I want more.
OK, alright, I won’t end it there. I will go ahead and gruesomely describe every fault I can find with Alpha Protocol in disgustingly fine detail.
But I must make absolutely clear that I really, really love this game. I don’t replay many games, but this is one I will be playing again and again. It has a lot of problems, but at the core it’s an amazingly detailed game, with a wide variety of gameplay, and is almost constantly fun.
Alpha Protocol places you in the shoes of Michael Thornton. Your chosen backstory changes things a bit, but one way or another you’re a new spy for the Alpha Protocol agency. This small, but extremely elite team gets the job done when it would be too politically dangerous for U.S. to get involved directly.
And the game does it with style. This is perhaps the first and only true action-RPG. That is, it is an action game: you run, shoot, and are constantly in motion. But it’s also the deepest RPG I’ve seen in a video game. The choices you make can significantly change events, and there’s hardly a character in it that can’t become your friend – or your victim. And it matters. Making friends with someone has an impact on the game, and on the player. And there are some characters you may come to hate and actively find ways to sabotage.
And then there are other characters you could kill but choose to spare out of pragmatism. There’s no evilometer charting your moral progress and decay. If you decide you have to work with bad people to avert a greater crisis, then the game doesn’t pretend you’re evil for it. In this world, you sometimes have to make hard choices, and there are no magical, perfect solutions.
From the first seconds of the game, moreover, characters are responding to your actions and deciding whether and how much they like you. The game rewards you for your actions whatever you choose with new perks and improvements. These can range from experience bonuses (a level or two over the game), to direct points to spend on abilities, to improved powers.
Leveling your character reveals the impressive options you have in the game. Stealth, various weapons, martial arts, gadgets and toys – and none of these are totally exclusive. In fact, many of the upgrade paths work together, like improving your equipment to carry more ammo for your weaponry, or buying up your stealth so you can use traps more effectively. The intro gives you a quick introduction to the different options, and even if you didn’t choose your class carefully, there’s plenty of time to change things.
Now that we’ve talked about how awesome it is, there are the many problems. None of these are individually terrible issues, but together they do tend to introduce a lot of annoyances to the game. And most are communication issues: the game simply doesn’t explain or warn the player about what they’re getting into. Visibility – letting the player know what his or her options are – is a huge part of games. Players don’t inhabit the same world as the characters, and they may need some help understanding things. To its credit, the convoluted plot works very well as a tale of international conspiracy, but the gameplay is a little screwy.
For starters, anyone wanting to play the game as a run-n-gun has some slight issues. Weapons have fairly realistic accuracies, so they shoot wildly unless you aim carefully. You can upgrade your gear to counteract this, but it won’t help much beyond a point, and the weapon stats other than damage and clip size are pretty unintuitive anyhow. You can overcome this as you get more used to the game, but it’s just unexpected.
Stealth gameplay has a different problem, because most stages are moderately linear. If you specialize in stealth, you’ll frequently be able to get through sections having a blast, and then get chucked into a painful firefight against tough odds. While you theoretically can get past stealthily, it’s not always practical, and may prevent you from getting some much-needed resources. As long as you pop a few points into a weapon skill now and then, you can probably manage – but it is very jarring and annoying when you want to do a stealth run and get forced into giant firefights.
Bosses are both better and worse. In a game which has fairly realistic enemies (headshots won’t always kill, but they are nasty, and many enemies come with body armor), the bosses can be ludicrous. I don’t mind that the battle-hardened mercenary is tough and can even accept that the business suit hides armor. I do mind that he’s nigh invincible (to the point of taking multiple grenades to the face) and can beat the tar out of me. I do mind that a coked-out mobster with an 80’s fetish can be shot repeatedly in the face, and snorting up lets him shrug off rifle fire and kill me with a pocketknife. Stealth is either useless or godlike against bosses, and abilities which demolish other enemies do nothing to them.
There’s also an obnoxious framerate issue, where turning can completely screw you up. You’ll basically win up frequently trying to turn slightly to the side, only to end up staring into outer space. This is irritating when walking around. It can be fatal in combat. There’s really no excuse for this, and I still haven’t been able to fix it, despite fiddling with several solutions online.
The bad save/load system also dogs the game. For some incomprehensible reason, about half the time when you load up a boss battle or a before a fight with some unusual scripted movement, the game screws up and can’t load parts. Rather than y’know, load them, it just dumps in the battle without a boss or whatnot. So you have to go reload again. This is not helped because the save/load system is based around autosaves. You cannot save when you want, and must start at the beginning of the section. At best, you’ll have a save right before the stage, but some bits cock that up and overwrite that, too. This gets old, real fast, particularly when I want to replay a section for fun, or because I wanted to try out the various options to see what happens. Unlike most dialogue tree-RPG’s, you have a lot of power over how things end up, which is good, but the save system makes it a lot more painful than you’d like.
Stage design is generally very good, with a few caveats. They do tend to be a bit linear – some more exploration-related aspects would be nice. I’d often feel like I wanted to be more Thief-like when sneaking around, or have more options in ways to attack when feeling up for some brutally violent assaults.
Ultimately, it’s the kind of game that succeeds – sometimes awesomely so – despite its powerful flaws. Evidently Obsidian got screwed again (!) when it was nearing completion and the publisher pulled funding, so they stopped development. It only came out later and was basically dumped incomplete, because they’re people were already on another project. rolleyes