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Alpha Protocol (PlayStation 3) artwork

Alpha Protocol (PlayStation 3) review

"In most attempts at creating role-playing video-games, the approach will be to let the story continue from one end to the other, while allowing the player to decide the motivations and intentions of the protagonist. Sometimes the story will branch in controlled segments, or have chapters where you can choose at least your intention on how to complete them. But the ambiguity in the story-telling will be wrapped up in the way that no matter how you complete the chapters, they will always have the ..."

In most attempts at creating role-playing video-games, the approach will be to let the story continue from one end to the other, while allowing the player to decide the motivations and intentions of the protagonist. Sometimes the story will branch in controlled segments, or have chapters where you can choose at least your intention on how to complete them. But the ambiguity in the story-telling will be wrapped up in the way that no matter how you complete the chapters, they will always have the same set pieces that lead to the same conclusion. In other words, choice is an illusion, and is more or less expertly used to involve the player into the linear story, and hopefully making it the player's own.

The approach Obsidian chose with Alpha Protocol is not entirely different from that, but the implementation is a lot more complex.

At first the story is presented in a retrospective, as you explain the events as you remember them (or wish them to be remembered). It's a device often used in film and writing to create foreshadowing, and to make the viewer wonder about the events that led to the (next to last) episode. So we can see the net closing in around the main character, and piece together how the story unfolded.

In a tv-series, even the writers might not know exactly what happened specifically when the first episode airs - they only know that there will be some largely logical string of events that took place to reach the conclusion to the plot. They will know the locations and what characters exist, but not exactly what they will say or what role they will play. But the viewer should also be unsure of the real intentions and reasoning of the main characters. Before revealing it should cast back at the events to show what actually happened.

Alpha Protocol very much is written in that way, including every concievable twist imaginable in a modern spy-movie setting. Except for how you can choose or influence which single continuous cut make it into the story.

On the one hand this is done by allowing the player to create motivations and reasoning for their secret agent. And on the other, to let the choices you make during the course of the game that have well-described contexts, that then impact how the events conclude. Afterwards, perhaps the retrospective will give you the opportunity to slot in a slightly different reasoning for a mistake you made. Maybe you will even change your opinion along the way.

The thing about this approach to story-telling is that it allows the choices you make to always be consistent. It also completely prevented any need to guess at what the game-writers meant when you pick dialogue options - because you really choose the path, and then the events are believably fitted in around it afterwards.

This ranges from changing parts of the story, bits and parts of cutscenes, replacing a side-character completely with another, and to slotting in small nods to earlier events in just about every conversation in the game. It's not quite so deep that I can congratulate Obsidian for making the first interactive TV series. But it's definitively getting there - while the missions still will have the same set pieces, how they play out is your call.

So the game provides two important things to the player: a way to not be overwhelmed by the amount of choices you are given, as well as ensuring that the choices you do make are important and reasonably clear - at the time you make them, and when they cause changes later.

At the same time the narrative still never will reveal plot-points prematurely, even if the events were different. Instead the game gives you the illusion that you create the plot points on your own, and finger the way they unfold.

In this sense, Alpha Protocol is the ultimate narcissism-simulator - the game will not only give you a lot of choice, but it will ensure that they always make sense as well, and flow perfectly with the story.

So it's not just the amount of choices that make this game successful. Instead it's the amount of work that went into keeping the pacing and narrative intact, even with all the alternative paths and player-triggered events that were needed to make the choices believable and well presented.

Sadly - this makes the few places where failing the mission, or letting a particular character die actually ends the game very jarring. Because the game has treated you to an uninterrupted spy-thriller (with somehow consistently non-embarrassing dialogue) up to that point.

