Nov 16, 2010

Alpha Protocol Review

Alpha Protocol is an action-RPG with a few novel spins from developer Obsidian Entertainment, of Neverwinter Nights 2 and, more recently, Fallout: New Vegas fame. Unlike any other game in the genre that I personally am aware of, Alpha Protocol is set in the modern day, with you playing the role of Mike Thorton, a modern super-spy of James Bondian proportions (although not quite as cool, obviously.)

Alpha Protocol suffers from a lot of the same issues as Neverwinter Nights 2 did. From a design standpoint, the game has merit (more so than the mediocre NWN2) but is let down by some serious technical shortcomings. It's a little painful really – when I played the game, I wanted so badly for it to be truly great, and it had most of the right components, but the problems with the game are far to serious to be ignored.

But first, why I wanted to like it, and what was actually good about the game. The main reason I wanted to like the game is that it has all the makings of a great spy-flick, but in a video game. Top secret government conspiracies, plot-twists, mysterious villains (or are they potential allies?) and a nefarious villain plotting to destroy the world. The script and voice-acting bring the world to life, as do the choices you get to make as a player. There is no real concern for morality in this game – just actions and consequences (and what these consequences will be is often uncertain when you have to make the decision.)

In fact, from a narrative and role-play standpoint Alpha Protocol is an exceptional title. This should be no surprise from a studio packed with ex-Black Isle Studios (Baldur's Gate, Fallout) employees. There are variety of options for how you want to play your character, the plot is interesting and unfolds beautifully and the script is spot on.

They even introduce a game-play element that is actually a fairly fresh idea. The game is pretty dialogue heavy (although not as much so as games like Risen or Dragon Age) and in most dialogues, you have some kind of goal as a player. It might be to advance the plot, it might be to get the person you're talking to to like you, or to hate you, or to get them angry. You might need information. There are a lot of different outcomes for these conversations, and it's important that you direct the conversation in the right way to get the most out of it. The game gives you limited time to choose a response, as well, so that the dialogue flows well instead of giving you infinite time to stare blankly at someone while you carefully decide what is best to say. Like a real conversation, you generally have to make up your mind fairly quickly, and sometimes you'll wish you had responded differently in hindsight.

I really liked it, and I felt like it added a lot to the game. My sole complaint would be that it uses a dialogue wheel kind of like Mass Effect, with different kinds of responses always in the same position (these are, broadly, suave, aggressive, professional and special/other) occasionally, because of it only giving you one or two words, I ended up doing something I didn't want to because I misunderstood the option. A notable example was, when trying to extricate information from someone who was being less than helpful, I was given the option to “Smash Glass.” What I thought I was going to do was break something in the environment to get the attention of the person I was talking to, and maybe intimidate them a bit. Instead, Mike grabbed a vodka bottle and smashed it over the back of the guys head with almost no provocation. Generally speaking the system works okay, but there are oddities like that which can be very annoying, especially if you don't like the consequences of your unintended actions.

So those are a lot of good reasons that I really wanted to like the game, and there are other positives too, such as missions that are open to more than one approach and a leveling up/gear system that caters to that. And I played through the entire game (and it's fairly long) and got a decent amount of enjoyment out of it. On the other hand, the game is completely broken in almost every possible way.

There's really no kinder way to put it. I was playing on PC, and I suspect some of the issues I encountered weren't there on consoles (if you have the option and want to try the game I definitely recommend a console version – and there are good reasons to try it) but the PC port was just terrible. Allow me to elaborate.

I immediately noticed pretty jerky performance despite the game not looking very good and being built on the extremely well optimised Unreal 3 engine. No problem. I turned the settings down and it was mostly okay. The next thing I noticed was that the game controls terribly – I'm talking the works here; jerky, imprecises keyboard movement, sluggish mouse support, badly implemented cover system where you constantly end up sticking to the wrong surface, or you can't get unstuck and get away in a hurry when somebody lobs a grenade over your cover, on and on and on. By far the worst was the mouse support. I have never played a game where it felt so terrible to use a mouse. I have a controller, but when I tried that, the Unreal 3 Engine's awful controller support (that only officially recognises X-box controllers) reversed the polarity of my movement thumbstick. I tried everything to fix this. Joy 2 Key and similar meant basically playing with the crappy mouse and keyboard controls but through a controller this time (even worse), inverted the stick in my drivers and Logitech software did nothing and hell, I even tried messing with game .inis after some web tips to no avail. In the end I sucked it up. Turning off mouse smoothing (which, instead of being a menu option like most games, I had to go into the .inis for again) improved the situation a little bit, but it still felt terrible, slow, and imprecise.

The menu screens were also extremely slow to navigate. Buying euqipment was especially painful. I'd open up the store. The game would lock up for a good ten seconds. I'd navigate to the page of the store I wanted. Another ten seconds. I'd flip through the items in the store to what I wanted. 15-20 seconds. Then I'd buy the item. 10 seconds. This was especially painful when you wanted something like 10 grenades or a bunch of ammo boxes. You're literally sitting there for 5 minutes+ just trying to buy some ammo.

Aside from the port being terrible and the game feeling like total shit to play most of the time, the gameplay itself was extremely dull. I loved the fact that they gave several pathways through the missions depending on your skill-set. You could be stealthy. You could hack your way through security systems. You could go in all guns blazing. It's too bad that the poor controls and frankly ridiculous AI made stealth a joke – alternately way too easy and completely impossible. It's too bad that the hacking relied on bad minigames that you'll play 9001 times each throughout the course of the game. It's too bad that going in all guns blazing turns the game into a bland cover-shooter with a crappy control system and shooting mechanics that feel terrible.

Also some of the boss battles are close to impossible without exploiting AI glitches if you play a stealth character. The game would've been so much better off without them anyway – it builds up a realistic setting and some kind of okay but still derivative gameplay but at least it sort of works kind of – and then breaks down into these awful, boring, derivative boss fights with big health bars and henchmen running in and the whole ridiculous thing, when honestly the game would've been much better suited to making cutscenes out of most of these climactic encounters. Anything but those godawful boss battles.

In the end, I got through it all, and I honestly enjoyed the game. I enjoyed the plot and the characters. I enjoyed the feeling that my choices mattered. I enjoyed getting to choose what kind of spy I wanted to play both through how I developed the character in dialogue and in how I completed missions and what skills I chose.

But I enjoyed the game in spite of the gameplay, instead of because of it, and that's a real shame.

If you think that the story and role-playing elements of this game will outweight mediocre game-play, you can get a copy over at

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