From the moment I first saw early footage of Alpha Protocol in action, I had an unshakable feeling that something was wrong. Conceptually, I knew the game could be unique and fresh. I also knew that developer Obsidian Entertainment had a great history. And although they hadn’t yet made an incredible game (although they did outdo BioWare’s original Neverwinter Nights), I felt they had it in them. Despite all that, there was something undeniably off about Alpha Protocol from the start, and to the end. In its final state, Alpha Protocol is a colossal mess that still manages to be fun (sometimes, sort of, maybe) against all odds.
Alpha Protocol stars Michael Thorton, a new recruit for the titular organization of secret superlegal agents. When the clandestine cabal of operatives selects Thorton for an important mission in the Middle East, they thrust him into a conspiracy he never expected. Thorton must disarm the rising global tension and prevent World War III.
Alpha Protocol tells a familiar story of terrorism, conspiracy, and corporate greed. It’s been told before in film, television, and video games, and it’s been told much better. Dramatic moments are rare and genuine emotion even rarer. In fact, the plot is too simple for its own good. An astonishingly large portion of the story consists almost entirely of a repetitive search for intel. Thorton never seems to have enough information to actually do anything, except gather more information of course. The plot takes a couple turns, but these twists are somewhat ineffective thanks to predictability and a lack of strong characters.
Weak characterizations abound in Alpha Protocol, from cohorts to villains. Most characters see scant development, and many characters are based on archetypes. For those that aren’t, Obsidian bent the characters too far out of shape. A wacky personality and a few bizarre idiosyncrasies cannot replace genuine character development and real emotion. As Thorton hacks into computers and picks up pieces of intel along the way during missions, the in-game codex reveals much of what little background characters have. God forbid Thorton actually talks to other characters to reveal this information. Underdeveloped characters that are impossible to care about render the few dramatic moments ineffectual. I could only chuckle at Thorton’s melancholy over the death of a woman he barely interacted with. The writing doesn’t help matters either.
Should we eventually learn through an anonymous Internet tip that a team of high schoolers wrote Alpha Protocol, I doubt there would be much surprise. At best, the dialogue is a functional vehicle to advance the plot; generic, flavorless, and verbose without saying much more than “go here, meet him, get intel.” At its worst, it’s fourth-grade humor, hackneyed one-liners, and hyperbole. The writers clearly settled with the first thing that came to mind in most instances.
The quality of the writing aside, Obsidian created a unique mechanism (*gasp*) for Thorton’s dialogue. Instead of giving players an infinite amount of time to choose a dialogue option, the game implements a timed system, giving players two or three seconds to make a decision. Also, in place of any sort of alignment or moral code, Thorton typically takes one of three stances in conversation: suave, aggressive, and professional. Thus, players must make quick decisions, but are not weighed down by the particulars of ethics. The timed mechanic introduces a neat element of tension, and feeling foolish after making a rushed decision is a cool experience. Unfortunately, the words used to indicate each of Thorton’s responses don’t always match up with what he says, although this is nothing more than a minor irritant. Additionally, players are occasionally tasked with selecting a dialogue response before other characters are finished talking, resulting in potentially misguided choices. And, when consequences are as important as they are in Alpha Protocol, that can be disastrous.
Player choices affecting the outcome of a game is no longer unique, especially in RPGs, but if Alpha Protocol does anything right, it’s determining and delivering consequences. The way Thorton talks, the decisions he makes, the way he completes a mission, and even the order in which he takes on missions have repercussions. Alliances, rivalries, friendships, and business partnerships are made or broken depending upon these choices. It’s nice to be punished for kicking down the door and firing an assault rifle wildly. There are game effects for most everything that go beyond reputation meters with different characters, although those exist as well. Unfortunately, I never felt proper remorse for killing a thousand people throughout the game, and no one seemed to care in the end. Nor did I feel that the agent that “hated” my Thorton (using the game’s term for it) treated him much differently than she would have otherwise. Except that she didn’t sleep with him, but that’s a given. Usually.
Thus, while Alpha Protocol has dynamic cause and effect relationships, its plot and characters are unimpressive and amateur. Perhaps worse yet, they just aren’t believable. Video games have the unique ability to immerse players in new and fantastic realities. Alpha Protocol takes place in a reality identical to our own, and it still feels less authentic than the uncharted worlds of Mass Effect. Gaping holes in the logic of the world present immense barriers to believability in a game that attempts to take on real world issues. Would a known terrorist who is supposed to be dead contact a wanted man via email? Mistakes like these are difficult to ignore. Even worse, the foreign countries Thorton visits in the game feel cheap and half-assed. It’s the American way, I guess. English-speaking Saudis don’t help either. Furthermore, the terrorism/global conflict story comes a few years too late, having been done so often since 9/11. That’s Alpha Protocol’s central sin. Everything in it has been done better before, including gameplay.
Alpha Protocol follows a mission structure using various safehouses as hubs for emailing, shopping, and character management. Once Thorton departs on a mission, he enters a limited zone to explore, infiltrate, or shoot full of holes. Generally, each mission presents alternate methods for accomplishing what needs to be done. Usually Thorton has a stealth option, a combat option, and something in between. Regardless, he gets in, gets what he needs, and gets out, ready to take on another mission.
