XBox 360 (Also available on PlayStation 3 and PC)
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Alpha Protocol is a great example of a game that tries hard to do a lot of things and ends up pulling some of them off. When you look at what Alpha Protocol is attempting to do on paper, it is a pretty lofty list. Being the first espionage RPG, the game gets to define itself. Is it a spy game? Is it a shooter? How much roleplaying is actually involved? The truth is that Alpha Protocol almost gives too many options in how it approaches this concept.
Alpha Protocol is all about options. Much like other RPGs, character customization is a big deal. Not in the way of appearance but in terms of skill sets, selection of characteristics plays a huge part in how each person’s Alpha Protocol experience will play out. There are two very distinct ways that players can progress through missions.
The first is guns blazing. For Gears of War or Halo fans, this may be their method of choice. Shoot their way through and ask questions once everything is dead. Using any pairing of either a pistol, SMG, shotgun or assault rifle, players get the opportunity to use special weapons abilities that help them progress through waves of enemies.
Along the way, players can also use stationary sniper rifles or turret guns to aid in their mayhem. This is one of the more rewarding and visceral experiences of the game as enemies fly off their feet after shot gun blasts or crumble to the ground with a series of well placed headshots.
The other option is stealth. While there will still be combat involved, a Splinter Cell method of play is entirely possible where players avoid combat and only engage when necessary. Players must carefully navigate and do stealth takedowns while taking advantage of light, quiet clothing, silences weapons and the various stealth gadgets.
There are variations to both with happy mediums of the two styles which also involve the use of gadgets like trip mines, EMP bursts, radio mimics and sound generators. Players can use these to avoid direct combat with enemies by setting traps to lure them to their doom.
There is also a light melee combat system where Thorton can learn martial arts combos. This is the weaker of the gameplay design choices as only one button is used for melee. This results in just button tapping with no real strategy behind it for hand to hand combat.
Missions vary in length from five minute sniper missions to longer assaults on enemy bases. Luckily, the game has a checkpoint system allowing players to drop in and out fairly easily without risk of losing progress.
One of the interesting parts of Alpha Protocol is how the story plays out. A completely single player experience, players are able to pick and choose the order they go through events of the game with the realization that the moves they make for or against power players will either aid or hinder their missions moving forward.
In addition to the order in which missions progress, players are given a series of choices during them such as whether or not to assassinate a target who may give a tactical advantage if paired up with later on even if he is a deeply even character. The game also uses a dialogue system similar to that of Mass Effect where players can choose either aggressive, professional or cocky responses in conversation to intimidate or make friends with contacts throughout. The game has a quick auto save feature which means players must choose carefully since they will be stuck with the aftermath. Every choice matters and affects the story uniquely.
The story itself feels like it could have been ripped from 24, and that is a good thing. A commercial airline is shot down by a terrorist group and new Alpha Protocol recruit Michael Thorton must track down where the rockets came from. In the process, Thorton’s actions have him quickly kicked out of the agency that technically doesn’t exist on paper and he must go rogue in order to uncover the truth behind a deep conspiracy within Alpha Protocol and make it out with his own life.
As mentioned above, the unique “choose your own adventure” style of gameplay allows for players to have very different experiences throughout. Different mission handlers may choose to help the main character in different ways, depending on his actions towards them. One such example is how Mina, an agent of Alpha Protocol, went from constantly flirting and loving Thorton to despising him over the course of one mission where I shot my way through hotel security instead of going around them. She doesn’t write Mike any sexy emails anymore.
Graphics and Sound:
Graphics are sadly Alpha Protocol’s greatest weakness. The in-engine cutscenes don’t live up to the CGI cutscenes of the past or other current in-engine scenes. Weird lens flaring often occurs which results in a less than stellar visual. The graphics during gameplay don’t change this argument much either. The game ends up looking very average at best.
Character animation often looks stilted and robotic. Seeing Agent Thorton sneaking around in crotched position looks like he is going through miniature seizures with the way his body moves. The explosions could be taken as stock animation, especially after comparisons to other recent releases.
The sound design definitely outweighs the efforts of the game’s visual design. For the most part, the voice acting is well done and believable. While Agent Thorton doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, the voicework does a fairly good job displaying the emotions of the characters instead of just sounding completely like lines being read off a piece of paper. There are no over the top fake accents to hinder the audio experience either.
While Alpha Protocol is a good and fun experience, it is not great. The graphics just aren’t very pretty and it is not because of an intentionally gritty look. It looks almost unfinished. This lack of polish prevents the game from reaching its true potential. The same goes for the melee system which is too simple for its own good. With no skill involved in melee, it detracts from the amount of effort and associated reward of the game’s shooting and stealth mechanics.
Alpha Protocol is a solid attempt at starting a new sub-genre with the espionage RPG. The action is fun and keeps you playing even though it has room for improvement. The story and decision tree of the game are where the real intrigue lie where decisions matter.
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