Review: Alpha Protocol (PS3)

Sure, Alpha Protocol has some innovation. But one larger question will stand in your way when it comes to getting every ounce of possible enjoyment out of the title.

Rating: M
Players: 1
Genre: “Spy RPG”
Publisher: SEGA
Developers: Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date: June 1, 2010 (US), May 28, 2010 (PAL)


In Alpha Protocol, you are Michael Thorton, rookie member of a black ops team known (rather appropriately) as Alpha Protocol. If you don’t know exactly what black ops are, well, it means that this team performs operations in the U.S. government’s interest but without falling under their jurisdiction. This strategy gives the United States plausible deniability should any of their operations become less than covert. In that case, the organization will be dissolved, and the people…well, they’re disposable.

After the game hammers in that point for a bit, you find out exactly what it means to be abandoned and become a rogue agent to find out the truth behind an attack on a passenger jet. You’ve been fed lines from all over the place, so what’s true? You’ll have to perform a variety of missions to find out the real truth.

When you start the game, you’re given the opportunity to choose from several specialties, each with pre-leveled ability sets. These background selections include a soldier, tech specialist and complete rookie (where you start out with a blank slate and specialize when you’re given the opportunity). This is only the first of the options you’re given – see, Alpha Protocol purports to be about choice.

Sure, there are little things like changing how Thorton looks, but the majority of the choices you’ll be making come from dialogue options. It’s not the first time we’ve seen systems like this – pretty much any BioWare RPG has similar elements. However, instead of knowing exactly what’s going to come out of your character’s mouth, you choose a stance instead. During timed segments (I think they’re supposed to be designed so that you don’t second-guess yourself, but I usually had enough time to change my stance before it was final), you can choose to be suave, aggressive or professional. Occasionally, a context-sensitive fourth option will show up: Do you want to execute the person you’re talking to? It might change the entire rest of the game, and even the end game. You might take them by surprise and just attack them.

Different people like different approaches. You’ll learn this after a few encounters. Your choices will affect Michael’s relationship with those around him, and he’ll get different ability bonuses based on his rapport with those around him. He may even end up enticing a lady or two to fall in love with him (because, really, what is a system like this without potential love interests?). As your reputation changes (due to the effects of conversation or Michael’s actions), you’ll get different handler bonuses.

Alpha Protocol gets a few things right. The story is incredibly realistic and hits pretty close to home, especially now, since we’re living in an age where it’s completely reasonable to worry about the effects of terrorism and war on U.S. soil. So, if you’re a fan of games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, you’ll probably find something about the story that you love.

The methods of gathering intel (through conversation or just flat-out purchasing it from the black market) are also incredibly reasonable. The use of email between missions (in cases where you need to reply, you choose from three canned responses related to your stances) is both fun and informative. Really, if you don’t do it, you’re missing out – but sometimes, you’re required to. The fact that several missions have you redirecting email and hacking into servers also serves as a sobering reminder that most of the forms of communication we have today definitely aren’t secure. But it’s also an awesome way to get contextual information during a mission.

The fact that the order you take on missions can affect the information you have is also an awesome addition. Normally, a game gives you a choice of missions and you just do them. Here, choosing one mission over another can reduce enemy manpower against you in later missions or reduce the amount of munitions that a faction has in the first place. Choosing a “dialogue” mission first could have a different effect on subsequent missions. Dialogue missions can take several paths, not all of which are preferable or beneficial to you. After completing an initial mission set, Michael can also move between Taipei, Rome and Moscow for missions as he pleases.

The gadgets that Michael has at his disposal are genuinely cool. Radio mimics allow you to remotely disable alarms (which is beneficial to your overall enjoyment), EMP units disable other lock systems and he’s got an arsenal of mines, bombs and other Things That Go Boom in the inventory (well, once you buy them).

But for every success the game has in its design, it could have benefited from some additional refinement, editing and direction.

As a supposed jack-of-all-trades, Michael has skills that range from weapons specialties and martial arts to hacking. But a lot of these controls are incredibly clumsy. Because everything is presented so quickly in the beginning (admittedly in a very clever way), it takes a few hours of play before you really understand all of them and they become not-quite-second nature.

In firefights, the enemy AI shows through relatively quickly, and your adversaries are just plain dumb. About half of them have a strategy that involves just running up to Michael and attempting to punch him in the face. Even if you’ve been hiding since the beginning of a mission, some enemies are waiting for you when you open a door, fists prepared for the punching. Also, even on “Easy” difficulty, some of them are just ridiculously hard to take down. I mean, how many head shots can your typical henchman take? Some of these guys take four head shots 15 feet away from point-blank range with a pistol and keep walking. I mean, I could understand that kind of behavior if you were shooting from 100 feet away, but these guys must have skulls made of metal or something. Even if you’re dishing out some hand-to-hand combat, enemies can block attacks, while it just seems like you can’t. At all.

Oh, also – these guys love grenades. I wonder how on Earth they carry them all, because if Thorton can only keep about 200 bullets on hand for his SMGs, there’s no way that enemies can have that much firepower on them. So grenade spam rains down upon you regularly. (Even though your intel on some groups seems to indicate that it’s preferred by certain factions, this so doesn’t seem to be the case.)

When you can find actual cover, you can blindfire.

