome, Moscow, etc.
Political prejudice aside, this game, doesn't dip into the much disputed conflict between America (and UK) and Iraq. Thank God for that. It does, however, venture deep into the realm of political intrigue, behind-the-scenes military campaigns and other operations carried out off the record. You are agent Michael Thorton, a new recruit of Alpha Protocol, which represents a highly hush-hush service with no official links to the US government. Being a field operative, you'll be going through a bit of basic training at the beginning. In no time at all, you get your first real assignment. After an attack on a passenger jet in the Middle East, you are instructed to take down an influential leader called Shaheed. As the mission comes to an end, Throton's barely survives an intense missile strike. In an instant, Thorton becomes a rogue agent who is presumed dead. Now that he's kicked out of the Alpha Protocol, the agent must use his skills to survive and get to the bottom of the whole situation.
This is how a handle things.
The beard is definitely out!
Right from the outset, the game introduces two of its crucial components - dialogue and a classic RPG character progression system. Sizing up people is important. If you are a good judge of character, conversations can be stirred in the desired direction, leading to rather rewarding results. Conflicts can be avoided or triggered depending on the main character's attitude. In addition, gaining someone's favor subsequently unlocks bonuses and extra intel on key upcoming missions. In short, the dialogue is a very engaging part of the experience and is a fine variation on the conversation system we've seen in games like Mass Effect. The difference here is that you have a rather short time to respond and assume a specific stance during a conversation. The stances range from aggressive, angry and frustrated, to calm, gentle, understanding, and so on. Exact actions can be performed in a dialogue sequence, like "punch," "execute" or "kiss." It's actually a very effective way of getting to know the characters and improving your own skills in the process.
Different responses in one discussion may have serious repercussions. Rationalizing the situation and smooth-talking your way out of trouble could unlock cash bonuses, helpful information regarding important assignments and it might spark an interest from other characters. The story shifts according to the decisions you make, so, yeah, there are plenty of variables as you progress through the campaign.
As far as the story and dialogue system goes, Alpha Protocol is top-notch. The plot twists, characterization, humor and the writing in general are great and brilliantly incorporated into the game itself.
This is an RPG at heart, after all. Apart from the chit-chat, other actions can be performed throughout the game towards more experience points and the inevitable character upgrade. How you distribute the points is entirely up to you. Improving spy-based skills such as stealth movement and sabotage brings Thorton closer to a perfect silent, undercover operative. Those who prefer a more aggressive approach should consider upgrading their assault rifle skills, in addition to toughness. The RPG mechanics are pretty standard and straightforward. I only regret that the developers didn't take time to put in a wider variety of skills. It looks too thin at this point, just in terms of the skills you can use in the field.
Okay, by now, you're probably thinking this is one kick-ass game. Right? Well, you'd be wrong in assuming so. The trouble arises as soon as the action starts. The combat mechanics seemed like a good idea on paper, albeit they are a nightmare in practice. Regarding combat, whether you prefer a stealthy approach or pure Rambo-style action, the game disappoints in nearly every way. The character's movement feels awkward, the camera is shaky and often provides a poor angle on the action, while the AI plainly needs more work. Enemy behavior patterns show nothing that remotely resembles human intelligence. I've also come across sections in the game where enemies failed to spawn. That's right, the entire section of the game was empty (!?!). Brilliant, guys. Just bloody brilliant. Another thing that pissed me off was that enemies could see me through walls even though I remained silent and immobile. Crap like this kills the thrill, particularly if the gamer prefers being a clandestine spy who wants to take care of things quietly.
Boss AI behavior is even worse. Well, not so much as the behavior, but more how the developers organized things in each boss fight. For instance, one of the bosses sporadically attacks you with a knife. He charges like a maniac and what ever you do, you can't avoid being hit. You can run like a coward, sure, but that's about it. Up to this point, my character was level 10 and I had some pretty good skills unlocked. Nothing I did mattered. Now, I don't object to challenging boss fights, but when I grab an assault rifle and then empty an entire clip into a guy's face and pull off 5 clean headshots with my pistol (with pistol skills almost maxed out) and the guy's still breathing, well... something's wrong. That is but one example of the many frustrations in this game.
Be warned, there are other issues almost guaranteed to drive you crazy. Certain skills do not work properly. When I unlocked a specific skill, it was supposed to give me a better idea of enemy movements. It simply refused to activate. Cover controls also don't work properly. When Thorton positions himself next to a closed door, he has the opportunity to stick onto the nearby wall and open the door silently. Very often the game just doesn't allow you to do this, even though it should. So, a game with key features that work sporadically... Amazing stuff.
Alpha Protocol was designed primarily with RPG gameplay in mind. Anybody who wishes to explore the shooter aspect of the game, may be in for the surprise of a lifetime. Although there's a fair amount of weapons to upgrade, customize and use in combat, you'll be more than irritated once the shooting starts. Due to the horrendous camera, aiming is nearly impossible. Fair enough, as you increase the skill of wielding a particular weapon, your aiming improves, but it never becomes fully intuitive. It also amazes how much certain opponents are resilient to headshots. Sometimes it takes about 3-4 headshots before a foe goes down for good.
A well-written story, great dialogue mechanics, potentially great RPG experience lurks behind the concept of Alpha Protocol;
The game is incomplete, the combat mechanics are flawed, the AI is weak, the awful camera may give you headaches, not to mention there are bugs around every corner, while not entirely unplayable this is still an underdeveloped game, one that should've been considerably more polished or indeed not released at all (at least not in this state).