Alpha Protocol is like that girl (or guy depending on audience) in college that you think is dating material, but you know that you aren’t going to marry them.
You’ll at least have fun until you get bored.
You play the role of Agent Michael Thorton. Thorton works deep undercover for a group called Alpha Protocol. Your first objective in the game is to track down a terrorist that is responsible for shooting down a commercial airliner and killing everyone on board. Along the way you are betrayed and end up going rogue. How you handle yourself as a rogue agent dictates the path of the game.
So for the past five-six days I’ve been hunkered down playing this game that was highly toted at last year’s E3. The developers were very much in tune with the game when we met them and the game seemed to be coming along smashingly.
The big draw to the game came in two waves:
The Dialogue feature of the game draws your character, Agent Michael Thorton, in different possible directions. How you treat people dictates where you go in the game. It’s certainly not about being nice all the time. Sometimes in the game you have to be nice, other times you have to bring down the hammer to earn respect. Sometimes you might over do the niceties a bit (which could put you in a terrible situation), while other times you may not be nice enough. Regardless, Obsidian hit the nail on the head with this feature in the game and should be commended for accomplishing what they set out to do.
The Customization feature in the game is crazy. You get to customize your weapons, armor and pretty much anything else you strap on (get your heads out of the gutter) when you head out into war. What’s cool about customizing is how easy it is to understand and how cool it is to do. By the middle of the game I had equipped a badass shotgun with so many things you couldn’t recognize it anymore. The darn thing was powerful and nearly long range by the time I was through with it. With so many guns and so many different pieces of armor it was pleasant mixing and matching parts.
Obsidian did a fantastic job on both of these features.
With that said, the game feels extremely unfinished. The control scheme in the game is tight. There is little room for you to make mistakes. The biggest issue I had in the game is ducking for cover. You can hit ‘L3’ to crouch behind something, but if you hit up on the left analog stick while pushing ‘X’ you’ll crouch behind something and lock your character to it. Sounds great, right? Well, there are a few things that hamper this technique. The first problem is that when you’re locked onto a wall or couch you can still get hit. What’s the use of ducking for cover when you’re not ‘covered’? There were times in the game, such as the battle with Sis (she’s just creepy) where I was clearly behind a couch and no part of my body sticking up above it, but somehow the little bitch kept shooting me in the head. How do you prevent that? If you stand up you get shot. If you move while crouching you’re still locked on with the couch. If you unlock yourself (press the left analog stick away from the couch while pressing ‘X’) then you stand up and have to quickly crouch down again. It’s very clunky controls.
On top of this issue there were times where the camera switched from third person to first person view while I’m backed in a corner under fire. This is not only jarring, but you can’t comprehend what position Thorton is in. You can’t estimate where you should move/adjust to put Thorton in the right spot; you’re simply trapped until you take a guess and move.
This type of movement and control just makes the game unbearable at moments, but tolerable.
As for the gun firing of the game, it’s mostly good. Switching out rounds or selecting weapons is easy-peasy. When you’re actually in the heat of battle you get some wonderful indicators that accurately tell you the range of your weapon. For example, going back to the shotgun I was sporting it didn’t work as well from long range in the beginning. If I whipped out that sucker and shot at someone at a ledge it would give me the best suitable target, but it would also subtract the amount of damage that the gun gave out. Why? Well, shotgun gunfire spreads out, as the distances get longer. The chance of a pellet hitting someone from long range is minimum. When I switched to my rifle the onscreen indicator/crosshair became smaller and more accurate. It was like firing a sniper rifle. It was built for long range combat and it did more damage.
The onscreen indicators for each weapon are unique to each weapon. Going back to the rifle, as you stand still and get your target in sight the crosshair had three triangles that slowly came together with each other via their tip. When the tips touched you would get your most accurate and damaging shot. It worked well for the lackeys that the game throws at you and it works well for bosses.
Related to that, the onscreen indicators for enemies are shallow and weak. The game provides you with a small red triangle that gives you little to no direction when enemies are arriving (or indications of where they might be hiding). It’s so annoying sitting out in the open and trying to figure out how to get to the next enemy when you don’t really understand where that enemy is located. Obsidian needed to take a lesson from Kojima Productions and provide a small map that indicates the position of enemies. It wouldn’t have been that hard to incorporate into the game; most people would have forgiven them for the plagiarism. It would have made the game smoother and would have been less frustrating when it came to attacking enemies.
With that said, the leveling up of Thorton during the game helps when it comes to attacking enemies. The game gives you AP (points) as you progress. These points can be used to improve certain skills for Thorton. One such skill is ‘stealth’. For all you Metal Gear Solid fans out there you will appreciate what Obsidian has done for you. If you’ve got a high AP level for ‘stealth’ then you’ll be able to sneak up on unsuspecting folk and dispose of them. You’ll also have the ability to perform evasions. This allows you to sneak by them completely undetected. Other AP skills include ‘pistol’ and ‘martial arts’, as well as others including tech related skills.
The tech related skills help you out when you need to hack a computer, break into safes, open up computer locked doors or turn off alarms. Each of these processes is followed by a puzzle that requires you to think on your feet and sharpen your reflexes.
