Giant Bomb Review

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Alpha Protocol Review

3
  • X360
  • PS3

There are brilliant moments in Alpha Protocol, but they're all but muted by poor gunplay and a list of unfortunate technical issues.


Place points in stealth and you can literally become invisible for short stretches of time. 
I'm always game for a good spy story, but the traditional treatment of espionage in video games leaves a little something to be desired. Games rarely deal with the social side of spying--well, it feels social when James Bond is doing it, anyway. Instead, most interactive spy work gets reduced to shooting guys or sneaking up behind them and snapping their necks. To be clear, Obsidian's Alpha Protocol contains both of those things. But by basing itself more on the original Mass Effect than on Splinter Cell or GoldenEye, the game offers a deeper, more authentic spy feel, where you're just as likely to talk your way out of a situation as resort to basic violence. But Alpha Protocol is incredibly tragic, as its action--all that shooting and snapping I was talking about a second ago--is usually pretty terrible. Also, a thin layer of buggy, unpolished grime permeates just about every aspect of the game, muting its high points until much of the final product feels like a mess.

The game puts you in the role of Michael Thorton. He's the new guy at an ultra-secret, above-the-law spy organization called Alpha Protocol. The game opens with Michael getting ready for his first assignment, which sends him to Saudi Arabia on the trail of some terrorists who have come into possession of some American-made missiles, which they promptly use to shoot down a civilian airliner. But as you get closer to the truth behind these missiles, your new buddies back at home base decide you're something of a liability. This puts you in place to unravel a conspiracy involving the defense contractor--known as Halbech--that built those missiles in the first place, along with voting machines, Middle East construction projects, and just about any other recent hot-button item that can make the corporation seem shadier than Haliburton and Blackwater combined. 
 
While the facts of the adventure remain mostly the same, how you handle your relationships with others has a big impact on how it all plays out. As you play, you'll be put into several situations where you can decide who lives and who dies. Even after most boss fights, which see you filling your opponent full of lead, you're given a chance to spare their lives. This lets you form alliances or rivalries with a number of different factions, from terrorist organizations to Asian gangs to the Chinese secret police. This gives you an opportunity for noticeable benefits, like allies that will join you in some of the more gun-heavy missions or the ability to purchase additional weapons and upgrades. But the way the game interprets your actions and feeds them back to you goes deeper than merely letting people live or die.

 In the safehouse you can change your loadout and read e-mails.
In one mission, for example, you're infiltrating a warehouse belonging to an organization known as G22. Depending on how you've handled past run-ins with this group, you could be allied with them or completely at odds with their existence. In my case, we were friendly. The mission has you place bugs on G22's servers to listen in on their network traffic in hopes of learning more about your current mission, which at that point, has very little to do with G22. If you're spotted during the mission, you'll receive a call from your contact, wondering what in the hell you've been doing. Then you're faced with a choice: do you turn off your monitoring software to stay in G22's good graces, or do you let them run and make another new enemy? Keep in mind that you'll go in with less information about your next mission if you decide to comply with G22's request. The choices feel layered and meaningful, and it's impressive how frequently your actions come back around. This sprawls all the way out to the game's conclusion, which can go a number of different ways. At the end, I took down the evil corporation behind the entire affair. But if things play out differently, you might just be trying to join them... or maybe take them out so you can replace them with something even more insidiously self-serving. Alpha Protocol handles choice and the alteration of different story threads better than most games, and it's definitely the game's biggest strength.

You'll also do a lot of talking in Alpha Protocol. The game has Mass Effect-like dialogue trees with a couple of key differences. First, the game doesn't really spell out exactly what your dialogue options are. Rather than reading lines of text before picking what you want to say, you press different buttons to control the attitude of your response. You can respond professionally, aggressively, or smoothly, most of the time. The different characters you meet like to be treated differently, so you can go "suave" with Mina, one of your mission handlers, to flirt with her. Meanwhile, no-nonsense guys like Alan Parker, one of the other Alpha Protocol analysts, prefer a professional approach. The other big change is that the game doesn't let you take forever to make up your mind. The dialogue choices and a timer bar appear while the other character is still talking, so you don't have much time to decide. This forces you to think on your feet and stay engaged during cutscenes. It's pretty cool. You'll learn more about the various players in the universe by talking to them or about them with others. In fact, some missions contain no combat at all, focusing entirely on dialogue. This goes a long way toward making Alpha Protocol feel like more than just a third-person shooter with some stealth mechanics.