Considering the enormous number of problems afflicting Alpha Protocol, it’s a wonder the game is any fun at all. Part of the fun comes from gathering money and experience – character building. There’s satisfaction in saving up to buy the ultimate shotgun and trying to earn perks by reaching milestones for critical hits and other statistics. Otherwise, the amount of fun derived from Alpha Protocol likely depends on a player’s style of play, character build, and general tolerance for stupid design. Combat can be fun, possibly because it’s difficult to die, possibly because there is something fantastic about killing every enemy in an espionage RPG. The experience will vary, however, because there are many things that can and will go wrong. It all begins with the first pistol shot.
The shooting mechanics in Alpha Protocol are greatly dependant on Thorton’s statistics, such as accuracy. I barely noticed this in Mass Effect, but Alpha Protocol takes this to an ugly extreme. The only way to guarantee a hit is to get a critical hit, and to do that, the reticule must stay at rest or poised on an enemy for up to four seconds (the time decreases after obtaining skills). Otherwise, bullets may not hit an enemy. Thorton can fire at a distant enemy ten times, the reticule centered on the foe’s chest, and miss every time. One’s enjoyment of the game largely rides on being able to overlook this design mishap.
In a game where stealth is the rule and combat the exception, the combat would be lamentable, but forgivable. Unfortunately, the game advertises that players can accomplish missions in whatever manner they please. Besides, stealth is flawed as well. Without a solid system in place to monitor enemies and gauge detection, going stealth is difficult without specialization, at which point it becomes unbelievably easy, or so I hear. For my Thorton, however, who focused on gun skills, stealth was literally impossible. Thus, the advertised “choice” in how to tackle a mission quickly becomes lost. There was really only one option for my Thorton: kill everything. And had I been able to sneak around, I’m not sure I’d have done so. The few times I tried to stealth when it was still an option in the beginning of the game, there was no tension or fear at the notion of discovery. I was always confident that I could dispatch any number of opponents. Fear is a critical component of any stealth game, and it just isn’t present in Alpha Protocol.
Mission structure and design provide additional reasons to dislike Alpha Protocol, although neither are game-breakers. Most missions are an incarnation of infiltrate area, hack a computer/subdue a person to retrieve new intel, and leave. Thorton follows an absurd trail of information through the world, never getting anywhere, and missions get repetitive and boring. A few missions involve meeting new characters or spying from afar, but these represent a small proportion. Within missions, individual objectives are often unclear, particularly the motives behind the objectives. Even worse, nothing awe-inspiring happens. No shocks. No surprises. No massive bosses or ridiculous explosions. A couple of race-the-clock sequences got my blood flowing, but they’re nothing special.
A host of minor problems plagues Alpha Protocol as well, adding up to one sloppy game. Imperfect cover, bogus menus, and impotent AI for starters. A checkpoint-based save system for another. Doors that close permanently after certain checkpoints during missions prevent and discourage exploration and curiosity. And then there are the mini-games. I love lockpicking and hacking mini-games such as those in Bioshock or Fallout 3, but evidently, all the good ones have already been done. Alpha Protocol features three atrocious mini-games, each more ghastly than the last. Hacking computers and shutting off alarms are eye-boggling, and lockpicking centers around a tedious pressure sensitive gimmick. I’m surprised my eyes still function after beating the game, and that I didn’t pluck one out with my finger after failing to pick a lock.
Contributing to Alpha Protocol’s overall failure are unremarkable graphics and audio. The Unreal Engine has never looked so four-years-ago. While never outright disabling, the graphics do little to enhance the experience or provide immersion. Interiors are bland and repetitive, and the few outdoor environments are grotesque. Excessive screen tearing, some slow-down, and occasional texture pop-in indicate an unpolished and out of control graphics engine. Boring art design and unambitious set design make Alpha Protocol look even more dated. Earth has never looked so bland.
Alpha Protocol’s cast of voice actors includes the least enthusiastic people I’ve ever heard speak. There are a couple decent voice actors, but most infuse no personality into their roles, Thorton included. Voices are frequently muffled and overpowered by the music as well. It’s a good idea to reconfigure sound levels and turn down the music. And not just to hear the voice acting. Alpha Protocol’s soundtrack is a painful blight on the ears, a mix of synthesized noise, actual noise, and borderline-offensive “ethnic” music meant to heighten the experience of traveling abroad. One of the absolute worst soundtracks in recent memory.
If players can overcome this intense list of problems born out of sloppiness and carelessness, Alpha Protocol can be an entertaining game. It can’t be taken seriously and there are many games that offer more fun with better graphics, audio, and competent writing. In fact, there’s no reason to play Alpha Protocol until you’ve beaten its progenitors. For the best stealth experience, play Thief. For multiple ways to accomplish missions, play Deus Ex. For third-person shooting in an RPG framework, play Mass Effect. In other words, for those still interested, Alpha Protocol should be low on the to-play list. Not Alpha, but Omega. Dead last.