drayco90's Alpha Protocol (PlayStation 3) review

Not for a lack of trying, Alpha Protocol doesn't fully deliver.

I really, really love Obsidian, but if there's one undeniable fact, it's that they get completely boned by their publishers nearly every release. After essentially creating the Fallout franchise (with the best entry in the franchise, in my opinion) before they were known as Obsidian, they returned to make New Vegas, which was fantastic, but is treated like a spin-off instead of the true third entry that it is. Knight of the Old Republic 2 could have been just as good, if not better than, the original Bioware masterpiece...if Lucasarts hadn't forced them to release it too early, resulting in a bugged mess of a brilliant game with too many loose plot threads and incomplete stories, and so on. Was Alpha Protocol able to break the mold and become a fantastic game of it's own merits?

Not quite, no.

Story

As could be expected from any role-playing game, this is where Alpha Protocol shines. The narrative that Obsidian's latest adventure weaves is intricate, with numerous characters, plot-threads and small story arcs that all feel incredibly well fleshed out and all tie back into the main plot line. Players take control of Micheal Thorton- a secret agent working for the US agency Alpha Protocol. Things really begin with Thorton being thrown into the middle east to deal with a terrorist threat, and things suddenly go downhill into the dark corridors of intrigue and subtle political mind-games that the best of spy fiction plays on. If there's one thing that really helps the plot of Alpha Protocol, it's the self-contained nature of the narrative. Unlike, say Mass Effect (you'll hear that game brought up again soon, trust me) where the story has to stretch over a whole trilogy for your choices to cause repercussions and wildly diverge the world you're playing in, Alpha Protocol can give immediate pay-off for players. I've currently played through the game twice, with a third playthrough in the works and all three of them have been incredibly different, especially in the end-game. Micheal Thorton really can feel like different people and the turns of the plot and how characters interact with him really sell the decision making.

Alpha Protocol is littered with numerous characters that are easily some of the most interesting I can remember encountering in a game that I've played recently. One character I want to really emphasize in this regard is Steven Heck, brought to us by the ever recognizable Nolan North. Heck is an...interesting (read: batshit) nutbar who supplies Thorton with intel and many, many laughs at his insane, violent actions, and his conspiracies are both hilarious and laden with real facts and clear research into the subject matter and background, making Heck not only a very realistic character, but one that I would love to see again in another game, "Alpha Protocol" on the name or not. Other great and interesting characters include Sean Darby, a less than competent "rival" for Micheal and Marburg, the surprisingly compelling villain of one of the quest lines. Characters like this come together to really make the game's story pop, and I was compelled to play through the game not only once or twice, but three times just to see all of the characters different interactions and histories.

In the end, the Story is without a doubt the most compelling part of the game. Not only is it incredibly satisfying to see a whole trilogy worth of cause and effect pile-up in a single adventure, culminating in one of the most satisfying final levels that I've seen in a long time, but it's reinforced by excellent writing and a fantastic cast of colorful characters. If you're like me, then if you can struggle through the worst of bad gameplay if the story underneath is compelling enough, you may as well stop reading- Alpha Protocol is probably something that you'll enjoy. However, if you're one of the people who prioritize gameplay, than you're going to need to keep going...

The Gameplay

Sadly, this is the portion of the game that really falls behind. First, let's talk about the positives here. The dialogue system is one of my favorite in gaming. Unlike the classic RPG selection or the voiced-protagonist Dialogue Wheel popularized by Mass Effect, Alpha Protocol uses a timer based system where players select the general type of attitude they wish to convey in a few seconds before Thorton responds. It's not a system that gives you a lot of time to think about how you want to say things, it forces you into the heat of the moment- there are moments where the long term repercussions aren't something you may be able to look at during choices, there are moments when you'll accidentally choose the wrong option, but it all adds up to a more engrossing conversation tree. There's no "good', "bad", "neutral" choice either- all of these are practical options that really require thought depending on the situation. Essentially- imagine that James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer are your possible choices, as opposed to Paragon, Neutral or Renegade or Good, Neutral Evil. Sometimes, situations will give you a fourth choice, which often causes you take immediate action (I once beat a man with a wine bottle in Russia for information by pressing it, for example) or gives you a unique response based on past choices or decisions.

Another really high plus in the game's favor is that I feel like the stealth is fairly well done, overall. My first character was a stealthy agent who very rarely took lives and used a silenced pistol through the whole game, preferring to fire tranquilizer rounds when possible. For some reason, a lot of the critics I've heard bashing the game thought both of these elements were weak, but I found them to be, by far, the most interesting aspects of the combat mechanics. The stealth made me feel suitably like a spy and a realistic, more down to earth character. On the note of the pistol, the silencer and tranq rounds are both examples of the depth of this game's customization options. Some games have deep item customizing and tracking, but all of them I've played pale in comparison to Alpha Protocol- not only does every item have numerous potential add-ons and upgrades that play with half a dozen important stats, allowing you to spend hours balancing and fine tuning your arsenal, but the game actually makes note of it. Characters may discuss your choice in weaponry, how frequently you chose to murder as opposed to nonlethal force usage and even what type of armor you prefer to wear.

Another form of combat that I enjoyed immensely was the close quarters stuff. The instant stealth takedowns were easily my go-to weapon for dealing with nearly every threat in the game because they were fun to plan out and rewarding to watch in action. Straight up combat is fairly button-mashy outside of assassination, but leveling the stat up leads to Thorton gaining numerous combos, skills and additional moves that really spice up the fighting and make it a fascinating part of the gameplay. My only complaint about the CQC is that I felt like I was never challenged when using it. The only time it ever failed me was because it alerted too many gun wielding enemies to my location and I was suddenly chewing on a couple sniper rounds and magazines of assault rifle fire, but when enemies actually started to fight back in melee? It was never a contest, not even against the boss battles who were all dominated by the overwhelming barrage of fists.

