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Alpha Protocol (Xbox 360) artwork

Alpha Protocol (Xbox 360) review


"Alpha Protocol is a riveting espionage third-person shooter/RPG hybrid that sees field agent Michael Thorton travel across the world – Saudi Arabia, Moscow, Rome, and Taipei – to unearth a conspiracy that could have devastating global consequences. To say anything more specific about the story could be detrimental to your enjoyment, so here are three things that the game absolutely excels at: "



Alpha Protocol is a riveting espionage third-person shooter/RPG hybrid that sees field agent Michael Thorton travel across the world – Saudi Arabia, Moscow, Rome, and Taipei – to unearth a conspiracy that could have devastating global consequences. To say anything more specific about the story could be detrimental to your enjoyment, so here are three things that the game absolutely excels at:

The first involves a feature called the Decision Stance System, which implements character interactions remarkably well. Thorton finds himself in plenty of conversations during his adventure, but instead of letting you to take a breather before you decide what to say, Alpha Protocol only gives you a few seconds to respond, keeping you fully engaged. Dialogue options come in the form of stances. Three of the face buttons are usually assigned “professional”, “suave”, and “aggressive” (or variants of them), which can be summarised with Bourne, Bond, and Bauer respectively. Occasionally, a fourth option appears, maybe letting Thorton end a chat quickly by initiating an attack.

Different characters warm to different stances. Mina Tang, a colleague, generally prefers professional stances, but is open to a little bit of suave flirting. Speak aggressively, and she’ll not respond so kindly. Each character has a reputation value, which determines how much they like you, and this is often represented in the dialogue. On my first playthrough, I had a close friendship with Mina, and as a result, she showed more concern for my safety and flirted from time to time. During my second run, Mina had nothing but animosity towards me. She had a much harsher, snappier tone, and was less willing to joke around. Getting people to trust you also has notable benefits. Someone who enjoys conversing with you is more likely to give additional intel, offer a deal, or ally with you. One particular informant is known for being quite a snitch. If you get on his good side, he won’t warn everyone of your presence in the city, resulting in less armed men in one of the following missions.

On the topic of consequences, the choices you make are actually felt in the world of Alpha Protocol. Some aren’t morally easy to make and boil down to which is the lesser of the two evils. Do you rescue a friend who you put at risk in the first place, or save the numbers of nameless others? Whatever you do, the dialogue does a superb job of integrating them into conversations, as acquaintances will remark on your choices. Some choices have larger impacts than others over the course of the story – for instance, many a time, Thorton can either execute or spare a defeated enemy. You might be inclined to kill them, as some are unequivocally criminals. But stopping yourself from pulling the trigger might be beneficial. New allegiances can be forged, which will help you out in later missions; bribes can be taken, which can pay for the latest weapon or armour you’ve been eyeing; and revelations might be uncovered. One particular boss, if you refrain from shooting him dead immediately, could lead you to a bonus mission to prevent someone else’s escape.

Who you can have helping you and what possible fates are open to the characters in the endgame are based on the choices you make and the reputation you have with them. Naturally, there are multiple endings, but there are also two possible final bosses, depending on your allegiances by the end. In fact, every single prominent character except for one can potentially be killed. There’s even an achievement that encourages you to be a ruthless executioner. All of this screams for multiple playthroughs, just so you can experience the different consequences.

Finally, Alpha Protocol implements a great and flexible RPG-inspired skill tree system. By gaining experience and levelling up, you earn skill points to spend on new abilities. Most shooters let your character be a deadly marksman no matter what the weapon. If you’re aiming down the sights and you’re pointing it at your enemy’s head, it’s a guaranteed headshot – but not in Alpha Protocol. It’s not a typical shooter. Unless you’re charging a critical hit with an assault rifle or pistol, you only have a sizeable circular reticule that indicates the area where your shot can end up. This might seem like a huge bummer, especially at the beginning of the game when you hardly have any skill points, but it forces you to specialise in only a few skills, which emphasises how open the gameplay can be.

Pistols are the only type of weapon where you can equip a silencer. Train Thorton in them and stealth, and you can go around critical-hitting people for fun in bullet time and perform silent takedowns without anyone noticing you thanks to your camouflage and silent footsteps. Shotgun critical hits possess a knockdown property. With specialties in shotties and toughness, an aggressive style of play is more than possible as you take everyone out at close range. There are plenty of surveillance cameras, auto-turrets, locks, and hackable computers lying around as you progress through the game, and the sabotage skill tree makes getting past all of these much easier, as well as providing damage and radial boosts to your grenades, mines, and the rest of your gadgets. Just about any type of setup will get you through with little stress the majority of the time.

I say “the majority of the time”, because this is where I admit that Alpha Protocol is far from perfect. On Easy and Normal, I had no problem cruising through except for maybe one tricky boss fight. But on Hard, Thorton can’t take hits so well, and there are times, though fairly rare, where it’s obvious that one particular method is preferred over the others. Take the Embassy mission in Moscow. As a stealth character, it was already a tricky level. Enemies grouped together in smaller rooms than in previous missions, which meant it was tougher to silently kill everyone without raising anyone’s suspicion. But the final objective involved protecting someone in an open courtyard from men who had just burst through the gate, starting a firefight. When I tried to tackle them head on, I got shot down. When I took my time picking them off one by one, the man I was supposed to be protecting died. It took quite a few repeated attempts to get the balance right, but it seemed clear that a Thorton who specialised in toughness and a close-range weapon such as dual-wielding SMGs or a shotgun would’ve had more instant success.

