It’s not hard to see where Alpha Protocol’s developers, Obsidian Entertainment, drew their inspiration from for the story and setting of this game, with shades of James Bond, Bourne and 24. Alpha Protocol are a group of covert operatives with no ties to the government, who carry out all their deniable operations, go where they should not be going and taking out targets without ever having been there, officially anyway, The player takes the role of Mike Thorton, the latest recruit to Alpha who, soon after the beginning of the game, becomes a rogue agent. This is where it takes a very Jason Bourne like turn, as you try to continue your globetrotting mission visiting locations such as Moscow and Taipei, to track down some black market surface to air missiles, while also being hunted down by your former employers.
Obsidian, with their history of great role playing games including Fallout and Knights Of The Old Republic 2, try something a little different here and if it could be likened to any of their other games, it would be Fallout, only in smaller more action packed chunks. What they have done with Alpha Protocol is mashed together a Role Play Game with a third person action shooter. From the third person shooter perspective is mostly how the game plays. You move around as you would expect using the games cover system, but the big difference comes during the shooting. This is where you will notice the majority of the role playing game element. Initially the shooting appears to be as you would expect from a third person shooter, one button bringing up your aiming reticule with another firing your chosen weapon. But this is where the similarities end. You can’t pop around the corner and quickly take out the three bad guys standing there, one after the other. Although a bad guy may be dead centre in your targets, whether you actually hit him when pulling the trigger has a lot to do with how far away he is and how proficient skill wise with that type of weapon you are. Even when you have a high skill level with a weapon group, you still have to take aim carefully as, with most of the guns, there is a reticule within a reticule which becomes more precise the longer you have a target in sight. This method of shooting, like many things in this game, may seem a bit strange to begin with. But over time it does become second nature and you do begin to get the feeling that it is not a full on action game and that there are some role playing mechanics to it.
For instance, you gain XP from doing many things in the game: completing objectives throughout your missions, taking out the bad guys, as well as picking locks, hacking computers and bypassing electronic devices. Tasks such as these last three play out as sort of mini games. Like most role playing games, as you gain XP you go up levels. Each level you go up, you are awarded Action Points to spend on improving whichever skills you would like, be it a particular weapon group, hand to hand combat, sabotage or technical among others, thus shaping your character to your own preference.
Unlike Obsidian’s other game Fallout, which is generally set in a large open world, Alpha Protocol plays much the same, but for each mission you are placed into a smaller location such as a yacht, a Saudi palace or a US embassy, which you then play through as smaller bite size chunks of action. It’s an interesting merging of game types and, given time to get used to it, the game soon become fun to play. A couple of small problems with the gameplay are that the small mini games for lock picking and hacking, amongst others, are pretty simple. As you level up, some of the skills you can put your action points into promise to make these easier, but even playing through on the hard difficulty setting from the beginning did not prove much of a challenge. Couple that with the fact that if you are running out of time to complete the task, you can just back out of it and then try again right away. More of a challenge from these, or the loss of the task should you fail rather than being able to just try again, would have been more appropriate in my opinion and it also means this skill can be more or less ignored when levelling up, giving you more action points to put into the more useful skills such as your weapons groups.
The one other problem I have with the gameplay is with the enemy AI at points in the game. My problem is not that it’s too good, it’s that it can be appallingly bad at times. For instance, you can be crouched behind a box or a wall with your head partially poking out or a leg sticking out in plain view, but a bad guy can walk up to and past you without even giving you a second glance. This could be down to your stealth skill, but considering I was not very high in that skill when I first noticed it, then probably not. At other times the AI is fine. You get the idea that they have the same shooting mechanics as you do, as they can’t fire at you wildly and take you down in seconds, making it feel like a fair fight. So other than the whole “oh there is a leg there but i do not really see it” thing, the AI is well done.
Another thing that role playing games generally have are the epic stories and the pages upon pages of dialogue, and this is again where Alpha Protocol is slightly different. Yes it has a decent story that weaves a web of intrigue, like any good spy or espionage story does, full of villains, double crosses and women to seduce and be seduced by. But the story takes a back seat to the action sections of the game. During the missions you are in contact with your “handler” who gives you hints and points you in the right direction of your objectives, keeping the story flowing through the levels. But the majority of the story telling takes part between the main levels through video conferences, and occasionally person to person conversations. All the dialogue is pre-scripted, even your responses are predetermined. However, where you do have some input is in what tone you give those responses. As the person you are talking to gives their lines, a timer counts down and you are given a choice of tones to use as you speak to them, be it professional, joking or even flirty when you talk to the ladies. Although there is no real wrong tone when talking to people, it does effect your relationship with the other characters which leads to them liking, disliking or even hating you. This does not affect the eventual outcome of the game, but it can have a small effect. If you build up a relationship with your handler so as they like you, then you receive certain bonuses during missions where that NPC is the voice in your ear. This whole dialogue/chat system works perfectly for the game, keeping the dialogue flowing and not filled with huge gaps as you decide what your reply should be.
Okay so that’s how the game plays, how does it look? Unfortunately this is where it lets you down a little. The game does not look terrible, in fact in places it’s actually very good looking. The problem I think, is that in places it looks like two different teams of developers who did not communicate so well, worked separately on the locations and the characters. So although both look decent enough at times during the game, throughout many of the missions it looks like the player and NPC models have been dropped into the game from another game. Then, at other times, they look very much like cel-shaded characters with a black line around the outside edge of them. At times these things are very noticeable and at other times they look fine, but it’s because of this fact that it is more noticeable. The one other small issue I have with the graphics, or animation as it may be, is the floating character syndrome while moving, kneeling or taking cover on flat ground, which to be honest is a lot of the time. It is not noticeable however when it comes to more rural outdoor locations. You notice that rather than walking on the ground, you walk a few inches above it and it becomes even more noticeable when crouching, especially if you are on a slope. This is a small problem and it can be overlooked.
The sound during the action scenes, through brutal hand to hand combat so inspired by the Bourne movies, and the small and large scale fire fights, is well executed and the voice acting during the cutscenes is far from the worst we have seen in video games. In fact, in some places it’s actually pretty damn good. so the game is nicely done, both graphically and sound wise, barring the few problems which have been highlighted above.
When you start playing Alpha Protocol you may be very unsure of it, definitely not being what you would expect. It initially comes across as a third person action adventure and when you first start playing, like me you may be a little miffed atÂ why the bad guy is still standing despite the fact that you are firing round after roundÂ towards them. You just have to give it time and learn how the game plays. Taking your time in combat, thinking about it and using gadgets or skills more than just rushing in with guns blazing, works a whole lot better. So for the first three or four missions, you may be trying to play the game as an action game. But over this time, you get drawn into it and then it slowly grows on you, more and more. Before you know it you are genuinely enjoying the experience. So it’s a game you definitely have to give a chance before making an early decision on it. Stick with it and there is a really good chance that you will find the hidden treasure of a game that is lurking in there somewhere.
If Obsidian Entertainment decide to make a franchise of this title and give us a sequel, it would be nice to see them improve on the graphics, fixing the few little problems that I highlighted in this review. But Alpha Protocol is a game that, if you put the time in, will reward you with a fun action role playing game with decent depth.