Hacking a computer is probably the most complicated out of the bunch. You are sent to a series of changing letters and numbers (a huge square of them that could drive you nuts). Using your left and right analog sticks you have to find two hidden passwords inside this jumbling array of letters/numbers and match them before time runs out. What’s even more unnerving about this process is that there is a second timing process that goes quicker than the main time. Should you let the secondary time run out it will move the passwords within the confusing puzzle to different areas.
It’s tough and it’s confusing, but it’s cool if you can ace it. Having a high AP ‘tech’ skill helps.
The electronically locked doors, and alarm system, is a simple ‘maze’ type puzzle. You have to get three different numbers in order (one through seven) by just following the virtual bus of a circuit board to the appropriate number. It’s incredibly simple.
Not to make anyone nervous, but unlocking safes or doors takes a little bit of relaxed skill. If you’ve had the pleasure of playing Oblivion then it’s the same concept in this game. You have a series of locks inside the main lock that raise/lower by your top buttons on the PS3 controller. There is a certain line in the middle of these locks that you have to line up. Each line is located on a different area of the lock, so it’s not easy to do. If you don’t get it right you get two more tries. If you don’t accomplish it then the alarm goes off.
The variety of puzzles are nice and the looming alarm triggering consequence makes them more fun and even more urgent to master.
Speaking of alarms, I’m still not sure of what they are used for. If you happen to set one off after killing everyone in the area then nothing happens to you, other than you hate the sound of the alarm going off. Unlike Metal Gear Solid where setting off an alarm has serious consequences, there’s nothing preventing you from doing so. What’s even worse is that soldiers can trigger alarms after detecting you, which brings everyone alive in the area to your attention, but also firing upon security cameras can set off alarms as well. What’s the use of the security camera? Why even give the option of shooting it if you’re going to get a negative consequence from the process? It just doesn’t make sense. I know you can use a grenade to kill the electricity, but it’s so much more fun to shoot the darn thing.
Anyway, let’s move on to my last gameplay issue.
There is a large amount of graphical break up in the game. I know, I know you’re asking yourself right now, “Nathan, why not save this for visual complaints?” Good question, here’s my response, it affects the gameplay. For example, I hid behind a door that a guard opened and kicked/punched/shot him through the door. He couldn’t touch me, but I sure as hell could touch him. I sat there for a round of three guards and did the same thing.
Need another example? During the fight with the terrorist’s second in command, who just whooped my ass four or five times, I finally caught him in a graphical hell. I slid Thorton underneath the bridge this guy was on and just peeked out far enough where I could see/shoot him, but he couldn’t see or shoot me. Not only this, but he seemed stuck in this area, which was great because I made really quick work of him. This type of thing happened several times in the game. There was always one spot or one pattern where the bad guy would be stuck in and I could just sit there calmly and let them have it. It’s flawed by this and something that should have been taken care of during beta testing.
Moving on to presentation....
Before I start, I just want to say that I hate criticizing games like Alpha Protocol. I know that Obsidian was really behind this game. Meeting with the developers at E3 2009 you could tell they wanted this game to look/work well. I’ve met a lot of developers in my 10 years doing this and I could always tell who gave a shit and who didn’t. Obsidian wanted this game to be good and I hate saying otherwise.
The visuals in this game where only par for this generation of gaming. I’ve seen games that are far superior to Alpha Protocol that came out at the end of last year and even more so at the beginning of this year. The models of the characters seem mildly detailed at best. They’re better than games of two years ago, but far from the details you get in games six months ago (God of War III, Uncharted 2, Aliens vs. Predator, etc.). Outside of details you get some polygons that seem to break or duplicate (there was a time when Thorton’s hair decided to have an upper, lighter shade sit right above it).
The environments, while very much alive (I’m talking to you Moscow) where repetitive and general/plain. This hurts even worse when you’re given a linear route to run during the game. For example, going back to Moscow, the train yard puts obstacles in your way that you can’t jump around (like boxes and such). In any other game of this type you would either not have these obstacles blatantly there or you could jump over them with your character. Alpha Protocol doesn’t give you either pleasure.
The one silver lining for presentation is the voice acting and story. Obsidian did what any developer should do and provide a very strong set of actors with a very fun and cool storyline. Having the ability to control that storyline is what makes this game even more amazing. You somewhat forgive the visuals because of the story. In this area Obsidian succeeds with flying colors.
With all of this said, is the game fun? The game is fun to an extent. I found myself playing it because it did get better. The flaws didn’t get better, but the story got better and I just wanted to get more of the story. While I didn’t focus too much on it, it was also fun using the email system in the game. Emailing characters within the game, even though they were pre-written messages, added a valuable cog to the great storyline. Much like the dialogue face-to-face, how you sounded in your email dictated a bit of the story. So, story-wise it was a fun game. Gameplay-wise there was work that needed to be done.
The game felt a bit too unfinished in so many gameplay areas that I want a more polished version of it. There’s success written all over Alpha Protocol, but there are so many things holding it back that need to be corrected.
Does this hurt the value of the game? Yes it does. While the dialogue may convince you to play it again and try to get a different outcome, the clunkiness of the mechanics of the game may prevent you from listening to that tiny voice. For me it was a one and done. There were many frustrating areas of gameplay that I didn’t want to return to them, even though the story was fun. If this game had been polished up a bit more on mechanics I could have completely forgiven it for the looks. I’m not a big graphics guy, never have been, but if the mechanics fail please make it look good. If the mechanics and presentation fail then it’s just not fun or valuable.