Published by SEGA, Obsidian Entertainment’s Alpha Protocol, branded as an “Espionage RPG”, tries to blend the kind of stealth action found in Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell with the narrative structure and character development found in Western role-playing adventures such as Mass Effect, and the result is unfortunately a very rough mix. Technical errors, a dated look, and emotionless narrative all combine to deliver an experience that, while lengthy and occasionally interesting, is ultimately unsatisfying.
After such a delay-riddled wait for Obsidian’s latest release, is there a silver lining to this flawed title? Read on to find out.
Alpha Protocol begins with a very short introduction and a quick thrust into control of the protagonist, Michael Thorton, as he wakes up from a drug-induced sleep in an unknown location. After playing through a quick showcase of many of the game’s features (and major technical hiccups), Mike is revealed to have been undergoing a test as a recruit for a secret organization. After getting acquainted, Mike is sent off for training missions and the player is introduced to the breadth of RPG elements.
To be honest, there’s not much to it. Mike has a small range of skills revolving around different activities such as stealth, martial arts, weapon specialization, tech aptitude, etc., with active and passive skills becoming available as points are placed into each attribute. If you pick one of the four “classes” before the game starts, some of these will already be placed. If you start as a “recruit”, however, you will have to begin with none.
Even after this short bit of exposure, the underwhelming nature of the game’s presentation has already become noticeable. Environments are bland and typically over-lit, as though some bloom setting had been set just slightly too high, and this becomes much more evident when you’re placed in more natural environments. Voice acting is passable, but never rises to its potential.
As you’re introduced to each character, you’ll also be introduced to the dialogue-choice system, which revolves less around specific responses than it does a general attitude. Different characters take a liking to different attitudes, which is important to keep in mind as you build relationships with each. For instance, one female character prefers you stay in a professional mindset, while another, male character prefers you to be the joking, nonchalant sort.
The system, while sometimes vague, appears to proceed along the track the player wishes, and dialogue is about as involved and occasionally interesting as that found in Mass Effect or similar titles. Tense situations can often be made much worse or even completely resolved if Mike keeps the right attitude with his adversary, and can even convert a few into being his allies as the plot proceeds.
A lot of attention is paid to how Mike responds to different situations, and almost every action has consequences that will show up later, sometimes good, sometimes catastrophic. Making friends and allies can end up netting you extra help later on, be it in the form of supplies or cooperation on a mission.
The plot twists and turns in all the ways typical of a good spy movie, with plenty of unexpected twists and odd consequences for actions, but never is it presented in a way that feels totally out of the player’s control. Effects the player has on the nature or difficulty of a mission are in some way directly tied to the player’s way of handling things, so even though you may end up surprised, it isn’t hard to determine how these twists came to be, and in that way the plot can be very intellectually stimulating. Corporate plots, terrorism, and government secrecy all play a big role in how events unfold.
However, it simply lacks emotion. Most characters sound bland and largely uninvolved in what’s going on, with most lines spoken in a very matter-of-fact, “stay on the mission” tone. Mike actually cracks more than a few jokes, but given the seriousness most of the dialogue seems to have, he comes across as exceptionally awkward.
As with any espionage story, to talk too much about the plot would risk spoiling several key events. Just know that while your choices certainly affect the details of your journey, on the whole none of the major developments are left up to the player. No matter how you choose to handle some missions, the outcome will in some general way be the same, and you will end up sneaking around in the same locales no matter what.
It is this sneaking around which Alpha Protocol bases its gameplay, and unfortunately it simply doesn’t get it right. The fairly shallow skill system feels like little more than an arbitrary barrier, as until his skills are highly developed, Mike will be woefully inaccurate with nearly every weapon. He will be spotted almost immediately by every enemy, and will even lack abilities to get himself out of the fight.
Once developed, instead of becoming a more stealthy agent, Mike gains inexplicably super-human abilities. “Shadow Operative”, for example, literally turns Mike invisible as long as he is crouched and performs no hostile action for a limited amount of time. These abilities, when compared to tactics used in typical stealth games, just don’t measure up; they feel like unnecessary add-ons to compensate for the lack of depth.
When you’re spotted, you’ll quickly see that something is wrong with your adversaries. The AI is, in a word, erratic. Sometimes they out-maneuver you with skill, sometimes they literally stand still and look off in the distance, waiting for you to pick them off.
When alerted, unless the player makes an immediate escape, the AI will gain an almost super-human awareness of where they are, closing in with ruthless efficiency. Fortunately for the player, this sometimes results in them surrounding Mike and then promptly blasting each other and/or staring off into space, giving them a chance to take them out. Even in the final mission of the game, I would witness enemies getting stuck behind cover, swarming and then killing each other by accident, and even disappearing and reappearing several feet in the air.
When you’re not busy getting swarmed by guards, you’ll be spending most of your time watching Mike’s stiffly animated back-end bob up and down as you make your way to each new hiding spot, as the camera is zoomed in rather awkwardly. Most character animations are poor, and the enemies’ movements appear to lack a few frames. The cover system works most of the time, but gives no clue as to which surfaces are usable and which are not. Top all that off with enemies appearing and re-appearing, lighting changing angles inexplicably, and people occasionally falling through objects, and you’ve got a recipe for bad presentation.
Overall, Alpha Protocol is simply underwhelming. Poor AI, equally shallow stealth and RPG elements, a bland presentation, and stiff characters all make for a dull experience. Though the narrative has some strong points, and much detail was given to the system of choices and dialogue, it appears the rest of the game lacked even half the same treatment. Various bugs and odd behavior contributes to a feeling that Obsidian didn’t put much effort into making sure their product was solid.
It should be noted that I played Alpha Protocol on the PC, and though the PC usually boasts better visuals than its console counterparts, the game still looked old and bland, and my mouse control was inexplicably jerky. I had to play with a 360 controller, as I could find no solution to this problem.
Dated graphics, stiff and sometimes jerky animations, and largely emotionless characters make for dull insight into a dull world. The seriousness of the plot is undermined by awkward jokes and a lack of emotional involvement.
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Sneaking and shooting are both clunky and awkward thanks in large part to the artificial limits imposed by the RPG elements. Enemy AI lacks any kind of consistency, and is in many ways bugged. Dialogue and choice system, however, is well done.
Music is appropriate, and rises and falls at proper times. Most tracks are forgettable, but do a good job of creating tension where the characters often falter.
Once completed, the player will know all the major twists and turns of the game, with choices affecting a moderate amount of details. Alternate character classes aren't really worth exploring, and difficulty settings do little more than up the damage.
It could have been a lot worse, but for all its worth, the game simply doesn't deliver enough of an experience to keep the player wanting more. A dull experience rife with technical flaws and badly-combined mechanics.