Alpha Protocol PC Review
Live and Let Live, or Live and Let Die. Your Call.
In the seven years since Obsidian Entertainment was founded by some of the most highly regarded RPG developers and designers in history, the company has produced only two games, both of which were sequels to another company’s products that used intellectual property belonging to a third company. As good as Knights of the Old Republic II and Neverwinter Nights 2 were, they left consumers with questions regarding Obsidian’s previous legacy of creativity at Black Isle Studios and concerns over whether the developer would stop releasing buggy games in a modern console-driven world that refuses to put up with glitches and crashes. With Alpha Protocol, all those fears are put to rest. Obsidian and SEGA have created a polished, one-of-a-kind RPG that pushes the boundaries of storytelling, customization, and role playing in a third person shooter so far, they may well have invented a new type of game that others will rush to imitate.
To date, Alpha Protocol is the best spy game ever made. It plays out like a fast-paced action flick with little downtime during or between scenes. Michael Thorton, the star of the show, joins the secret group Alpha Protocol to work for the US government as a spy handling missions too politically sensitive or unethical for high visibility organizations like the CIA or the military. With a sense of urgency common in movies and television, but lacking in RPGs, Thorton infiltrates strongholds, meets mysterious contacts, and interrogates crime lords to gain intel on the current location’s situation. Ultimately, he travels around the world in a frantic attempt to prevent World War III.
The game infuses a movie-like atmosphere into an RPG perfectly. Alpha Protocol has a safe house in each area Thorton visits. Between missions, he can check his e-mail for leads and information on the area, talk to his handler, purchase weaponry or more information through his computer, and select which mission to tackle first. Initially, the missions are all related to gathering more intel through activities such as hunting down well-defended sources, meeting a stranger in public and trying to pry intel from him through conversation — civil or otherwise, or sneaking into another intelligence agency’s base in the area and downloading their files or bugging their systems. Depending on how the missions go and how effectively Thorton obtains information, new missions open up allowing him to follow leads, gain more intel, kill off enemies, or assist knowledgeable friends. A sequence of missions in an area, called an operation, ends with a final assault, a boss fight, and a conclusion to that location’s problem that’s influenced by the decisions Thorton made.
When Thorton converses with someone, before he opens his mouth and often while another character is still talking, the player has two seconds to press a button and indicate how Thorton will speak his next line. One option gives him a suave, joking manner. Choosing this will result in sarcastic, flirtatious, or devil-may-care lines. A second option causes Thorton to speak in an emotional, rude, usually angry or irritated way that fits with the urgent nature of his task, as though the world will end in five minutes and the other person is wasting his time. The final option is a flat, professional tone that lacks personality; cold and businesslike, Thorton will speak tersely and get right to the point without losing his temper or being offensive. This constant interaction, and the short timeframe given to decide on how to handle each line of dialogue, draws you into the experience and makes you listen to every word. Maybe it’s best to tick off a contact in the hopes that, once angered, he will divulge useful information. Maybe Thorton should get on his good side instead and hope he shares information openly. Dossiers on NPCs provide clues on their personalities and can unlock conversation options if they are complete, so you might have an idea before meeting a new person how he will react to different attitudes. The game keeps track of each NPC’s disposition toward Thorton and displays it on the screen when it changes during conversations, so if he offends someone you want to make peace with, his manner of speaking can be changed on the spot to get a more desirable result.
While western RPGs typically encourage the player to role play as a consistently good or evil character, Alpha Protocol neither tracks nor encourages this. Since conversations and interrogations exist to gain knowledge on current events, it’s logical that Thorton would change his mannerisms to fit the moment. Acting calm in one scene, easily angered in another, and cracking jokes in the next is not bluntly inconsistent as it would be in a BioWare title; Thorton comes across as manipulating the people around him rather than awkwardly changing his personality, and the excellent writing and voice acting make this work in the same way Sean Connery can be a womanizer, an angry interrogator, or a calm professional depending on the situation. On the other hand, a player may wish to make Thorton an arrogant, cocky jokester in every cutscene and see where that takes him in the game.
The storytelling greatly benefits from an absent morality slider. Throughout the game there are choices to make regarding whether or not to execute people, let them go, or arrest them. Everyone is a criminal in some way, and in that sense executions are justified. However, if Thorton spares people he’ll gain cash and possibly other benefits. The first such choice in the game comes when Thorton has an arms dealer at gunpoint. Capture him and he’ll talk, which provides intel. Extort him, and he’ll provide weapons and cash. Execute him and he can’t sell weapons to terrorists. There are also in-mission decisions where Thorton must choose between chasing after a villain or rescuing a hostage, or whether to download intel that could save a key figure, or stop a riot. Of course, in the moment of the decision, you have no idea how exactly this will impact the story. Maybe the hostage can save himself without you. Maybe it’s a trap. Maybe even with the right intel Thorton still can’t stop an assassination. Extrapolate this across the entire game’s set of characters and you have dozens of people to potentially kill, befriend, capture, leave to die, or extort. The developers claim there are numerous branching paths depending on how such choices are made and with whom Thorton allies. Because befriending one source can cut off the option to ally with another, the order in which missions and operations are played has a major impact on the story too.
