Alpha Protocol comes so close to being an awesome game. The premise itself is awesome; who doesn’t want to be a spy? And you don’t just get pigeonholed into being one type of spy: you can be whatever type of spy you want. You can be super-suave James Bond, trying, though not always succeeding, at hooking up with all the ladies and using a combination of technical proficiency and stealth to out-fox your enemies; Jason Bourne, the consummate professional, using guns and fists in equal measure; or Jack Bauer, constantly shouting, guns blazing, being generally very irritating. All these options are yours! The concept here is fantastic, but the execution, well…the execution stumbles.
Alpha Protocol casts you as Michael Thornton, the newest recruit of the eponymous agency, a branch of the government that conducts deniable operations so deniable that the government denies the existence of the agency. Sound like a lot of deniability? Get used to it. This game is conspiracy-driven, and there isn’t more than a single piece of dialogue where you aren’t reminded that you’re an expendable asset that has been, in fact, expended, because you’ve gone rogue and are trying to take down your corrupt government agency. Or maybe you didn’t; that’s kinda up to you. See, there’s a very crucial initial decision that you make early on in the game that determines how the rest of the game plays out, and at what time you choose to go rogue. That word, “choice,” is very important in Alpha Protocol. You face decisions all the time during dialogue portions of the game that play like quick-time events, where you have to choose between three attitudes: professional, angry, and suave. You can infer which famous super-spy embodies which attitude, but whatever decision you make effects how the NPC feels about you; and how they feel about you effects how your missions are structured. You can choose to play the whole game in one style, but you’ll find that the best strategy is to adapt to whatever people prefer; some like professionalism, some people respond to some sweet talking, and others respond to being yelled at, I guess? I clearly didn’t imbibe the “angry” option all that often.
This mechanic works fantastically. All the characters are well-rounded, with extensive dossiers that the game tracks whether or not you’ve read and adapts dialogue options accordingly, and most importantly have a distinct sense of personality and humanity. When I had to choose between saving a character and completing an objective, I choose the objective, and I felt awful. There were definitely times in Alpha Protocol, more than any other game, where I didn’t know what the correct choice was, what the morally correct thing to do was. But I made a decision, and Alpha Protocol forced me to live it. Aside from some over-the-top characters, like the crazy German mercenary lady that fires an M-60 machine gun from the hip while wearing a bra-exposing tank top, and some cheesy/immature “suave” dialogue, everything about the dialogue/choice system was fantastic.
What wasn’t fantastic, by and large, were the graphics, gameplay, and overall polish of the game. Obviously, we have some problems here.
The graphics aren’t exactly top-notch. There’re some clipping issues, but mainly textures are their largest problems. Cotton sweaters shouldn’t be shiny. Each region of the world, as you globe-hop from Saudi Arabia to Moscow, Taipei, and Rome, looks very distinct, and there’s some inspired level design at times. Thorton takes down a yacht in Russia, as well as a drug-fueled Russian Mafia czar’s 80’s-inspired mansion, a Buddhist temple in Taipei, and an airfield in Saudi Arabia. With the exception of Saudi, all of these areas are pretty unique. But the textures for each area aren’t exactly smooth, the character models are stiff and the facial expressions, in the era of Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption, just aren’t expressive enough, especially in a game that requires a large amount of communication and reading people. Movement just doesn’t seem natural, at any time.
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