It's a good thing that the dialogue and alternate paths in Alpha Protocol can be so interesting, because the action is really deflating. Granted, Alpha Protocol focuses more on its RPG aspects than its shooting, but firing a weapon is still extremely unsatisfying. At the beginning of the game, before you've put upgrade points into any of the four weapon categories, Thorton fires a weapon as if he's never even seen a gun before and is saddled with poor cover mechanics, as well. Your shots are wildly inaccurate and mostly ineffective. As a direct result, I ended up funneling most of my upgrade points, which are earned by leveling up, into stealth. Stealth in Alpha Protocol is a little silly, as you'll earn abilities that essentially make you invisible. Running around in slow-motion for 20 seconds, performing silent takedowns on enemies as their friends watch, only to have those friends be completely unable to detect you is squarely at odds with the rest of the game's reasonably realistic presentation. But once you get past that, slinking around and choking guys out is at least more satisfying than the subpar gunplay.

 People like Sie can be powerful allies, if you treat her right.
As if there wasn't already enough of a tug-of-war between Alpha Protocol's highs and lows, the game is saddled with a variety of technical issues. The frame rate on the PlayStation 3 version seems less stable than its 360 counterpart, but both versions contain some ugly, low-resolution textures and stuttery animation. I also ran into multiple cases in both versions where a door--one you absolutely must walk through to move forward--opened and then immediately closed itself. Once closed, the prompt to open the door wouldn't reappear, forcing a reload of the last checkpoint.

There's some good writing in Alpha Protocol and the voice cast is mostly able to back that up. Since you can play the game with a few different attitudes, the actor handling the main character has to play some lines with different tones. His "professional" and "suave" tones work a lot better than his aggressive tone, which sounds a little forced and less believable than the rest. Also, it must be said that Alpha Protocol contains Nolan North, who turns in a great, non-Drake-like performance.

If you decide to play Alpha Protocol, just know that your main enemies over the course of its 15-or-so hours will be its collection of misery-inducing technical issues and the clash between its action and role-playing elements. There are parts of Alpha Protocol that I feel are totally amazing and absolutely worth seeing, but you'll have to trudge through a lot of very disappointing stuff just to see it. Jeff Gerstmann on Google+
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Posted by simpledespot

From the start it looked a touch troubled.  Might get though.

Edited by cap123

more positive than i thought, i expected two stars to be honest

Posted by sfighter21

3 out of 5 is still worth checking out... RDR first though.

Edited by The_Laughing_Man

I think 3/5 is a bit generous. Would have expected more from a game delayed this much. 

Posted by AlwaysAngry

I knew it.

Posted by Spookie

Ah as I imagined. Jeff saw the game underneath all the slightly wonky gameplay.

Edited by MikeE21286
@The_Laughing_Man said:

" I think 3/5 is a bit generous. Would have expected more from a game delayed this much.  "

I came to post the same thing.  I did not enjoy what I played of it at all.  These types of games have to be the toughest to review.  It's not complete and utter garbage, but it's not good.
Posted by buzz_killington

When the gameplay is this busted and janky, you expect a 40-hour journey with lots of choice, like Fallout 3. 15 hours is way too short for the gameplay to be this clunky. Either give me quality, or quantity; don't cut from both...

Posted by TRAYNREK

The I bet the inclusion of Nolan North bumped this review up a whole star for Jeff. 

Posted by Soap

I personally think three stars is a bit generous, the game is so broken it's almost unplayable. It plays like a bad PS2 game which sucks as I really wanted this game to be good. :/

Posted by mosdl
@Spookie said:
" Ah as I imagined. Jeff saw the game underneath all the slightly wonky gameplay. "
Which is why we love the GB staff.
 
