Review: Alpha Protocol (PC)
Alpha Protocol has gone through a troubled winding path to its release, including the odd choice of a delaying the release of the game on its release day back in September 2009. With that long hiatus and extra development time, I was pumped to finally get a shot at playing this action spy RPG title, but after finishing up the main story, I was left seeing how much potential was in the box, and wondering how the game could have gone so wrong. It is a game that you can see trying to be awesome, but keeps struggling under the weight of its persistent flaws.
Alpha Protocol follows the events of Michael Thorton, a rogue agent assigned to a mission to track down a shipment of missiles that are used in a plane attack. The mission seems simple enough, but at some point, as it is with all good spies, the agency he works for does a double cross on him, leaving him wanting revenge and answers. The story is easily the high point of Alpha Protocol, leading the player on a great story filled with great characters, choices and plot twists, each taking the story down a different path based on the input provided by the gamer.
The main crux of these choices is the Dialog Stance System, akin to the branching dialog tree structure used by the Mass Effect titles. However, instead of giving you dialog options to choose from, you are given stances to pick from. During a dialog with another agent, you might be given a choice to respond to an inquiry in an Aggressive, Suave or Professional manner. Each of these choices will affect how the person on the other side of the dialog responds. If they are happy with your response, you gain standing with them –if not, you end up losing favor, and they may even become hostile towards you. All of those choices do matter, as I found out during one mission in Russia. In one play, I played coy with a female Russian agent, and she agreed to work with me, adding extra muscle to my advances on a weapons factory. In another play through, I blew her off and ended up having to fight her goons as well as the guys protecting the weapons factory. You even have the option to blow off dialog completely and end up executing people if you do not want to talk to them anymore. The Dialog Stance System works great, and really makes you feel as if you are influencing the world around you.
However, the game outside of story and the Dialog Stance System ends up completely unraveling, starting with the questionable shooting mechanics of Alpha Protocol. You choose a kit from different pistols, shotguns, sub-machine guns and assault rifles, depending on the skills you decide to build up. For me, it was pistols and assault rifles, along with martial arts. It sounds great, but even with my skills completely pumped up, I could barely hit the broadside of a barn with most of my bullets. The damage to enemies seemed completely random, with some head shots dropping people instantly, while others would remove the smallest fraction of health from the enemy. If you are going to make a game that is focused on gunplay, you have to have spot on shooting mechanics, and Alpha Protocol completely misses the mark on this bullet point. Melee combat is a lot better, and normally ends up being the definitive way to take down an enemy, but you end up soaking up so much damage from enemies, by the time you get close, you are almost dead.
Of course this would be if the AI was actually capable of smart thinking. More often than not, enemies would run around in circles, shoot at everything but you, and occasionally would get caught on terrain, allowing you to mosey on up and beat the snot out of them. We all know that henchmen are suppose to be fodder for the good guys, but even in the movies, bad guys are not this stupid. End bosses are a little smarter, and normally wear armor to draw out the battles, but again, at least in one boss battle, the guy got caught on a crate and I was able to shoot him endlessly in the back of the head until he died. Not exactly what I would call a dignified death.
Another problem is the dated look of Alpha Protocol. Again, the game has been in development for several years, but I have no clue as to what they were working on, because it certainly was not the visuals or the AI. While it was nice to see that each place that you visited had its own look and style, they all looked rather bland from a graphical point. It did not help that graphical pop-in would happen far too often for a game that has been in a polish up mode for nine months. Weirder still was the fact that every NPC in the game looked really good, while Michael looked very generic. Yes, you have some customization options for Michael, but none of them are all that great, and you just seem very bland in nature.
The game also features all kinds of other miscellaneous graphical issues, like dead bodies that float through the air, or through walls and other items. Other weird happenings include physics processing issues with ragdoll bodies. At one point, I killed a guy, and when he died, he was propped up on a door, with his hand spinning around in circles after he was dead.
What makes all of these problems hurt more for Alpha Protocol is the fact that it captures the essence of the spy thriller so well. The idea of safe houses that are loaded with goodies, black market weapon dealers, a network of less that reputable informants, wire taps, puzzle games to unlock computers and locks, it is all there. You even have handlers for each mission that you go on, that can change depending on the mission type. You can see all the potential oozing out of the edges of Alpha Protocol when it comes to capturing the feel of being a spy. I loved all the potential that was lurking about this title, to the point that I kept trying to convince myself that the flaws were not all that bad. And then I ended up hitting a bad guy that died floating through a door. Alpha Protocol gets 2 out of 5 Aeropausonauts.
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