Review: Alpha Protocol
There he is. A cluttered courtyard is all the stand between me and my target. I'm a badass to the core, with my high tech silenced pistol, my mad stealth skills and my cutting edge modern armor. I am a veteran of dozens of overseas missions wherein I've slit throats, seduced women, intimidated mob bosses and buried loved ones. There is nothing I haven't seen or done, all in the line of duty. Taking a deep breath, I break my cover, sprint across the courtyard dispatching a half dozen guards along the way, come to within inches of a clean assassination...only to be stopped by a waist-high garden trellis.
Frustrations abound in the newest entry from Obsidian Entertainment, Alpha Protocol. It's a landmark game for the company - their first new intellectual property, one not handed to them by a (better?) developer. While this was Obsidian's moment to shine, showing the world that they had the chops to play with the big boys like Bioware and Bethesda, instead they demonstrate that they are still just a minor league team, ever ready to be "called up" to make sequels to older games while the hall-of-famers are busy designing the next great game series.
Alpha Protocol is labeled as being the first espionage RPG. You play a young new recruit, Mike Thorton, as he begins his spy career in the world of super-secret global conspiracies, ultra friendly Muslim terrorists (seriously?), and ubiquitous mercenary armies. Yes the world is wacky, but it's easier to just "go with it".
Mike trains for the 2047 Superbowl.
The role of globe-trotting, James Bond wanna-be Mike Thorton is yours to inhabit. At least, that's the idea. It turns out that Mike is a douche-bag no matter how you play him. Walking around his agency safehouse listening to him make snide, teenage girl remarks equating to "Um, yeah, whatever!" made me wonder just where the hell the famous Obsidian-"We made Baldur's Gate 2, BITCHES!"-writers were during the creation of this game. But taking Mike aside, which is pretty hard to do, the others characters are also pretty bland and predictable. They function as intended but you never really get all that invested in them, even as you navigate conversations in such a way as to optimally manipulate them into liking you.
Staying on the dialogue for a moment, it's worth mentioning Obsidian's take on the Mass Effect-style conversation tool. As in Mass Effect, you are given multiple responses that communicate the "gist" of what you want to say. But most of the time, instead of a phrase or summary, you are just given a vague word like "aggressive" or "suave". You are also timed, with between three and six seconds to lock in your choice. The time limit may have sounded good on paper, since it's true that prolonged silences in a conversation would seem strange in real life, but in practice you are so focused on clicking your selection before time runs out that you don't even listen to what the person is saying. It's less a conversation and more just a panicked thought of "Well I know this guy has a sense of humor so I'll just pick 'suave' and 'joke' every time and hope for the best!"
It also doesn't help that, many times, the one-word description and the result don't match up. I reloaded some scenes a few times and confirmed that, for instance, "aggressive" was just as suave a response as "suave". It's like the programmers put in those place-holder words and the writers just ignored them.
All of this could be easily forgiven if the gameplay was fun; sadly, this is not the case. I chose to play a stealthy, black ops, Sam Fisher archetype (as Ubisoft's DRM ensures my continued boycott of their products). I figured, "Run-and-gun gameplay is pretty easy to pull off these days but good stealth is still a fine art." I was right, in that stealth was a good test of Alpha Protocol's capabilities. Unfortunately, it failed the test spectacularly.
I knew going in that, as an RPG, it would take time and experience to develop my pistol, stealth and hacking skills that would one day make me a ninja. And, indeed, each new upgrade to those skills gives you a nice passive or active ability, rewarding you with each new skill you purchase. Your guns get more accurate and your activated abilities more deadly. The problem doesn't come from the RPG aspect (it's actually one of the better parts of the game) but from the game engine itself.
The best word I can use to summarize my time navigating the various mission levels is "clunky". In what must be one of the worst design decisions I can fathom, Obsidian chose to use a Knights of the Old Republic-style game engine. While this worked quite well for KotOR, where dice rolls and statistics governed combat, using the same system in an action game is folly. What it means is that you are glued to the ground with only rudimentary control over your character. You can't hop small fences or jump tight gaps or even fall a few inches, unless the developers specifically designate it with a yellow arrow. It's like the entire world was baby-proofed so that wittle-Mikey-wikey didn't accidentally hurt himself. The levels themselves are linear, but not extremely so, with most providing a few different paths to take down enemies. But the restrictiveness of movement will make you feel like no matter how open the environment, you are still essentially in a cage.
Mike comes home to his bitchy wife after an exhausting day of playing Alpha Protocol.
Another stupid decision was the implementation of the checkpoint system. I have no idea why, in an age where all of the consoles have dozens of gigs worth of space made specifically for saved games, developers insist on using checkpoints instead of allowing the player to save when and where they want. This ridiculousness is even more grievous on PC, where the taint of console-itis has metastasized. For linear action games where there are no choices to make and no characters to build, checkpoints can work. But anyone that has ever played an RPG knows that the ability to save at will is vital to experimentation and fun. Obsidian pours more salt in the wound by having way too few checkpoints per level, such that you spend a great deal of time in Alpha Protocol taking down the same groups of henchmen over and over, struggling to get to that next damn checkpoint. Obsidian should lower their collective heads in shame. Did you all just forget how to make an RPG?
In story-heavy RPGs, I tend to think of the graphics as the least important part of the game. And it seems as though Obsidian is right there with me. The graphics look about six years old, with the facial animations being the most detailed aspect, and even they are barely passable when given the task of portraying unspoken emotion. The style of the game's look is adequate in some areas (the James Bond-ness of some characters and locations really shines through) and pretty miserable in others (my stealth suit looks like it would garner more attention, not less). Again, if the gameplay, story or characters were sharpened, the graphics wouldn't matter, but since it's all one big crap-fest, the lousy graphics serve as a constant reminder that you are playing a sub-par game.
Marvel at the latest cutting edge graphics, circa 2004!
I want to say one unreservedly positive thing about the game before I bring this tirade to a close. In my first impressions, I joked about Obsidian making big promises early in the game with regards to the consequences of your actions. Surprisingly, they lived up to that promise. I can't imagine the amount of "if/then" scripting that must have gone into this game. If you save this guy now, then you will have his help in a future mission. If you go to Rome first, then you will have extra information for your mission in Moscow. If you antagonize evil-guy-A, then evil-guy-B will admire your assertiveness in a later conversation. Some of these decisions are obvious and momentous, but most are innocuous at the time, and you are shocked, later, when your reputation precedes you. So for this feature, Obsidian deserves a steady five seconds of sustained applause. But only five seconds. Stop clapping now.
Alpha Protocol had a long development cycle. Publisher Sega even went so far as to push it back eight months simply for marketing reasons. In all of that time, someone should have taken a good look at the game and said, "Shit, we went about this the wrong way". Almost every aspect of this game is flawed from a design perspective. From the style to the writing to, most importantly, the gameplay, nothing clicks the way that it should. You never get that moment where you smile to yourself and think, "That was awesome!". Instead, the prevailing thought is, "Well I managed to get through that awful level, hope the next one is better." But it never gets better; it just limps along until you finish it or, more likely, you put it down in favor of a better game. I wanted Alpha Protocol to succeed, as I dig Obsidian's moxie, but I just can't view this game as anything but a well-intentioned failure.