Alpha Protocol is an espionage RPG from developers Obsidian Entertainment. Best known previously for developing less well received sequels to popular RPGs, with Knights of the Old Republic 2 in 2004 and Neverwinter Nights 2 in 2006. This is Obsidian’s first outing with an original IP, how does it fair?
Alpha Protocol, more than anything else, was a game with potential – and that’s being nice. It is always such a shame to see great ideas, writing and mechanics in a game like this, only for it all to fall to pieces once you play the complete product. You play as Michael Thornton and select a variety of background stories for him, such as Soldier or Freelancer. You then begin training at the Alpha Protocol facility, a top spy organisation which officially doesn’t exist, so the US Government doesn’t have to be held responsible for its actions. You wake up and find out you’ve been drugged and must escape, but this is all part of your training and initiation.
Not a single fuck was given that day.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the set up and feel of the game immediately match expectation of a spy thriller. From the music, menus and dialogue, Obsidian really nailed the Bourne-esque feeling of secret agents and conspiracy theories. You meet a wide cast of unique characters and the intrigue starts from the get go; it really is a great set up.
But this soon, as mentioned, falls apart. The great ideas and story set up behind this game are hampered by lacklustre and just plain frustrating gameplay. It is buggy too, the animations are terrible and the AI and level design feels decidedly old fashioned – and not in a good way. You will find yourself playing through the missions with the thought of the next bit of story exposition to keep you going.
Story and background are important to this game, so it is a good thing that Obsidian decided to capitalise on this. You work from a variety of safe houses and meet contacts, exchange emails and buy and sell Intel that you find in the field. The web of dossiers, characters and intrigue keeps you guessing until the end, it is only when these things are interrupted by another mission that the game starts to drag.
Michael Thorton's ongoing quest to stop the all consuming giant moon.
Obsidian tried hard to make this game an RPG. There are stats you level up and perks you can unlock. It also follows the shooter/RPG staple of not letting your shots hit even if your crosshair is centre on the target. Most guns are so inaccurate that it is pointless to use them; the only decent ones are pistols, which if you level up enough can score a one hit kill headshot. Stealth is a big focus here, but it is ruined by bad AI. The enemies patrol the same paths and never seem to react dynamically to situations. Bodies disappear, stealth take downs are far too powerful and it is ultimately far too easy.
For an RPG and a game seemingly about choice, one frustrating aspect is how the game herds you into using stealth and pistols, if only by the sheer ineffectiveness of other approaches. This is fine, as the game is a spy thriller after all, but not when the game throws a curveball in the form of a boss encounter. You spend the whole game levelling up stealth and pistols, when suddenly you are faced with a boss with a health bar four times larger than usual. All of a sudden he can see you even if you use your stealth abilities, and your pistol can hardly damage him. When a game spends 90% of the time telling you to do things one way, only to present you with a situation your abilities can’t match – that is bad design.
Michael Thorton visits generic industrial area #4685.
There are positives to this game, the dialogue being one of them. You can choose from three different ‘stances’ when conversing with someone, each being a different attitude, from professional and witty, to absolute bastard. You have a certain amount of time to make your decision in, which is a nice change to games like Mass Effect where the NPC’s stare blankly at you until you answer. Story choices are also abundant, and they feel like they have actual consequences. You can choose to spare certain people, take one approach to another or keep items for yourself rather than following protocol and turning them over. This is one of the few games where it feels like these decisions have impact; they genuinely do affect the story and don’t just amount to a small cut scene later on.
As mentioned before, one of the games drawbacks are its animations. In fact, the graphics as a whole don’t stand up well for a 2010 game. When crouching Michael Thornton looks plain ridiculous, it all feels like something from 2002, not 2010. Textures take a while to load in and character models are outright poor. This game just does not look good, which is a bit of a shame.
There is no getting past it, Alpha Protocol is buggy, rushed and bursting with AI and gameplay issues. For all the good story ideas and intrigue they had, Obsidian ruined what could have been a fun game with an unpolished package. When you are playing this game you feel disappointed, not that you wasted your money or that the game is bad, but because it had so much potential. If this game had been supported by more competent developers and given time to reduce the bugs, it could have been worth something. But as it stands, Alpha Protocol is a testament to the fact that a game may have a good story and decent ideas, but if the gameplay isn’t up to scratch – don’t bother.
- Story time: A unique and interesting story, with decisions that matter.
- Fitting music: The soundtrack fits the game, at least they got this right.
- This job’s no fun: Atrocious AI and poor level design make missions a chore to play.
- Lack of polish: Graphical glitches and poor animations show that the game desperately needed polish.
- RPG aspects lacking: Despite being an RPG, the actual RPG elements aren’t fleshed out enough.
- Bad gameplay: The gameplay is downright poor, you’ll only be playing this game for the characters and the story.