By GeneralGrey 26 Comments
I don't generally blog, but after just completing Alpha Protocol, I feel the need to express myself in an arena where others may (or may not) read and respond:
There are few things in the world of gaming that irritate me more than dice-roll, shooter RPGs. I really don't understand how anyone in this day and age (without a severe masochistic strain) can enjoy such an absurd, archaic system. Truly. I don't get it.
There are a couple pieces of rationale I have for this opinion.
First, I contend that dice-roll shooting has absolutely no place in an RPG wherein the role to be played is that of an elite soldier or agent (i.e. Alpha Protocol, Mass Effect, etc.). These people represent the pinnacle of training and conditioning and, therefore, should not require the emptying of an entire clip to hit an enemy 3 feet in front of them. If they did, there is simply no way that they could have gotten to the position they now occupy. It destroys all sense of immersion. I have no problem with adding abilities or small increases in accuracy based on character progression, but the baseline should be far more reasonable. I haven't fired a gun personally in years, yet I am absolutely certain that I could do a much better job of it than Michael Thorton. I think it's more than reasonable to hold that the character on screen in these games should not have worse accuracy than the average player in-front of the screen.
Second, I have developed a principle: if you're going to make a game that looks and operates like a shooter, then make it a damned shooter. There is a particular mission in Alpha Protocol that infuriated me to a point that I have seldom reached in gaming - it occurs in a courtyard where you are tasked with protecting a particular individual from swarms of continuously (and visibly)-spawning enemies. These enemies are armed with assault rifles and have the ludicrous propensity to spam grenades. Additionally, the subject of your protection is an absolute moron who will either:
A.) Crouch behind a flowerbox, refusing to move come Hell, high water, or the inevitable grenade that strikes him within the first 3 seconds of the encounter, instantly reducing his health by a third. Strangely enough, he also doesn't seem to mind getting repeatedly shot in the head by a sedentary enemy 4 feet away.
B.) Run headlong into the middle of the courtyard/swarm of enemies and then stop and allow himself to be torn to pieces.
*I can only imagine these actions are based on a random dice roll as well - attributing them to AI would denigrate anyone's possible definition of "intelligence."
Now, returning to my principle, in a standard shooter this sort of scenario would be fine. A multitude of enemies and poor ally AI could be overcome by skill and precise virtual-marksmanship. Not so in a dice-roll shooter. For me, this encounter occurred reasonably early in the game, before I had the opportunity to gain enough experience to level up skills beyond stealth (not at all handy in an unavoidable firefight) and pistols (which complement the stealth). As such, I was ill-prepared for this sort of scenario and had no choice but to take out my tiny weapon and start shooting wildly into the mass of homicidal assholes. My special (non-upgraded) ability to momentarily mark and execute a small number of enemies (ala dead eye in Red Dead Redemption) didn't do me much good as both myself and my "friend" were butchered repeatedly and brutally by the marauders. The lack of substantial baseline accuracy was exacerbated by the fact that many of these enemies moved with such rapidity that any sort of effective targeting was rendered nearly impossible. I gradually became infuriated, screaming a variety of obscenities into my XBL Party Chat. This was a shooter-scenario in a game that looks like a shooter, acts like a shooter, yet isn't a shooter. And it was AWFUL. Eventually, I managed to "beat" the encounter, though I'm not sure exactly how. By my count there were still 4 or 5 enemies on screen when the cutscene triggered and I was given back my sanity, though a distinct bad taste in my mouth remained. My basic point here is this: If I become irritated when playing games, I feel it should be due to my own lack of skill, rather than the poor design choices of the game itself. For instance, when I play Super Meat Boy and die a million times, I don't get pissed off at the game; I get pissed off at myself for being terrible at the game. In Alpha Protocol and games like it, I don't generally feel like I'm terrible at the game after such an encounter, rather I feel like the game itself is terrible. That's a problem.
Now, after going through two of my main reasons for despising the system, I'd like to turn to two games that, in my opinion, succesfully address the problem of dice-roll shooting in RPGs; Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2. The former from a legitimate fiction perspective (addressing my first rationale), the latter from a make-it-a-shooter perspective (addressing my second rationale).
I mentioned before that dice-roll shooting (to the extent that they are used in Alpha Protocol) should not be used in games where the main character is supposedly an elite combat operative of some sort. This is as it makes absolutely no sense in the context of the game's fiction. In Fallout 3, you're a kid who has lived his whole life in a vault and whose sole experience with firearms comes from shooting a BB-gun at mutated roaches. Naturally, when you get out you're not going to have much of a clue of what you're doing. In other words, having very little accuracy makes sense for the role that you're playing. Additionally, the game knows what it is and only rarely (if ever - it's been a long time and I can't recall any) becomes a victim of the shooter-scenario problem that I discussed earlier. Bethesda knew they were creating an RPG with FPS elements and designed accordingly. They even provided insight into how the system works with VATS. For these reasons, I am completely fine with how Fallout 3 plays. My first bit of reasoning has been satisfied.
The game to which Alpha Protocol could best be compared (in more ways than one) is Mass Effect. Both are RPGs with third-person shooter gameplay, both are heavily story-based with dynamic conversations and a storyline heavily-dependent on player choice, and both utilize dice-roll shooting (though Alpha Protocol's use is to a far greater extent). Also similarly, both games' gameplay suffered from being distinctly not fun. The difference between them is that Bioware realized that ME1's gameplay was terrible and addressed that issue in Mass Effect 2. Obsidian, on the other hand, seems to have taken the worst elements of ME1 and augmented them in Alpha Protocol (which released months after ME2). How did Bioware address the problems of ME1? They took their game that looked, acted, and felt like a shooter and they made it a shooter. BAM! Instant fun. "Bullets" go where you shoot them, making player-skill more important than player-luck. The game also feels more internally consistent from both a gameplay perspective - shooter components actually function properly - and from a fiction perspective in that I can now believe that this guy is a trained, elite soldier with the skills to save the galaxy. Thus, both bits have been satisfied.
I really want to see another Alpha Protocol game. As the GB crew mentioned in their deliberations for 'Most Disappointing Game of 2010,' this game had real potential. Indeed, it did many things right - at times I found myself sitting back with a giant smile on my face as I played through a pretty damn good spy story. But the gameplay sinks pretty much all hope of this game rising above mere mediocrity. After playing it, I found it far more disappointing than Fable 3 (which, don't get me wrong, is a very disappointing game); not because I was hyped and the game didn't deliver, but because there are sparks of absolute brilliance buried beneath the crappy dice-roll shooting and poor design decisions. I can only hope that game-designers in general just let the concept die a painful death - in games like Alpha Protocol, it is nothing more than an archaic, obsolete, and infuriating remnant of a bygone age.