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Alpha Protocol (Xbox 360) artwork

Alpha Protocol (Xbox 360) review


"Alpha Protocol isnít excused of anything it does wrong. Thereís the overwhelming sense here that Obsidian bypassed the game's flaws rather than fixing them. Thatís almost as good, though, because it makes everything about Alpha Protocol no less than tolerable. Once the game works, once you find an approach to combat that suits you, itís easy to ignore what the game does wrong and admire what it does right."



It's safe to say that the team at Obsidian, which was formed by ex-members of Black Isle and which has handled two BioWare sequels, knows its way around an RPG. That same team is inexperienced with action romps, though, and has developed the unfortunate habit of shipping games before they are finished. Alpha Protocol, fittingly, is a spectacular RPG thatís also a mediocre action game. It feels like it needed more time in development Ė which, ironically, is often the result of a game having spent too much time in development.

The game wins points right out of the gate for featuring a setting rarely used in RPGs. One of my few complaints about last yearís Dragon Age was that we were more or less returning to the same Tolkien-esque fantasy world in which these games always seem to take place. Alpha Protocol, in contrast, is an espionage thriller. That in and of itself isnít unusual for video games, but your average shooter would simply transport players from one action set piece to the next with little time for anything else. Alpha Protocol has the benefit of moving at a leisurely pace, one that offers us time to soak in the array of fine details. Weíre given safehouses in exotic locations like Taipei and Rome, a computer with email and online shopping and full dossiers on every character and organization present in the narrative. Itís the rare spy thriller that truly makes you feel like a spy, rather than a simple action pawn.

Unfortunately, when itís time for the action itself to erupt, Alpha Protocol feels dated at best. That feel isn't just about visuals, though thatís certainly part of it. Textures are bland, particle effects are embarrassing and the animation is often so laughably poor that I doubt motion capture work was used for much of it. The archaic vibe creeps into many of Alpha Protocolís mechanics, too. If stealth is such a major component of the mission design, why doesnít lighting seem to factor into my visibility? If combat revolves around cover-based gunplay, why canít I vault over obstacles? Again, itís easy to say that the folks at Obsidian were simply inexperienced in these areas, but they certainly should have done more research before delving into such unfamiliar territory.

The biggest offender, however, is the AI. The reason stealth is so immediately and obviously a drag is that your enemiesí behavior is totally inconsistent. Theyíre hyperaware one minute and they suffer from tunnel vision the next. You could attempt to sneak through a section and alert guards for no apparent reason, then reload the checkpoint, do the exact same thing and yield better results. Stealth doesnít work unless AI functions under predictable parameters, and here the AI doesnít. Meanwhile, the gunplay is something of a mess: attacking from a reasonable distance only exposes the absurd inaccuracy of your weapons, while making liberal use of the cover system prompts the AI to hide and flush you out with stockpiles of grenades. The most effective strategy is to simply abandon cover altogether and aggressively assault enemies at close range, the precise course of action that a skilled agent wouldnít follow.

My first few hours playing Alpha Protocol were spent encountering a few promising ideas that found their qualities compromised by shoddy gunplay and broken stealth. Then, bewilderingly and against all odds, Alpha Protocol became a good game.

The odd thing about Alpha Protocol is that unlocking its skill tree actually un-breaks certain aspects of the game. Beefing up my weapon proficiencies made firearms usable. Earning a plethora of new stealth skills, such as the ability to blanket footsteps or a neat perk that gives you a moment of invisibility when youíre about to be spotted, makes sneaking around levels without attracting attention much easier and less stressful. I eventually opted to focus my experience on stealth and assault rifles. I crept through levels when I could get away with it, but made sure that I was packing the heat in case that ever backfired.

As it turns out, my problem was that Iíd begun the campaign with the ďRecruitĒ background, which was supposed to make the game more challenging. Every other class provides you with a handful of experience points from the get-go to set you in the right direction. Recruit doesnít, and as such, the game was a chore until Iíd improved some of my stats. Replaying Alpha Protocol with a different starting class Ė this time one that sent me off with a few skill points Ė proved what Iíd been suspecting: the combat is much more enjoyable when youíve actually got something to work with. Alpha Protocol even allows players to reassign their skill points after their first major mission is completed, which is so smart it hurts. It means that youíre given a couple of hours to test your desired direction, then allowed to change your mind at the last minute if need be.

Make no mistake: Alpha Protocol isnít excused of anything it does wrong. Thereís the overwhelming sense here that Obsidian bypassed the game's flaws rather than fixing them. Thatís almost as good, though, because it makes everything about Alpha Protocol no less than tolerable. Once the game works, once you find an approach to combat that suits you, itís easy to ignore what the game does wrong and admire what it does right.

