Sega’s been the butt of many a joke these days, what with the inconsistent quality of Sonic games and the constant release of poor licensed games. It’s therefore surprising to consider that they would take a risk on a delayed IP from Obsidian Entertainment, a developer known for profiting on sequels and expansions, and put themselves on the chopping block by promoting as “The Espionage RPG”. In some ways, this works in its favour, but this is not the killer app that Sega needed right now.
Alpha Protocol, the latest from the house that gave us Knights of the Old Republic II and Neverwinter Nights II, chronicles the entry of Michael Thorton, a rookie with player-decided traits, into Alpha Protocol, a top-secret American intelligence agency. Thorton is tasked with investigating the mysterious circumstances regarding the recent destruction of an airliner in the Middle East, but is soon thrown into a deep and complicated conspiracy with weapons dealers and corrupt government officials seeking to start a new cold war to thrive in, when in actuality the forces in question will ignite a third World War.
This game’s story plays out very much like a modern spy film (complete with brief but interesting globe-trotting adventure to Taipei, Rome, and Moscow), so bravo to Obsidian for getting the “Espionage” in “Espionage RPG” somewhat right. You have corporate suits conspiring and manipulating for the sake of profit, religious-militaristic terrorist cells with values that aren’t necessarily incompatible with yours (or rather, Thorton’s), and other groups who stand in the gray area of the moral scale. The twists and turns are dynamic, though more on that in a moment, and effective in eliciting real shock from viewers. It’s well-trodden ground, but it’s displayed impressively here.
The game’s range of key characters also manages to stand out, if only because of their variety of moral standings and the depth of the relationships that you, as Thorton, can form with them. Some will connect to you by being your handler during missions, others you may encounter during these scenarios. In this fairly condensed tale, all actions that you take toward them will have a noticeable effect later on, even leading to consequences that you may genuinely regret. It’s amazing for a developer to show its admiration and understanding of a genre of narrative by presenting it to us in such an entertaining and interactive, if not wholly original format.
What isn’t quite as masterful is the actual gameplay behind the story, which feels like the developers began to make progress before losing control somewhere down the line. First, the good: the basic RPG elements are impressive, as you get a wide variety of abilities and skills to level up with EXP that is earned from character interactions and completing objectives. The game also seems determined to get multiple playthroughs, as not all abilities and upgrades will be unlocked on the first try and there is an optional “Veteran” mode that your version of Thorton can undertake after playing through the game once.
The selling point for this game, though, is its real-time dialogue and decision system, which acts as its saving grace. It allows for players to experience freedom of choice seldom explored in games, due to its focus on three key stances (with an occasional context-sensitive fourth option), based upon the exploits of the three “J.B.’s”: Professional (Jason Bourne), Suave (James Bond) or Aggressive (Jack Bauer). These options, requiring quick decision-making, put you physically and emotionally on the spot, creating an appropriate amount of tension and influencing everything from how you experience certain events to people’s opinions of you.
Customization, last of all, is well-developed here, though more in terms of the options available than their usefulness. While in safehouses,Alpha Protocol’s equivalent of mission hubs, you can customize Thorton’s face, mission clothing, weapons and gadgets, the latter three of which can upgraded and replaced further through the safe-house computer. These computers give you access to Email and the Clearinghouse, allowing you to communicate with contacts (which could improve your relationships; another point for the dialogue/choice system) and buy equipment for missions, respectively. Whether or not equipment purchased will be helpful depends on the choices you make (whether or not to focus on stealth, speed, endurance, etc.), but the choices are plentiful and welcome.
As much as this game manages to get right, the core gameplay itself seems determined to shake up the balance with clunky, poorly implemented mechanics. Outside of the interactive cut-scenes and the safe-houses, Thorton will be tasked with varied assignments that could change on-the-fly from simple infiltrations and assassinations to escort missions and “fetch quests”. Unfortunately, this variety is undermined by inherent flaws in the combat and programming.
Thorton is controlled from a third-person angle that is a bit too close on him to be effective in spotting adversaries. The aiming is frustrating at times, as it requires the player to focus on a single target for several key seconds to take the best shot (marked by the reticle slowly turning red). Four types of weapons are available – pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles and shotguns – but only the assault rifles feel powerful enough to not be described as inaccurate, barely damaging peashooters. To add to this, Thorton has a simple one-button melee system that is hit-or-miss when in actual combat, often being blocked or missing enemies entirely, and it lacks impact when blows are landed.
Continuing to other genre conventions, the now-expected cover mechanic is finicky, with inconsistency in sticking to wall and objects and a lack of clarity on the criteria of “useable cover”. The game most definitely emphasizes stealth, yet the unlockable stealth skills seem to help very little and enemies are almost superhuman in their ability to detect you. Anyway, at some point, Thorton will get spotted by a turret, camera or wandering guard, and the mission will turn into a slaughterhouse. Movement is fairly functional, though Thorton can feel sluggish and even unresponsive at times. Frustration will definitely abound from cheap Zerg-esque tactics on the enemies’ part, but it is intensified by the uneven checkpoint system, which could potentially send you back to the beginning of the particular mission.
Not helping matters whatsoever is the artificial intelligence, which seems more concerned with the former than the latter. Enemies will either pop in and out of cover constantly or run straight at you, leading to situations that can flip-flop from being shooting galleries to close-quarters spasming. Occasional allies fair better, providing some suppression fire and diverting attention from your foes, though their tactics lack in strategic value. Enemies also appear to be bullet-sponges, with even head-shots and shotgun blasts to the chest failing to register on some foes.
As an experience, Alpha Protocol is concise and doesn’t skimp on intense action. As an RPG, though, it is somewhat lacking, clocking in at about 15 hours. Please bear in mind, though, that this is not including choosing one of the other five backgrounds (“Veteran” being one of them) or changing your approach in decision-making, but playing through this game once will show you much of the key story threads. There are also no additional modes outside of the campaign, so its value as a product is in question.
In line with the questionable gameplay, the presentation is a mixed bag. While the art design is greatly varied and truly impressive for modern games, textures appear low-res and take time to pop-in during loading times. The character models also have good and bad traits: they emote well and definitely have detailed expressions, but their clothing and bodies seem stiff at times.
The voice acting is definitely favourable overall, though Josh Gilman’s take on Thorton is a bit dry (this could be seen as a positive, too, since it adds to his professional charm and wit). The sound effects are acceptable but not outstanding, and the soundtrack varies based on the context, with intense instrumentals during shoot-outs and more melancholic tones at intimate times.
Calling Alpha Protocol a great game would be an insult to developers and products that rightfully deserve that honour. This experience was, at times, frustrating, buggy and on the verge of unbearable, yet it manages to be retain a level of decency due to certain sane-minded design choices and narrative techniques. While I can’t whole-heartedly recommend supporting the product in this form, it is worth a rental or borrow. If nothing else, it’s a week or two’s worth of distraction until something more refined and worthwhile comes along. Sorry, Sega, you lost this battle.