While I’m on the subject of combat, the game does have a cover system. (Yay!) Unfortunately, it’s incredibly unpredictable. (Boo!) You can take cover behind several items, but the problem is that you never know which ones. See some boxes? Are they the same height as Mike? Sure, try to take cover! Oh, wait. It’s not cover after all. Even if it feels like it has every right to be – perfect height and location, apparently, do not a cover make. Even when you do find cover, it’s way too easy for an enemy to just shoot right through the thing. I thought the point of cover was…no? Oh. (Never mind, I apparently got it wrong.)

To make matters even more confusing, stand close to a wall to pick something up off the floor (briefcases and duffle bags full of cash are often just lying around – you’d think these international organizations would be more careful with that kind of stuff), and you might end up using that wall for unintentional cover, since the “pick up” and “take cover” buttons are exactly the same. This would be fine if it was just a matter of moving out of cover, but it’s not so easy every time. Usually, Michael is stuck in his crouch pose, which makes him move more slowly and requires another, more difficult, button press (L3) to walk normally.

When it comes to safe cracking and computer hacking, these tasks just get old fast. To turn off alarms (which your enemies are surprisingly quick to activate, even in the midst of taking bullets), you have to flip circuits, one at a time. They’re numbered, and “wires” lead to switches at the bottom of the screen. Once you get to a point where you’re trying to discern where seven different switches go, just radio in a false “all clear.” Save your sanity. Hacking involves playing a word search with two strings of letters and numbers amongst a sea of constantly-moving alphanumeric values. Theoretically, it’s easy, since you’re looking for the sets of things that aren’t moving, but since a timer is involved (as well as clumsy controls), you’ll likely end up straining your eyes to attempt getting it right on the first go to avoid an alarm.

I had problems with these two events (which happen far too often) on our 60″ television. I’m afraid of what these tasks will look like on much smaller televisions. Really, say hello to eye strain.

It’s unfortunate that you’ve got so much cracking and hacking to do, really, because this just isn’t fun at all. You might have some fun the first couple of times, when it’s relatively easy, but the more difficult these tasks get, the more you’ll hate to see a room full of computers, since it means you might have to hack one. Every mistake you make means less time to complete the task, so get used to hearing lots of alarms going off. You’re supposed to be concerned with the espionage part of missions (that is, not just barging in and killing everything that moves and isn’t your friend), but it’s completely impossible to do this. Sorry, unwitting faction members. You had no chance…with these controls, anyway.

Every once in a while, you’ll get to make another choice – how do you want to upgrade Thorton? Do you spend precious AP on martial arts skills or technology expertise? Whatever your choice is, make it wisely. If you don’t spend exactly the number of ability points you’ve been given, the remainder is lost in the ether, perhaps to reside in a Random Ability Slush Fund. I would have loved to build some up over time, but the developers didn’t seem to share in my vision. I consider this completely unfair, since those were points that I earned, and keeping a couple extra for my next set of upgrades would be awesome, since I would definitely need them to keep my hand-to-hand combat up to par – especially considering how many guys have it out for Thorton’s face. (He’s good-looking, I know, but really, guys. No need to be that jealous.)

As far as the visuals go, some textures definitely suffered from some pop-in. There was also some really odd usage of blurring. It should have made some objects look out-of-focus, but it didn’t always function properly. Occasionally, some levels had weird loading spots as well – one level seriously had to reload about once a minute while I played. Yes, the area in general was quite large, but needing to load from one room to the next, when I’d been playing in areas that were as large as 100 of those rooms? It just doesn’t make sense. Occasionally, I did notice a remarkable slowing of the framerate, but those instances were usually spread out. One spot during a mission also caused my PS3 to freeze completely, which is almost unforgivable for a game’s final build. (Returning to this same spot several minutes later in the mission caused a crazy amount of slowdown.)

The one way that Alpha Protocol redeems itself is through the story and the way that making choices can definitely affect the rest of the game. The narrative, and the way it is presented, is excellent. Unfortunately, Obsidian then took the RPG parts and slapped some action sequences on top of them. If the action wasn’t completely painful, I’d be OK with that. Unfortunately, the preceding paragraphs should have informed you otherwise.

If I were really making the choices, I’d want to redesign the entire game and pull out the action portions. (Actually, if we made it Heavy Rain, Spy Edition, that would be great.) Because of the way the game is designed, that would definitely mean just watching a lot of missions happen instead of actually playing through them, but action scenes intermixed with interrogations and dialogue choices sounds nice, especially when you’ve got the foundation that Obsidian’s already set up.

Alpha Protocol was clearly designed for multiple playthroughs.  If you can get through the action-oriented missions (AKA most of them) and make it all the way to the end, you once again get to decide the future. To play again, or to act like the government and deny Alpha Protocol’s existence?

The game is about choice, after all.

With some heavy editing and revision, I could have seen this title becoming one of the greats, but unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Obsidian got the chance to do a lot of that, even after pushing back the release date several months. An entertaining storyline and good RPG mechanics can’t make up for all of the things that were just plain bad in the action-oriented portions of this title, but they do make it worth at least one playthrough, in order to experience the novel way that even simple dialogue choices can affect your game.

Review copy was provided by SEGA and does not affect the outcome of this review.