I canít give an accurate summary of Alpha Protocolís plot without spoiling anything, but know that the way this narrative is strung together is unquestionably the gameís selling point. Developers have been toying with interactive storytelling for awhile now, and here you can see where Obsidianís work on BioWare sequels has come in handy. The conversational system, that trademark of a BioWare product, is the best Iíve ever used, with players selecting tones, subjects and actions within time constraints to keep discussion running at a smooth pace. Protagonist Michael Thortonís reputation with other characters constantly rises and falls depending on what he says and does, and the joy of interacting with these people comes in figuring out what makes them tick and appealing to their senses (or, if need be, getting on their bad side).

Itís also worth noting that Alpha Protocol is one of the many games to claim that there are consequences for every action, but one of the few to actually follow through on that. Itís not about moral choices or good-versus-evil, per se. Thorton always comes off the same man, but his minor alterations in tone or slightly varying degrees of aggression bring about long-term effects, both on the missions and the way in which the twisted web of a plot unfolds. Alpha Protocol begs for multiple playthroughs for that reason alone. That itís intelligently written and brought to life with remarkable voice talent may go without saying (though the guy who plays Thorton sounds like he could use some caffeine), but what Obsidian has accomplished here goes so far beyond that. I can honestly say that BioWare has been beaten at its own game.

The question of whether or not that sort of thing appeals to you is an important one to answer before you invest your time in Alpha Protocol. Those looking for tight, wall-to-wall action will be bored and disappointed within a few hours, whereas the players who judge it as an RPG first and foremost will be drawn in by the expansive character-building, the branching conversations and the fantastic NPC interaction. Theyíll be frustrated by its bugginess and datedness, too, but theyíll also be willing to put up with that. Depending on your perspective, Alpha Protocol will either be a technical disaster that should never have been released, or the most flawed masterpiece that youíll ever play. I definitely fall into the latter category, and despite myself, I canít wait to play it a third time.

Rating: 7/10

Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (June 21, 2010)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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Feedback

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Genj posted June 22, 2010:

I was waiting for you to review this. Sounds like it isn't a lost cause, but I think I'll still be waiting for additional price drops since it still sounds far from amazing. The game is selling like shit anyway so I'm sure it'll be even cheaper soon. Thanks for writing this.
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Suskie posted June 22, 2010:

No problem. Yeah, I definitely wouldn't recommend that anyone buy it at full price, but I would recommend that anyone who's interested try it out at some point. I think our old friend Draqq over at Game Revolution put it well: "If thereís one thing that is certain about Alpha Protocol, itís that youíre going to have an opinion on it that at least one-third of gamers will disagree with."

Because really, Alpha Protocol is brilliant. It's just also a mess.
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Ben posted June 22, 2010:

Great review. I was already leaning towards trying out Alpha Protocol based on other reviews, but you fully convinced me that it'll most likely be a game that I'll enjoy (for the most part).

Though, like Genj, I'll wait for a price drop first.
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honestgamer posted June 22, 2010:

I'll admit that I wasn't terribly interested in Alpha Protocal before reading this review, but you've piqued my interest while also letting me know that some of the issues that I built up in my mind without playing the game are--as expected--quite genuine. I'm getting pretty good at judging games like this by their cover, I guess. Maybe I've played too many video games. Still, despite the score of 7/10, I think that this sounds like something I might enjoy in spurts and that's more than I could have said before your well-constructed review. I think you may be the person on the site who writes the reviews taht I find most convincing on a gut level that hits my wallet. That's no small accomplishment, so keep up the good work!
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Suskie posted June 22, 2010:

Thanks for the comments. This was actually an extremely difficult review to write, simply because I was so conflicted about it. I wasn't kidding when I said that I had to play through the game twice before I could come to any sort of conclusion about how I felt towards this game. I'm glad to see my thoughts seem to have come through, at least.
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fleinn posted June 23, 2010:

:) really like the review, Suskie. Good approach with the "on the one hand, but" - sounds like that mirrors the game. Definitively going to pick this up eventually.

"That’s almost as good, though, because it makes everything about Alpha Protocol no less than tolerable." ->..makes everything horribly wrong about Alpha Protocol tolerable?

..How do the levels play out, by the way? Do you go down a virtual corridor until the boss, or do you get a lot of mission things in between?
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Suskie posted June 23, 2010:

"Thatís almost as good, though, because it makes everything about Alpha Protocol no less than tolerable." ->..makes everything horribly wrong about Alpha Protocol tolerable?

Well, that's what I was talking about in the preceding two paragraphs. Basically, the Michael Thorton I started out with under Recruit was so horribly underpowered that the game appeared frustratingly broken. Unlocking skills made the weapons more useful, the AI less of an annoyance, etc.

