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. The shooting mechanic of the game feels like a generic third person shooter. The camera is very tight on Thornton, and at times it makes it a little difficult to see what’s happening on screen, or orient yourself towards a target to either shoot or manipulate a button or whatnot. It takes some time to carefully aim, if you hold your crosshairs steady, they will slowly “tighten” onto a target, allowing pinpoint accuracy, though largely you don’t need it. I found that one can be eerily accurate in blind-fire, consistently pulling headshots without much effort. As Alpha Protocol is an “action/espionage RPG,” you can invest “action points” in various skills, such as pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, explosives, technical abilities, and martial arts. You definitely notice an increase in proficiency in each of these skills, especially martial arts, but there gets to be a point where it’s about the “powers” you receive, such as “focused aim,” less than it is the gradual progression of skill, frankly, things eventually get a little easy. I defeated the final boss with less than one magazine of ammunition by using a single power. This strikes me as a balance issue. Each faction’s soldiers behave differently; the Russian Mafia tends to charge straight forward in feats of coke-fueled courage, for example, according to their dossier, but in all honesty, I found that they all took that route. The AI is less than stellar, and plowing through enemies rarely proves challenging. I only encountered one instance where I was repeatedly defeated, and that was due only to a shortage of ammo that I had foolishly failed to stock up on.
There are weapons for purchase in each of the aforementioned categories, but only variations on three types of each (there are three variations on three types of pistol, submachine gun, shotgun, and assault rifle).There are more types of armor, but in all honesty, I don’t understand how, with the money I received in the game, I could afford the better ones; I poured most of my money into weapons upgrades, but I fail to see why I should only invest in one and not the other. These RPG elements were one of the better portions of the game, in all fairness, and the world of espionage totally lends itself to this style of gameplay.
Alpha Protocol was well known for a series of delays, presumably to polish and tighten the experience, but judging by my time with the game, it could’ve used some more. I ran into numerous bugs and quality control issues: I fell straight through a ladder and out of the game world at one point. An enemy got stuck inside a banister and could shoot at me, impervious to any of my attacks, in an area where I had to eliminate all resistance before I could move forward. I shot an enemy and he continued to fire while dead, as did an autoturret that continued to fire after it fell to the ground. These are pretty huge, game-killing issues that caused me to reload levels more than once.
I really want to like Alpha Protocol. This game has a great premise, a great story, a really innovative “choose your own adventure” style of gameplay that has a lot of appeal. But it absolutely flubs on the basics; the enemy AI is simplistic at best, there are some pretty fatal bugs, the graphics are borderline last-generation…this is a laundry-list of issues. Is Alpha Protocol a must-play? Absolutely; you should play this game to see the possibilities for how complex, both plot-wise and morally, stories can be told. Do you want to rent it or purchase it? That depends on how much money you want to spend on a annoyingly buggy, flawed, awesome experiment of a game.