Reviewed: September 15, 2010
Released: June 1, 2010
I have to admit to being completely taken by surprise by Alpha Protocol, the latest game from RPG veterans, Obsidian Entertainment, but being caught off guard is the mark or a good Espionage RPG I supposed. I also have to admit to not being the biggest fan of the RPG genre. While I appreciate all the stats and complexities that go into these games, I seldom have the time to devote to games that can take upwards of 20+ hours to complete – such is the curse of being a game reviewer and having to play dozens of games each month. I often envy those who get to immerse themselves in these titles and explore every last nuance.|
Alpha Protocol might just change all that for me. Blending many of my favorite entertainment themes into a single game, Alpha Protocol plays out as some unique hybrid of Splinter Cell meets Mass Effect with a bit of James Bond, Jack Bauer, and Jason Bourne. The game utilizes balanced components of action, story, and complex relationship dynamics through the use of posturing and dynamic conversation threads. It is one of the few games that has ever had me feeling like a true spy.
You play as Michael Thorton, a rogue agent who has joined a covert operation known as Alpha Protocol, an agency that works “off the books” giving the U.S. the ability to handle sensitive international matters with extreme prejudice while maintaining plausible deniability. You are introduced to your character, the agency, and the state of world affairs in the rather lengthy tutorial and opening levels. This is where you will create your character, both his look and his abilities, and engage in various training sims to learn the ropes.
Once in the field, you will have various safe houses that act as hubs between missions that will take you all over the globe in search of terrorists and corporate corruption. For the most part, you are free to take on these missions in any order, creating your own unique path through the game. This not only affects your relationships with certain characters, but can also lead to numerous outcomes for the entire game creating a wealth of replayability.
One interesting dynamic is the use of handlers, your agency contact that will guide your on these missions. You have several handlers that are mission-specific and each will provide you with certain attribute bonuses during that missions provided you have a solid relationship. Relationships are a calculated result of both your actions and the conversations you have with these characters.
While it is easy to try an second-guess the game or try to force a favorable outcome, I found the best experience was to simply answer questions honestly and choose threads that I would really say – after all, this is role-playing. The DSS (Dynamic Stance System) allows you to respond, not by picking a direct answer, but by choosing between Suave, Professional, or Aggressive responses. To keep conversations flowing you have only a few seconds to choose your response before the game chooses one for you. The game is constantly shifting and shaping itself as you sculpt your environments through personal interactions. Every decision and every action is part of a much larger calculation that influences future events, sometimes the very next event and sometimes much later into the game.
As expected with any RPG, you have a multitude of stats to keep track of as well as an impressive arsenal of weapons, modifications, and ammo, plus nifty spy gadgets. Since these missions are off the books you have to pay for weapons and even the bullets you use out of your own pocket, so you will want to scour the levels for cash drops to supplement your bankroll.
Alpha Protocol tests the levels of immersion by having you regularly check emails from handlers and contacts in the field. You can also purchase Intel that will give you specific advantages on upcoming missions. One of my favorites is the option to stage a conflict away from your intended target so there are much fewer guards present. You can also purchase maps that help your find your objective and avoid conflicts.
One on a mission you will find equal parts of combat and exploration. There are plenty of pick-ups and computer to hack and locks to pick. These are addressed with mini-games that are fun the first few times but can get annoying after 30-40 times. None of these diversions are terribly difficult, and if you bolster your hacking and tech skills they will be minor interrupts at best. They play out in real-time so it can get exciting when you are trying to hack a door lock while people are shooting at you.
The visuals are a mixed back. Sometimes the game is truly impressive but for the most part we settle for above-average gameplay graphics that get the job done but never really shine. Still, I was so immersed in the story and the missions and complex character dynamic that I really never cared about the lack of stunning next-gen graphics. The HUD is clean and minimal and the stats and character screens are easy to navigate.
The audio definitely stands out with some excellent voice acting from nearly the entire cast. I am continually amazed that they can record all of these bits of dialogue out of context then have them flow together in a naturally sounding conversation. There are a few misses, but it’s mostly great stuff. The music is classic spy-thriller stuff that fits the story and the action on screen. The Dolby Digital mix does a great job of placing the sounds in 3D space and immersing you in the levels.
By design, Alpha Protocol is designed to be played numerous times, and while your paths through the game and even the outcomes will vary, I’d find it hard to replay the game anytime soon. Not that much is going to change, but it certainly would be worth a second trip a few months later. There are some fun Achievements to go after (like trying to get everyone to hate you all at the same time).
I really enjoyed Alpha Protocol, perhaps even a bit more so than its technically superior Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age competition. All of these games have pretty much the same gameplay style and level of complexity, but what really sells it for me is that I love a good spy drama, and Alpha Protocol delivers all the action and immersion of that genre while making me the star of my own espionage movie.