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.
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