This is also the problem with the game's mechanics as you navigate the maps. You are promised filmatic set pieces at every turn, but the game doesn't provide it all the time during gameplay. It's not that the mechanics are bad, or difficult to use, but they are not presented with the same flair as the rest of the game. So instead of the mechanics allowing you to feel as in control as a super-agent should, with the occasional cut-scene taking over to drive the point home - you sometimes end up guessing at how the mechanics work while you chase the next checkpoint. This ranges from problems with the level-design - the game disallowing you to hide behind a particular object - to programming mechanics, with AI jerking around so that either your aim will be off, or the soldiers throw a penetrating glare into a completely unexpected direction.

The sad thing about this is that it is erratic, and clearly was worked on a lot in some areas, but unfortunately not all of them. For example the AI often is scripted to quietly choose different patrol routes when you reach particular hiding spots - allowing you to keep magically progressing through a camp of armed guards (and the great sense of pacing Obsidian has shines through again here). But at other times, clearly none of the playtesters even attempted a direct approach in one area. Or actually tried a stealth-approach in another. So some segments aren't actually possible to complete comfortably in the way you wanted - because of mechanical problems.

What still makes the game possible to play all the way through is that the segments of the maps are separate from each other, and continue past "checkpoints". So if you get to the next checkpoint, or reload the last one - any erratic AI creatures will be removed behind you and a fresh set will be magicked up in front of you. The same for any bodies left behind - they disappear after a few seconds, and the remaining guards walk by as if nothing happened. It's not a perfect solution, even though you are thankful that it's there as you play. But it's a solution that could have been made many times better by giving the AI a few more scripted interactions that look more deliberate and calm - specially when taking cover, or searching for a suspicious sound.

On the other hand, you can clearly see the pacing the designers intended the game to be played towards. You are to pick an approach depending on your attitude - direct, stealth, or indirect with grenades and traps, and move through the maps accordingly. Take cover, shoot aimed at the rhytm of the increasingly intense music, and then use the scripted transition animations to advance at the right times. Before unleashing the "room clear", or "chain shot" moves that are taken straight out of an action movie.

But the times when that fails, when you suddenly can't switch cover behind the door, or there were no walls to sneak up to in order to open the door carefully from out of sight - it's directly back to looking at the hobbling animations jerking around and ruining the gameplay again. I wouldn't call the mechanics broken, because they are not. It's perfectly possible to play through the game without huge problems. But between the odd sneaking animation (it looks fine if you move slowly - at twice the speed, not so much), and with the AI flipping around to suddenly spot you, or magically escape a bullet to the head - it's very easy to become frustrated with the game at particular points. And easy to see the game from the worst possible side.

As well as this game does integrate gameplay and narrative, there are a few problems. And they are annoying, because you can tell that there is a very short way towards making it all work very smoothly all the time. Either as that action-game Alpha Protocol think it could be, or that role-playing action game it wants to be.

Still, it certainly is possible to play the game for eight hours straight, continuing to unlock abilities, improving the proficiency with your weapon of choice, unraveling the story as it progresses on your own terms - and never react to any of this. And instead simply be playing a very deep game that let your choices always make sense, and make the events afterwards be shaped by them.

There is some criticism to be made about this game, but it does not concern the writing, or the way the scenes play out in response to your choices and your own intentions. You always expect that you can make "wrong" choices that lock you out of important story in role-playing games. Or make "wrong" choices because you didn't understand what the game-designers meant. Or otherwise simply hit the invisible walls as you are led down a corridor by the ears. But in Alpha Protocol, you will play the game and not notice any missing or strange plot points, because there really aren't any: the story simply happened a particular way, depending on your choices - and the narrative was fitted in around it.

Alpha Protocol's motto is.. probably translated the right way.. "where none may/can follow". It could be Obsidian's motto as well. Whether it is the depth of this game, the consistently non-embarrassing narrative (rarely seen in role-playing games) - or the social-political commentary - no one else will or can write a game like this (now that Troika is gone). The game is built on the Unreal Engine, so there's somewhat stilted action and broken animations - but detailed cutscenes. A playthrough should take about 20-30 hours, depending on how much time you spend taking in the sights..


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Community review by fleinn (July 16, 2010)

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