While the game can be credited for generally allowing diverse approaches, if you dissect the mechanics individually, there are further flaws. The biggest one for a stealth character like my Thorton is the inability to move bodies. Guards are on high alert when they find an incapacitated buddy of theirs, but if I was able to drag the body out of sight, life would’ve been easier. The cover mechanics aren’t that great, either. I often found myself taking cover against the wrong object – or accidentally, when I wanted to pick ammo up or start hacking a computer. In addition, the shooting can be unsatisfying. This is not Call of Duty or Medal of Honor: Thorton is absolutely terrible at firing a gun if you’re not relying on his abilities. Alpha Protocol is an ability-dependent game, so stay away if what you want is a third-person action shooter.

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is that it’s a bit of a technical mess. To say that the game is unattractive is a huge understatement. Textures fail to pre-load in time with regularity – a common issue with the Unreal Engine 3 – and even after everything’s been loaded, the graphics on objects are extremely low-res and dull. It’s no exaggeration that many of the Xbox 360’s launch titles look more appealing. Furthermore, there are quite a few technical issues. The most serious ones that I’ve come across resulted in me having to reload a previous checkpoint, whether it be because Thorton refused to use an essential zip-line or because he fell through an elevator.

I’ll be honest, Alpha Protocol is not a game for everyone. I know many folks who can’t stand ugly graphics or bugs, or give up at the first sign of trouble. This is not for them. You need to be tolerant and learn to look past its issues. If you can do that, you’ll be more than compensated with a deep and absorbing experience. Enjoy your first playthrough, and you’ll come back for more. I’ve just finished my third full playthrough and collected all of the achievements in the game – a rare feat by my standards.

Rating: 8/10

Ben's avatar
Community review by Ben (July 21, 2010)

Ben used to freelance for HonestGamers. Now he spends his spare time dying repeatedly on Spelunky.

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Feedback

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Suskie posted July 21, 2010:

Yikes, you have all of the achievements? I might be bugging you then, because I'm trying to do the same and I get the feeling a couple of them are really going to piss me off (I have yet to earn either of Marburg's achievements, and I'm willing to bet that the intel one will really get under by skin).

Anyway, I'm really glad you liked this game, because didn't you buy it based off of my recommendation or something? I still stand by my original review, but on my third playthrough, I went Veteran on Hard, with specialization in stealth and pistols, and I had a hell of a time with it. The game really has a lot going for it if you give it the opportunity.
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Ben posted July 22, 2010:

Edit - I should note for the benefit of those who've yet to play Alpha Protocol that posts in this feedback topic (below this warning) may contain spoilers.

---

Yeah, your review definitely had a massive say in making me buy the game. You convinced me that I'd like it, and you were spot on, so thanks for the recommendation!

As for the achievements, the intel one wasn't as bad as I originally feared. The perk that I got from receiving the achievement said that I had "purchased the vast majority of intel" or something along those lines. It seems like it's more based on buying pretty much every bit of intel from the Clearinghouse (including sniper drops, mission maps, etc.) rather than collecting dossier parts. It helps to be on good terms with most people, as sometimes bonus intel can be bought if someone likes you.

The Marburg achievements in Rome were a bit odd. Obviously, use professional or suave depending on if you want him to like or hate you, but to kill him, I think getting his full dossier may have been a contributing factor (the one that I missed on my first playthrough was in his villa -- a mission intel showed a secret room in the garden). For what it's worth, both only seemed to unlock when I defused the bombs (I tried rescuing both times first and it didn't work).

If you haven't got it yet, the most annoying achievement was the Executioner one. It sounds simple, but I initially missed two 'executions' and had to revert to a previous game file and redo all of Moscow and the endgame. (Tip: At Brayko's mansion, make sure to execute your ally yourself rather than leave him/her in the hands of Brayko.)
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Suskie posted July 22, 2010:

It seems like it's more based on buying pretty much every bit of intel from the Clearinghouse (including sniper drops, mission maps, etc.) rather than collecting dossier parts.

Wow, I'm glad I consulted you because I never would have thought of that.

I'm up to around 910 in points so far with most of the grindy achievements out of the way (like getting multipliers with those stupid SMGs), but yeah, I'm working on Judge, Jury, Executioner right now. Too bad there isn't an achievement guide that I can locate anywhere on the web.

Edit: Tell me if this list of people-to-kill looks right to you:

Nasri
Shaheed
Sis
SIE/Albatross
Brayko
Ice cream guy
Marburg
Omen Dang
Leland
Westridge

I'm wondering... do I have to kill both Leland and Westridge?
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Ben posted July 22, 2010:

As far as I know, your list is missing Surkov and Scarlet. I'm not 100% sure if Marburg counts towards the achievement, because you don't execute him but instead kill him in a firefight. Same with Parker. Better to be safe than sorry, I guess.

Scarlet was the last execution that I missed, but I did find out somewhere that she could be killed at the end along with Leland. I replayed the final mission three times before I figured it all out and finally got the achievement. I'm not sure if reputation comes into play, but I did these things:

1) Didn't meet with Scarlet before the final mission
2) Chose Heck as my handler
3) Skipped the interrogation room
4) Initially spared Leland

Scarlet will pop up, as will Heck. Get Heck to take out Scarlet, then execute Leland yourself. Also, when I got the achievement, I didn't kill or encounter Westridge.

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