Alpha Protocol is a game that was delayed and bashed, even by someone who worked on the game, who stated that it should have been canceled. All this led some to believe that the game was an unfinished, buggy mess, but I find this not to be the case at all. Well, mostly.
Alpha Protocol touts itself as an “espionage-RPG” set in the modern world and dealing with modern conflicts, such as terrorism. You play as Michael Thornton and can choose one of several backgrounds to begin with, ranging from former desk jockey at the Justice department to an assassin that doesn’t really exist. The decision results mainly in what areas your character is already leveled up in, such as Stealth or Assault Rifles, although a few NPCs may make a reference to your past, depending on which choice you made. A nice touch, I thought. I personally chose a blank slate so as to have better control over my character’s development.
The story involves Thornton waking up in a secret facilty, having been recruited into Alpha Protocol, a covert organization that does what the goverment officially can’t do. After going through a few training courses to get used to the controls and game systems, in addition to meeting some of your handlers, you are sent to Saudi Arabia for your first mission.
Right from the get-go, Alpha Protocol starts throwing dialogue choices at you. Most choices are broken down into Professional, Suave and Aggressive, in order to mimic the famous spies of the silver and small screen: Jason Bourne, James Bond and Jack Bauer. Different people react to each one in their own manner and what I like is that sometimes, being aggressive and jerky will actually make certain people like you, depending on the situation. As you make these choices, (which are timed and come fast, so don’t put your controller down to take a bite of yogurt like I did) you see a notice pop-up, telling you if the person likes you more or less based on what you said.
Typically, in a game like this, you want people to like you. It’s natural for everyone, even us nerdy shut-ins. But Alpha Protocol is pretty unique in that you get benefits even if someone hates you. For example, if a certain handler likes you, you may get a bonus to your cooldown time for your skills. But if that same handler dislikes you, you get a bonus to assault rifles. I like this because it allows you to play the game organically and in a more natural way. Now, instead of trying to please everyone in order to get a bonus, I can further dive into my character’s role and really sink my teeth into the RPG aspect of Alpha Protocol, which is easily the strongest area of the game.
Also, your decisions have a major impact on the rest of the game. Several times, while speaking to someone, you get the option to spare them or execute them. Depending on what you do, the game may change radically. For instance, spare the weapons dealer and you get access to his better weapons at a discount, but so do your enemies. Kill him and you don’t get the weapons, but neither do the bad guys. There was one case where a girl was talking to me and she reached for something. The option to kill her was there, but I resisted and the benefit was that I gained her trust. I read accounts of people who thought that she was pulling a gun and shot her, which turns several other characters against you. So actions have consequences in Alpha Protocol and discovering them is a lot of fun.
The weakest point, sadly, is the gameplay. Janky is the word that crosses my mind most often, as the combat and general running around feel very much like Mass Effect-era style, but not as smooth. It’s not broken by any means, but after playing other 3rd-person shooters like Uncharted 2, Alpha Protocol is a giant step backward.
The weapons at your disposal are standard: a pistol, SMG, shotgun and assault rifle, all of which can be upgraded and new ones can be bought at a black market store. The pistol can be equipped with tranquilizer darts in order to non-lethally subdue your foes, but I found the assault rifle to be the only weapon worth using throughout the whole campaign. Through skills you acquire and upgrades, you can literally turn it into a semi-automatic sniper rifle, which made for some easy times. I think I only died twice throughout the whole game, so despite the janky aspect of it, the game is still highly playable.
The voice acting should be mentioned. The main character at first has a rather bland voice, but depending on the choices you make, his dialogue becomes more clever and he delivers the acerbic wit rather nicely. All of the voice acting is very well-done, but special mention to goes to Nolan North. Yes, once again, Mr. North steals the show with a hilarious performance as a trigger-happy agent who doesn’t think twice about pouring bleach down someone’s throat because he wants to know where he left his car keys. And that’s just the introduction to his character.
The graphics are nice, nothing to really write home about, but I was really impressed by the facial animations, which are not at all ugly. Towards the end of the game, some of the cinemas lose their quality and it is here that you see why some people who worked on the game say that it should have never been released, but it was only the a few scenes during the last hour. Noticeable, but not game ruining.
This is a difficult game to grade. I really enjoyed it, but that was despite its shortcomings, which I am very aware of. The gameplay is average, but the choices and role-playing aspect are the meat of the game and it actually drew me into the story much more than a game usually does. Also, it reminded me of Deus Ex in that you can hack, shoot or sneak your way through most levels, so having that freedom is a positive for the game. One more thing to note is that some people have complained about bugs and glitches, but I experienced none during my playthrough, which last about 10 hours or so.
In the end, Alpha Protocol could have been something truly great, but it fell short. I enjoyed playing it, but it already feels dated gameplay-wise. If this had come out in 2006, I think people would have loved it. In 2010, games that came out last year feel well ahead of Alpha Protocol. If you love a game where your choices have consequences and can live with an average 3rd-person shooter, play this game. Otherwise, skip it.
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