Sounds like a steam sale purchase...
Posted by Yummylee

Three stars seem fair. I'll definitely be giving this a purchase one day down the line. One of those ''must experience'' games for me.

Posted by Cornman89

Man, I'm really interested in all the divergent choice stuff, which seems like a really forward-thinking evolution of what Bioware has tried to do with Mass Effect, but it's really hard to justify a purchase if I know so much grief and misery lie ahead of me. After the price crash, maybe?

Edited by Vod_Crack

I have been playing the game for the past few days and Jeff has nailed it on the head here. There is some great stuff that this game does really well that no other game does but it has just loads of glaring problems which make the game hard to recommend. Most people are probably going to hate the shit out of this game but there will be a small niche of people who will enjoy this game, me being one of them.

Posted by Kombat

I'm really on the fence about this one.  It seems like there's a lot to enjoy, but even watching the Quick Look last week I could tell that the combat was clunky and likely a hinderance to the enjoyment of the game.  Maybe I'll give it a rent or something this summer, or maybe I'll go against my better judgement and order it off of Amazon tonight.

Posted by Kraznor

Hmm, been hearing some pretty negative things on this one and it sounds pretty clunky. Believe I shall hold off on a purchase at this time.

Posted by Binman88
@Jeff: "you've something of a liability" should be you're. That'll be $20 for today's copy-editing services, thank you.
 
I strongly recommend people read RPS's opinions of the opening of the game on the PC. Glaring technical issues may put you off completely.
Posted by Death_Unicorn
@Kombat said:
" I'm really on the fence about this one.  It seems like there's a lot to enjoy, but even watching the Quick Look last week I could tell that the combat was clunky and likely a hinderance to the enjoyment of the game.  Maybe I'll give it a rent or something this summer, or maybe I'll go against my better judgement and order it off of Amazon tonight. "
We share the same thoughts.
Posted by Chyro

Is there any middle ground in gunfighting?  
 
"Yo headshots are ruining games."  So they make the gun stuff a little more difficult and based on skills and obviously it didn't work right.  So is there anyway when head shots are not ruining the game play and it doesn't feel as if you are shooting with a broken hand? 

Posted by BigChief

Hmm, this is in line with other stuff that I've heard. I'm...not sure whether I'll bite the bullet and get this. It sounds like there are things I would enjoy, but with a lot of caveats. And fifteen hours seems a bit on the short side for this kind of game, I was hoping for a bit more, though it sounds like it has good replay value. I dunno, maybe I'll wait and see.

Posted by truebornracer

Nice review Jeff,  you might want to fix this sequence though. 
 
 The other big change is that the game doesn't let you take forever to make up your mind. The dialogue choices and a timer bar appear while the other character is still talking, so you don't have much time to make up your mind.      
 
It's no biggie, I do that all the time when writing, but it always reads a little clunky.

Posted by foggel

I'm probably getting it, but it's no longer as high up on the list as it was before. RDR first.
Posted by Solh0und

Well....looks like I'm Renting this puppy

Posted by Darkstar614

Excellent review as always.
 
This game is a great example of why you should look at reviews before recklessly purchasing games. Developers sometimes try to slip one past, hoping no one is going to notice that it's bad. But thankfully the internet and Giant Bomb exists.

Posted by KuwabaraTheMan

Sounds like about what I expected. I'll probably get it down the line, but my biggest disappointment is length. 15 hours is really short, and I was really hoping for at least an average length game.

Edited by gike987
I think i have to buy this game. I can tolerate some clunky combat in an RPG if the the story is good with a lot of choices.
Posted by Darkstar614
@Chyro said:

" Is there any middle ground in gunfighting?    "Yo headshots are ruining games."  So they make the gun stuff a little more difficult and based on skills and obviously it didn't work right.  So is there anyway when head shots are not ruining the game play and it doesn't feel as if you are shooting with a broken hand?  "

Dead Space! :D Shoot the limbs off!
Posted by gla55jAw

How do you make a shooter with bad shooting!?! Luckily it's in my Gamefly que and I'm not paying for it.

Posted by Jimbo

This should be arriving tomorrow or the day after.  I've never found a 3 star review quite so reassuring before.  Sounds like one of those broken-but-interesting games I tend to enjoy more than most.

