Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Released: 28th May 2010
Other Formats: Xbox 360, PC
Alpha Protocol is a strange release, for sure. Originally pushed back from an October 2009 release, you'd have thought that the developer, Obsidian Entertainment, would have devoted all their time to refining their game with the triple-A layer of polish that modern gamers now take for granted. As it is, I only have to question Obsidian's true level of intent in favouring the continuation of the Fallout license in this year's New Vegas rather than devoting all it's weight to make this spy espionage RPG anything but lacklustre.
In using the Unreal Engine 3, famed for its cover system- but let down in other departments- it's perhaps not surprising to see a poor graphical edge, low-res textures, texture pop-in and severe drops in frame rate when the going gets tough. Granted, other developers can give sufficient power to the engine (Epic, as creators no less, have excellent experience), but in perhaps devoting more time to other parts of the game, Obsidian seem to have forgotten that the HD crowd demand unquestionable graphical fidelity.
However, good games aren't made through great graphics and neither are bad graphics a decider of poor games. First off, I applaud Obsidian for trying something different in what can be a very staid RPG genre- the spy/ espionage take is certainly unique and interesting, and could have been a fertile ground to craft an almost Sam Fisher-like stealth actioner. As it is, however, playing as one of the most generic protagonists imaginable in Hollywood's most over-used of storyline- the government stitch-up, will give you little room for empathy with Obsidian's efforts. You play as Agent Michael Thorton whom is sent to Saudi Arabia to assassinate leader 'Shaheed'. It isn't giving too much away by informing you that a major plot twist occurs as Thorton is listed as a threat to his country, on a mission to track down those responsible for the cover-up. Extremely passable and throwaway, the poor dialogue and dull and wooden delivery do little to flesh out the character's at the centre of the game's story. Instead, the intended intent seems to amount to blasting from Intel message through to mission objectives, only so that the poor plot can be leaped through in the quickest way possible. Sadly very much passable with relation to its narrative thread, Alpha Protocol wishes to give me confidence in other aspects of its design...
The much vaunted cover system provides the ground at which AP's combat system plays out. Very much frustrating in its final form, the switch into cover is acceptable enough, although leaping from cover to cover (or over cover) isn't an option, which could have been a great design choice within its stealth-orientated game design where avoiding the gaze of onlookers is key. Elsewhere, weapons feel underpowered from the get go and are frustratingly underwhelming. This is slightly evened out however through the application of upgrades, additional perks and skills. The latter, skills, are a great addition and play a similar role to Mass Effect's 'powers'- giving a significant advantage when used, whether it be through slowing down time, or giving weapons an increased damage percentage. But whilst the skills go some way to alleviating the game's first problems, the guns on their own still feel severely lacklustre and poor. It makes me question the intent of Obsidian, whether they felt so inclined to push forward the stealth aspect of the game that they wanted the player to feel under-powered when forced into combat elswhere. Perhaps if the stealth mechanic wasn't utterly useless, then this might have been a good design choice. As it is, the cover mechanics and frustrating AI mean that stealth is very rarely a genuine option and thus, Alpha Protocol fails in its lofty ambition. It's almost as though the developer almost realised the poor implementation of their key mechanic, however, since the melee system is often the most powerful way to often dispatch your enemies- on more than one occasion I'd simply leg it to the nearest foe (in Thorton's hilarious 'slow-motion in fast-forward' running animation) and rapidly tapping 'Circle' to beat the clichéd enemy types to death- hardly the way Obsidian would have imagined it, surely. If you do decide to take the stealth option, you'll be tasked to avoid detection from camera's, monitoring enemy patterns and crouching to silently take out guards from behind. Fail to do so, and waves of enemies will be forced onto your position with the alarm blasting its way through the speakers, only deactivated through one of few mini-games, mentioned later. The way that weapons can be customised (such as adding a silencer, at the detriment of accuracy, for example) is a nice touch, giving player's the ability to try out a number of different tactics, suiting their style of play with what the game provides.
As much as I have trouble with the key fundamentals of the game design, however, I often found missions satisfying and enjoyable to play through, to which I have no idea why. Whether it have been through the quick switching of objectives, or the sense of reward when picking up upgrades or money (for some reason, people leave thousands of dollars around the place!), the game gets significantly better as the player gets more powerful- where experimenting with different skills and weapons is where the most fun can be had. It's hard not to question the sheer lack of ambition on behalf of the team nonetheless when every level feels like a carbon-copy of the one that came previously, corridor after corridor, office after office, that players rarely have the chance to escape the grey, dull omnipresence of corporate government office space. Yes, unfortunately, the game is poorly enveloped in a linear state of design, and extremely hackneyed in its attempt at anything different.
Whilst being stat-heavy and driven by upgradeable skill points, specialization integration and the like, Alpha Protocol still feels very subdued in delivering a full RPG game. The mission hubs or 'safe houses' are dull and lifeless, with little justification for their use. In fact, there is so little to do in the game outside of the unnervingly clunky and irksome menus that it surprised me how comparisons to the likes of Mass Effect came up regularly on its arrival. Other than the “complex dialogue system” that requires the player to push a button based on a specific input towards the conversation in timed circumstances (such as “aggressive” or “suave”), there is actually little to invite such comparisons. You won't be getting the swanky camera angles and cinematic flair that Mass Effect boasted, for example. It's also a shame to point out that the 'choices' that Alpha Protocol pushes at the player have neither the weight or impact or similar choices within Bioware's brilliant sci-fi epic. It's something that Obsidian have failed to achieve, giving player's so little character and personality to draw from that you'll instead be oh-so-tempted to skip entire cut-scenes with a press of the right trigger, than actually sit through the drawl.
The extension of gadgets and unique abilities propels it into the spy/espionage world nicely, with gadgets ranging from flash grenades to EMP blasts that hack through security terminals (otherwise unlocked through brief mini-games). Although I didn't use gadgets nearly as much as I would have expected too, they can be used in a sufficient manner- if you really thought about it that is, where tactical use of which would probably allow smooth transitions through levels. The aforementioned mini-games comprise of a “computer hack”- finding static code within a matrix, turning off alarms and security doors (a kind of 'match the wire to the number' mini-game) and lock picking (holding the left trigger until the lock glows and fixing the position). Awarding XP on successful attempts, I felt all were simple enough and nicely integrated.
I feel a responsibility to also mention the frustrating technical issues that severely detriment the game as a whole, breaking any thrilling action that can be given on rare occasions within the experience. Regularly fluctuated by graphical glitches, irritating bugs and poor AI design, in one mission I was lambasted all at once with a whole courtyard of dumb AI opponents (re spawning upon dying, no less), bugs every which way I looked, with a mission objective to save a government official who kept walking straight into the middle of said yard, right into the line of fire. Sufficient to say, my controller was lucky to see the light of another day, as I retried time and time and time again.
As it is, I really can not recommend Alpha Protocol, which is a shame because, as you can tell in my preview, I was justifiably optimistic at what such a game could have given. Here's hoping that Obsidian give the excellent Fallout license just deserve and deliver on New Vegas where Alpha Protocol failed to shine. Hopefully, this was a blip in what ought to be a great year for Obsidian as a developer, please let that be the case.