It Wasn’t That Bad! Revisiting Alpha Protocol
Before Alpha Protocol was released, the game had a lot of hype going for it. It was made by Obsidian, who had taken over Knights of the Old Republic, who were known then for their close relationship with Bioware and who were also known for their founders, who were exiles from when Black Isle was disbanded. It was their first original IP, and one that from all the previews had the potential to be a great game. It was also heavily influenced by Mass Effect and the other Bioware games. Further, it had a spy based storyline that actually looked interesting. But then the game came out after two long delays. We gave it a 4. Its metacritic score seems like it is a generous 72, which should mean the game is decent, but we know that isn’t how reviews work these days. But I remember playing through Alpha Protocol when it came out and getting very frustrated with the game. However, I also remember really enjoying parts of the game. Wondering if I was going crazy, I decided to give the game another shot.
Alpha Protocol essentially takes the same approach to skills as Mass Effect, where you have a list of possible skills, and your chosen background gives you not only bonuses to select skills, but also provides your backstory to the game. Further, the combat is somewhat similar, however the game actually has a Stealth System that, when your level is high enough, or if you’re simply careful enough (at least until later in the game), simply works. My first time through the game when it was released last year, was played with a focus on assault rifles, gadgets and melee combat. I fought through to the final boss, and then turned the game off without ever seeing the ending. While large parts of the game are deeply satisfying, let me state right now, the boss fights are almost universally broken. Assault Rifles are generally underpowered, and shotguns and Sub-Machine Guns are almost universally useless in many cases. Pistols however, are a whole other story.
The game went on sale this summer during the Steam Sale, where I picked it up on the cheap. I had originally played through Alpha Protocol on the Xbox 360, and had heard that the PC version was buggy and broken. Well the 360 version had its issues too, and I figured if it was awful, then I was only out $5. They must have patched it, as I never had a problem running the game. Most of my problems were related to the fact that the interface was terrible. The keyboard commands just aren’t intuitive, and the game, only 12 hours long, is not around long enough to really grow on you. Still, it is easy enough to fight through, and the game does allow for gamepad support, so it is a minor, if quite annoying complaint.
In the game, you are a spy. As such, you get a series of active and passive powers that can help you, from silent running to being able to see where the enemy is through walls. Some of the powers are almost entirely useless, others are very narrowly tailored to specific situation and a few others are incredibly useful. This is not Mass Effect where all of your powers have a use. The trick, I’ve found, is going into the game knowing what to choose when you level up. But I will get to that soon enough.
The thing is, the story of Alpha Protocol, while not great in the traditional sense, is a lot of conspiracy theory based fun. The twists are interesting, the plot surprisingly well thought out and most importantly, the game’s characters are almost universally interesting. Each is well fleshed out through both your interactions with them and also through your collection of dossiers. There are actually some real stand out characters in the game. Character Steven Heck may or may not be US intelligence; however he provides some excellent comic relief and adds a lot to the atmosphere of the game. Everyone in the game actually has a unique personality. From Sean Darcy, an analyst at the agency jealous of your field assignments to free-lance reporter Scarlett Lake, whom you can send Intel acquired too in exchange for money and some very funny emails, each character does their best to avoid being just a static interaction and instead remains interesting throughout the course of the game. Even the standard mysterious agency spook, Alan Parker, has some nice little character moments.
All of these characters, and also every encounter with a character outside of combat, are further deepened by the awesome conversation system. The conversation system is so good because it actually flows. Your responses are timed, and placed into categories, so you only have an approximation of what you will say. The character interaction system will let you know if you said the wrong thing too, and the relationships matter, as your interactions can actually have awesome effects and bonuses on your statistics or purchasing power on the black market. Finally, the great character depth and conversation system leads to actions that actually have consequences. Talk poorly to one character; they might not help you later on. Ignore something they say, another character might die. It is a great way to give weight to the story and to the decisions the character makes.
Still, a surprisingly great story and some nice consequences often isn’t enough to carry a game, and that is true enough for Alpha Protocol. The gameplay is where the game fell apart my first time through. So this time, I decided to take the advice of the internet and try playing the game from a different perspective than “try to sneak, then, when discovered, complain about the clearly broken stealth system and kill everything.” The first thing I found out was that the stealth system wasn’t broken; I just had not put any points into stealth to help me out. So this time, I picked Stealth as one of my core three skills, along with assault rifles and pistols. Pistols and stealth really are the only way to play through the game. You can get through it with assault rifles and shotguns, but from what I found, it was not nearly as much fun as when I was actually playing it as a spy. Pistols at higher levels allow you to aim and shoot over cover without breaking cover, and assuming you’re using a silencer, without even alerting other guards. Stealth is even better, allowing you to see which way enemies are facing through walls and telling you their alert status. Later levels in stealth make that ability permanent, but also add a skill that makes you invisible if you’re briefly spotted, or lets you go invisible for a short period of time.
Playing through the game with these skills changed the game completely. These two skills turn it from a game that was a true pain in the ass to get through into one that was actually a mostly enjoyable experience. At least it was until the last level. Alpha Protocol is an RPG, and that means the game’s enemies level with you, and so, by the end of the game, it becomes remarkably frustrating. Specifically when you line up a perfect headshot and the guard takes it, shakes it off and your stealth is destroyed because he triggered the alarm. That is not even the worst part of the game. Alpha Protocol has some of the most broken boss fights I’ve experienced in a game. Most of the boss fights are so unfair because they take you so far outside the realm of what you have been training for the entire game. I came a little too close to smashing my keyboard over one boss fight in the middle of the final level, but to be honest, it is possible to get through them. It just takes some time. Still, the boss fights, along with the almost unfair dedication to RPG principals that Obsidian has when they made their 3rd Person Shooter and the fact that a game about choice can only really be played in one way (stealth and pistols) all give adequate reasons for disliking the game.
However, the one thing is, for the vast majority of Alpha Protocol, I had a lot of fun. The game is nowhere near perfect, but for a budget game of $5 or so dollars, it is worth it for the awesome characters, the surprising story, and some of the levels and missions before the last one. Also, I apologize for all the comparisons to Mass Effect, but it really can’t be helped. The game, while fun, is still a game that shows its roots.
So in conclusion, Alpha Protocol is a game that could have been so much more. But it isn’t. That isn’t to say it isn’t really enjoyable. If you can snag it for a budget price, you might want to do so. Just remember, Alpha Protocol is a flawed game, but if you take the right perks, then it can be made into a surprisingly intriguing and fun one.