I tried to limit what I said in this review at the risk of rambling, but one of the things I would have liked to discuss in greater detail was the variety in mission design. Much of it is typical spy thriller stuff, where you're sent to a warehouse or a terrorist hideout or something and given a list of simple objectives (secure this intelligence, take down this villain, etc.). But there's plenty of variety in the types of locales you visit, and what exactly you're doing. I also liked the missions where you'd simply meet with a contact or informant, since the conversation system is one of the best things about Alpha Protocol.
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Suskie posted June 23, 2010:

...Yep, something's definitely wrong with the HTML coding.
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Genj posted June 23, 2010:

Let me see

hmmm

edit - yankees suck
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Suskie posted June 23, 2010:

Test

Oh. Lower-case works, then.
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Ben posted June 23, 2010:

Ignore.

EDIT: Oh, I ordered Alpha Protocol earlier today. It was already less than half-price on Amazon, which seems ridiculous to me. I guess it means sales have been abysmal.
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Genj posted June 23, 2010:

Oh so you were using capital letters for the html tags?

Why would you make more work for yourself?

edit - venter's crappy etc
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Suskie posted June 23, 2010:

Well, see, you need to hold down the shift key anyway to type greater than and less than symbols, so actually, the act of releasing the shift key and then pressing it again is more work. So there.
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Genj posted June 23, 2010:

It was already less than half-price on Amazon, which seems ridiculous to me. I guess it means sales have been abysmal.

Huh, really? Still $40 on US Amazon. Then again don't games start out at around $80 USD in Europe? If VG Charts is correct, it's only at around 200,000 units sold worldwide. I'm not biting until $25ish.

edit - Constantly applying pressure with one finger is too much work for me.
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Ben posted June 23, 2010:

Huh, really? Still $40 on US Amazon. Then again don't games start out at around $80 USD in Europe?

I bought it for £21 on Amazon UK when RRP was £50. Maybe it's doing worse in Europe?
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overdrive posted June 23, 2010:

I eliminated a few italic-codes and things don't look fucked up now. In the event the things that were italicized were quotes by others, I'd guess things are code-fucked badly, as from entering "edit-mode" everything looked A-OK.

EDIT: No...the coded stuff that was fucking everything up on at least the "last 50 posts" page seems to be non-quotes with proper markings that didn't work. Anything that looks like intentional italics works right, but there were a few randomly placed ones I deleted that didn't work and turned an entire page into italics.
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zippdementia posted June 26, 2010:

I'm very much broke, Suskie, so I have a question for you before I run out and spend the money I don't have on this.

It will be your fault, too, when I can't eat next week. Maybe I'll call it the "Suskie Diet..."

My question is, simply, is this a 7 or an 8? I know we're getting into score questions here, but there's a deeper meaning to this. What I'm seeing from your review is that this is a game that is replayable, has a great setting, and is one that you'll want to try over and over. My question is, with all of that, where does the drop to an average-seeming 7 come in? I'm not distrusting your review, mind you, I'm just trying to clarify. My big fear is that it would be the kind of replayability that left me feeling like I was doing the same thing over and over, once I'd figured out the proper way to do it. Is that the case?
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Suskie posted June 26, 2010:

First of all, know that a 7 on my rating scale is very much above average. Of course, you're better off interpreting the text of the review and coming to a conclusion about the game yourself, which obviously you're trying to do.

There are a lot of things I love about Alpha Protocol, but there are also a lot of things that hold it back from ever being "great," in my book. Like I said, many elements of the game (many of which have been commonplace in the gaming world for ages, like stealth and cover-based combat) feel clunky and dated at best. Alpha Protocol defines unpolished. It's ugly, it's buggy, it's unbalanced, the mechanics never feel smooth and the AI is finicky as all living hell. Realistically, there is no reason a game this unpolished should exist in today's gaming market, and that's where the disappointingly low score comes from.

But then again, there are things that Alpha Protocol does brilliantly that would appeal to any serious RPG fan. Consider the positive things I had to say about the game in my review: the story, the conversations, the NPC relationships, the freedom of choice, and the flexibility in character creation. If that all sounds appealing to you, then know that there's enough of that in Alpha Protocol to override what the game does wrong.

As far as replayability is concerned, I'd be surprised if anyone who legitimately enjoys Alpha Protocol isn't looking forward to another run by the time the credits roll. The story really is ludicrously open-ended. I can't overstate that. Don't think in terms of Mass Effect-style moral choices, where all of your decisions more or less lead to the same end anyway, but where you define the character along the way. That sort of thing is fine, of course, but Alpha Protocol is precisely the other way around: Michael Thorton always has the same distinct personality, and it's up to you to direct him. And while the basic plot is the same every time you play the game, there really are drastic large-scale consequences to every major decision you make. You'll see them, I have no doubt.
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zippdementia posted June 26, 2010:

Cool! Thanks for the post-review and I think you've sold me.

!@#$! you for that.

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