The game has a habit of keeping track of the oddest stats as well, which amused me. There's actually a record of how many orphans you create as you play through the game, and while that sounds like an amusing throw-away joke, it's actually really thought out. Murdering an Arab man in the middle east leads to more orphans due to most people in the region having large families, while murdering a man in China will result in only a single orphan being generated. It's the small things like that that really give Alpha Protocol its charm.

The only thing that breaks up the combat, outside of conversing with NPCs, is a small selection of mini games that are used to govern lock-picking, hacking and disabling security systems. Hacking was easily my favorite of the three- when you go to deal with computers that require hacking, you'll be given two bricks of randomized letters and numbers that you control with both of the joysticks. You need to move the box of text into the matching text in a screen of randomized and mobile random letters and numbers, creating a very intimidating task. The lock picking seemed to be kind of hokey to me- you need to align things by putting pressure on the L2 and R2 buttons. It sounds okay, but the design of the PS3 controller seemed to make the task harder than it actually was. Maybe that's just me, and the fact that the PS3 is my least used console (well, not counting the Wii, that is) but it certainly felt like a task that an Xbox controller or someting on PC would be more practical for use. The system disabling is pretty simple, and neither good nor bad. You simply figure out which lines correlate to the numbers on them- it's pretty simple, though some of the really late game versions have next to no time for you to get way too many of them.

Sadly, it's not all so well implemented. While the stealth and melee fights are fun, the actual shooting mechanics are bland and incredibly boring. They remind quite a bit like the first Mass Effect, but worse. The game revolves around gunplay, even if it was often sneaky gunplay thanks to the nature of my characters, but even with the emphasis in other areas I could feel like the shooting hampered the gameplay. Aiming can be rather difficult at early levels in the game, and I found that while I was often lining up shots perfectly, all of my bullets were missing the target because I hadn't gotten far enough to level up my skills in those guns. Assault Rifles suffer from this the worst, I think, because they simply never seem to hit anything without proper leveling, and in a game developed like this that should NEVER be the case. If I point at something with a gun and pull the trigger, than it feels really odd to have the shot hit the wall behind the target because I'm only level four. I also felt like two of the four main firearm clases- the Shotguns and the Sub-Machine Guns, were completely useless. SMGs are very spray type weapons that really only make sense for characters that don't bother with the idea of the secret agent thing at all, and because of their low range and piss poor accuracy there's not a whole lot you can do with them that you can't do with an Assault Rifle or Pistol. The shotgun is another similar example, in that it just doesn't seem to have any real point because there are superior and easier to use skills that dominate the close range where the gun is workable.

As far as shooting goes, I also find the critical hit systems to be a good idea, but seemed poorly implemented. Basically, instead of luck or where you hit determining the crits, it's determined by a red dot that appears once you hold down the aim on a particular enemy for a couple seconds, allowing you to charge up the perfect shot. The problem is that there's not a lot of places where using it is practical. When you use it to hit an unaware enemy, if it kills them then most of the enemies in the room are often alerted, and if it doesn't kill them then you're hosed for the same reasons. I found that the critical hits were also very inconsistent, and while I often performed the same shot, charged for the same time on the same enemy at the same checkpoint, it was a coin flip between being a one-shot kill or doing next to no damage and unleashing a pain train of enemy troops on my ass.

"Good idea, but poorly implemented" seems to be the phrase of the week with this game, as the Gadgets system is so poorly done that I could never bring myself to really use it. While the first aid was an effective tool, like in all games, I found that most of the tools were cool sounding toys that had very few purposes. The EMPs, the various grenades and traps and the Jamed Bond style spy-gear never really seemed to mesh with the rest of the game. Similarly, most of the perks and abilities earned by leveling up seemed to be rather useless as well, or at the very least required specific builds to make useful or were poorly incorporated into the game. There are a few pretty good abilities to be had here, namely one useful one that turned me invisible for a period of time to be a key tool. Sadly, cycling between your gadgets and abilities are also very counter-intuitive, with a very awkward menu and way more time needed to switch between tools than there should be.

Also, as far as enemy AI goes, it's not all that great. The guards all seem to suffer from some incredibly odd line of sight problems, they aren't very effective and as a whole never really seemed to do enough damage or present enough of a threat outside of groups.

Overall

Alpha Protocol is the definition of a niche game if I've ever seen one. The parts that it does well, it does very well, and while the early levels can be draggy because of awkward leveling-weapon skill level, it's really a fun stealth RPG once you get into the thick of things. The cast is great, and the story is thrilling in all the ways it's supposed to be...but a lot of the combat mechanics, a very central element to the story and gameplay because outside of some very minor mini-games, there's no additional variety in things to do, feel unfinished and the game really suffers for it. If you're itching for a strong narrative-driven piece of spy fiction, Alpha Protocol is right up your incredibly specific alley. It certainly was mine, and while I don't feel it was quite good enough to recommend even if the basic idea doesn't appeal to you, it was certainly good enough to deserve a second play through. I give it a 3.5 overall because I really enjoyed the parts that it did well- the stealth, the hand-to-hand and the story, but the rest of the gameplay, poorly designed enemies and poorly made gadgets and abilities really bring down what could've been a fantastic game.

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