The battle system is a third person shooter, and not in the Mass Effect way where magical powers can be used by players who don’t want to sneak, use cover, and aim all game — Alpha Protocol is a 100% full out, third person shooter. More importantly, it’s a great third person shooter that gives the top games in the genre a run for their money. The spy mechanics are fast and slick. Focus on stealth, and Thorton can sprint up to a group of enemies and slit all their throats before they know what’s coming. Focus on heavy weaponry, and he can run and gun to take out a room full of foes. Focus on tech skills and a single flashbang or incendiary grenade tossed from around a corner can incapacitate an opposing force before they realize Thorton is there. The missions are diverse and present the player with many unique situations. No matter his specialty, there will be times where Thorton needs to be stealthy, face an assault of alerted soldiers, or use gadgets, and a minor downside here is that there are missions where an overly specialized character will suffer through some less than ideal scenarios. The gameplay changes up so often between different types of infiltration missions, missions which are simply conversations, and missions that lie somewhere inbetween that it never gets old or tiresome throughout the twenty or so hours it takes to complete the game.
All the choices and customization options make Alpha Protocol extremely replayable. Cash is tight and the best weaponry is expensive, so deciding whether to purchase an awesome gun, the best armor, or stick to an arsenal of middling equipment is a major decision. There aren’t nearly enough ability points granted over the course of the game to upgrade everything. Depending on how you want to play, you’ll have to carefully consider what abilities are the most important ones to improve. For example, leveling stealth to a certain point grants the skills needed to have any hope of moving undetected. For Thorton to have a chance of surviving incoming gunfire in later missions and boss fights, toughness needs several levels. Leveling weapon skills greatly improves their ability to handle tricky situations. Again, it’s a major decision choosing whether to max out a category or two or to level up several skills a third of the way. It’s worth an extra playthrough just to try out all the combat options the game has to offer, not to mention exploring the different story paths and finding out what happens when you let different characters die, or live, and how gathering intel differently impacts the plot.
Alpha Protocol has its flaws, though. As great as the story is, it’s oddly devoid of jaw-dropping, breath-taking moments. It would have been amazing if it slowed down the pace just once or twice to provide some emotional gut-punches. The controls for sticking to cover can be slippery, sometimes latching Thorton onto an object with his body exposed, which completely defeats the purpose of using cover. Unsticking from cover is harder than it should be too, which is crucial when you only have a few seconds to take out a group of stunned or unaware enemies. The menu interface feels designed for consoles rather than a PC’s keyboard and mouse, which is the best reason to go for the 360 or PS3 version instead. Also, using the keyboard to quickly do many things at once is awkward with only five fingers on the left hand, although it was only a noticeable issue during very tough fights. In normal combat scenarios, the keyboard controls are fine.
The game regularly stuttered when loading in the middle of missions, complete with a camera jerk that left Thorton facing the wrong direction even when the mouse was held still, but it’s impossible to know if this was related to the specific desktop used, only afflicts the PC version, or happens in all versions of the game. Although it occurred often, it was usually during slow moments and was more of a minor aggrevation than a serious flaw. A major source of frustration is the game’s overuse of boss characters as normal humans with absurd amounts of hit points and the ability to ignore bullets tearing into their bodies. This isn’t the 90s anymore — make bosses that fit in a real world setting, not an old man in a business suit who can run though the fire of three incendiary grenades while taking an entire shotgun clip to the chest before unleashing a three punch old-geezer melee combo that removes all of Thorton’s armor and most of his health.
Alpha Protocol is an excellent hybrid between a straightforward third person shooter, a tactical game like the Tom Clancy series, and a plot-driven epic like Mass Effect; it is unlike anything else on the market. The fast, smart dialogue, quick pace of combat, diverse missions, dynamic storyline, and memorable characters grab your attention and refuse to let you get bored. With double agents and plot twists, lying intel sources and backstabbers, and characters who, once befriended, will find creative ways to greatly assist you in future missions, this spy story sets a new benchmark for compelling western RPG plotlines. When the credits scrolled and everything was wrapped up, the first thing I wanted to do was start a new game, this time murdering the allies I had in my first playthrough to see how that changes things. Several years from now we may see this game as the one that made Obsidian a major player and trendsetter in the RPG space.
Dynamic plot influenced by the player
Deeply customizable spy mechanics
Polished game with no crashing or major bugs
Solid third person shooter gameplay
Boss battles are frustrating and uncreative
Cover controls don't work flawlessly