Posted by Animasta
@Jimbo said:
" This should be arriving tomorrow or the day after.  I've never found a 3 star review quite so reassuring before.  Sounds like one of those broken-but-interesting games I tend to enjoy more than most. "
quoted for truth.
 
Although I'm waiting for it to be unlocked on steam D:
Posted by Quacktastic

Did you try lots of different weapon specs?  Is every one of them awful?  Is there one you could pick to make the shooting go as smoothly as possible to see whats worth seeing?
 
If the combat is the low spot, I want to know if there is some way I can specialize around the flaws.

Posted by l4wd0g

awesome review Jeff!

Posted by Marz

Sega should let obsidian release some kind of SDK so people playing the PC version can mod the hell out of the game.  Let people make their Burn Notice mod or whatever and at the same time we'll see some better models and animations just like fallout 3 community has spit out.  Sometimes a game like this needs a little help from the modding community to make it stand out and worth playing.

Posted by Undeadpool

Quite a pity! I've been looking forward to this since it was announced. Probably rent it and see if I can get over the technical hiccups.

Posted by comp13

I was looking forward to this game, but I guess it can wait until it hits the 
bargain bins.

Posted by gingertastic_10

I'll still get it.
Edited by EgoCheck616

Sounds like Alpha Protocal is the RPG genre's Prototype. Which would make Mass Effect 2 it's inFamous. 
That's a shame. I'll have to pick up a copy at a reduced price.

Posted by glitznglam_style

Good game. If only it had more polish, it would've been a great game.

Posted by SPACETURTLE

A non-Drake performance for once sounds good. Perhaps North is becoming more "usable" as other characters than Nate-dawg in the future.

Posted by artofwar420

I think I will play this game despite the technical issues. The story is what is what's drawing me to it.

Posted by LeBart

As always, Jeff nails it.

Posted by Cincaid

Nice review. I'll pass for now (even if 3/5 is by no means a bad score), mostly because I'm overloaded by games I need to play first. Although there're probably 10 other games I'd rather play over this...so fearing I'll never see this one in my 360, unless its price is heavily reduced.
 
Here's hoping New Vegas won't have the same fate...

Posted by takua108

** WHEW! ** 
 
I was totally prepared for this to get two stars and then I'd have to hate myself for preordering it (on Steam). Three stars is more or less what I expected when I made the preorder, so I'm definitely ready for some semi-broken spy RPG stuff tomorrow!

Posted by yani

  Who the hell is Sie?  I finished the game the other day and never came across her. That's pretty cool.
 
  I liked this game a lot.  Yes, its shooting is lousy and it has many technical failings, but I really enjoyed the story/dialogue.  I'd advise that people pick this up at some point, once the price has dropped a bunch, and hopefully some patches come out.

Posted by OneKillWonder_

Great review, Jeff. Almost exactly what I expected you to say after watching the QL. Really looking forward to picking this up tomorrow.

Posted by zombie2011

This is a skip for me, no way in hell i have enough time to play all the good games that came out this month let alone the average ones.

Edited by gike987
@Quacktastic said:

" Did you try lots of different weapon specs?  Is every one of them awful?  Is there one you could pick to make the shooting go as smoothly as possible to see whats worth seeing?  If the combat is the low spot, I want to know if there is some way I can specialize around the flaws. "

I've heard that if you specialize in stealth you can just sneak past almost all the enemies in the game. I think there was some recension that said, execept for the final mission, they only had to kill like three guards in the whole game.
Posted by Jazz

Funny 
I had 90% of the same problems (crap shooting, bugs, ineffective minigames) with Fallout 3...and look how that scored. 
At least this has a decent storyline apparently. 
I'll wait till it comes down in price, but i am still interested. 
I wonder if Matt will ever go into the problems this game had..which were numerous..during development. 
It's hardly surprising it turned out how it did. 
shame

Posted by kalmis

Good review, thanks. Will be getting this from bargain bin one day.

Posted by ArbitraryWater

Kind of expected. It seems like Jeff still really liked it though.

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