Alpha Protocol Review
Alpha Protocol (PC, PlayStation 3 [reviewed], Xbox 360)
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Released: May 27, 2010
Alpha Protocol is, generally speaking, a terrible game. The combat is thoroughly unenjoyable. The plot is incoherent and contains numerous continuity errors. The game’s branching structure provides only the illusion that your actions matter. The whole RPG side of things is laughably implemented and can, depending on the order you choose to do the missions, completely destroy the flow of the game. There are plenty of technical glitches, and the AI is, ah, well, not very intelligent, to put it nicely.
But I love Alpha Protocol, despite its efforts to the contrary.
Obsidian had two things right here. The first was the idea to do a spy game with a branching plot and dialogue options; that was, if nothing else, a good idea. The second was the characters; they’ve collected a stable of mostly compelling and fun characters to meet and fight alongside/murder. It’s all about the personality, because this game is as dumb as a truckbed full of phone books.
How dumb? In one mission, I infiltrated a Saudi airfield to plant some sort of bug, and I stealthily cut the throats of 15-20 as I sneaked around. After the mission, I was told the Saudis didn’t know anyone had intruded. The game thinks sneaking around without bothering anyone is the same as sneaking around and stabbing people without setting off an alarm.
And that whole “choice” thing that was talked up as a major dynamic? A lie. In Moscow, you’ll need to infiltrate the US embassy to find an arms dealer, and before you do so, the leader of a covert spy group called G22 wants to help, because they also want to talk to the guy. If you turn them down, they’ll assault the embassy when you go there. If you let them help, another group assaults the embassy, and the situation plays out identically.
The choices you make do have some slight impact, at least, most of the time. If you, say, hit an informant over the head with a liquor bottle before going to the embassy, you won’t be able to smooth talk your way in, and being nice to certain people will net you some help on missions or some extra intel. It’s mostly cosmetic, though, because these things don’t impact, even if you get a wildly inaccurate picture of how everything fits together. Oh, and most egregious is that characters in the game explain repeatedly that the things you do with have consequences, and in many cases those characters lay out what may happen as a result of each choice. This is dumb, and it assumes the human players don’t understand humans or human interaction. It’s also a very explicit reminder that you’re playing a video game.
And all that RPG stuff, well, it wasn’t really thought out. The game is structured so that, after the intro mission, you have three locations to visit, and each mission flows in such a way that it would make little sense for your man to take a break and do one of the other missions. Yet that’s what you’ll have to do if you go to Rome first. There, you’ll get to the boss battle at the end and realize you aren’t leveled up enough to take this guy out. Then, despite there being an imminent bomb threat to take care of, you’ll have to go somewhere else and do a couple missions before you can finish the guy off.
And those glitches. You can take cover, but the bad guys can generally shoot you through it, and, sometimes, you can shoot back through it. The final mission in Taipei looked like it had lazer bolts flying all over the screen for some unknown reason. The frame rate is appallingly bad, at least on the PS3 version. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of technical issues on display in this game.
This brings me to the most offensive, or broken, aspect of the game: shooting things. Alpha Protocol takes the stat-based shooting of Mass Effect and Borderlands and goes hardcore with it. In those other two, vastly superior titles, you never felt like you couldn’t hit anything; you merely felt underpowered when fighting a higher-leveled enemy. But in Alpha Protocol, you do feel out of control. You can empty your clip in the direction of a baddie only to discover you hit only air even though you’re standing five feet from him. Mass Effect and Borderlands used the dice roll to determine the damage done to the enemy, but Alpha Protocol obnoxiously has it determine whether your shot hits at all before also doing a dice roll for damage. The result of all this is combat that is about as enjoyable as that of History Channel: Civil War.
So why would I like this game? Because, as I said before, it’s all about personality. Your character, Mike Thorton, can be pretty hilarious if you choose the jokey dialogue options, even if half the things he says make little sense in the context of the game. Then, the folks at Obsidian crammed the game full of factions and outlandish characters and so many different ways they can influence the narrative. And the plot twists! There are two huge nonsensical plot twists that are awesome specifically because they are so insane and stupid. All the while, the combat becomes less painful as you level up, and I got sucked in.
Look, guys, Alpha Protocol isn’t for everyone, just like Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead movie isn’t going to be a good time for most people. It is a terribly constructed game, one that feels like it needed a serious revamp before release. If it were more polished, it could be thought of as a poor man’s Deus Ex, but, as it is, it’s just the drunk man’s Deus Ex.
Here’s what I recommend: Wait until it hits the clearance bin for $10, then grab it. On the way home from the store, pick up a cheap handle of vodka, if you’re old enough (if you’re not old enough, well, don’t play the game, I guess). Then play it on easy and choose all the douchebag options. Now you have the blueprint for the best weekend of your life. You’re welcome.
The question now is: what score should I give this? I thought about being gentle since I do love it, but because I love it despite it all being terribly annoying, I can only be harsh.
- Worst. Combat. EVAR.
- A pile of technical glitches
- Incoherent plot
- Dumb internal logic
- Choice is an illusion.