With creative developers Obsidian at the helm of the game that has been billed as a spy role playing game (a first if there ever was one). Alpha Protocol aims to do something familiar but different. Taking aspects from third person action games and then adding in RPG elements, offers a more in depth method of of killing bad guys and saving the day like any other game hero. What is perhaps a little more fleshed out and diverse in this game compared to its peers – that’s even if it has any, is the attention to detail with the story, something that in many cases takes a back seat with action games but is prominent in RPGs. With games such as KOTOR 2 and Neverwinter Nights 2 under their belts, do Obsidian have the skill to make the huge undertaking and highly ambitious task of Alpha Protocol work and be regarded as a great game for RPG fans, and even action gamers?
This is a tricky one to dissect and perhaps pigeon hole because the game’s RPG approach means you’re presented with a vast array of play options. From the offset you get to choose a character class which to a degree dictates how you’re going to play, although with some clever choices made by the player it’s entirely possible to shift focus on the fly. With options to create a stealth based character, or one that excels in hand to hand combat, to the opposite end of the spectrum with characters skilled in shooting and being as tough as nails. There’s lots of scope for experimentation with regards to how you approach each mission. What has to be made clear on all aspects of developing the skills of your character is that like any RPG, it takes time to reap the rewards. Starting the game as a basic character Michael Thornton who comes with little to no skills means your experience is somewhat muted until you level up some more and pump points into those areas which compliment your playing style. You’ll gain XP points for a number of tasks, beyond mere completion of missions; things like picking locks, hacking terminals and even collecting information which unlocks side missions. You’ll frequently see the level up indicator and although the game has some 20 levels, their appearance seems to come at the right moments to keep you from being overwhelmed or perhaps too powerful.
There’s a lot of choices with the levelling up and development of skills which in turn dictate how you are best suited to tackle missions, but what’s good is the ability to think outside of your zone and try something else. One great example of this is the hacking and lock-picking mini games which are fun in their own right if you’ve got the patience. They can get ridiculously tough, and if you’ve not pumped your points into the ‘Sabotage’ skill tree can prove problematic if you’ve got alarms going off and no means to shut them down due to not being able to complete the mini game. However, rather than punish you and laugh at your foolishness, you’ve got other options. A more action orientated character might just say screw the alarms and get a more action orientated response from the enemies. However, if you’re a stealth based character where one or two shots means death, then the option to silence alarms, crack safes and hack computers using gadgets is a worthy and easy option to take.
This is where the game excels in giving the player choices galore, in character development, in how you tackle missions and in how you respond to the characters in the story. Whilst the plot might be a little cliché and perhaps this is deliberate, the game does throw a number of choices your way so that you can adopt a suave James Bond type response, a professional Jason Bourne inspired outlook or the aggressive one man on a mission rebuttal in conversations. It’s certainly not black and white and with the option to mix things up means you’ll get different results depending on who you’re talking to. You’re not thrown into the fray blindly though as the game has enough background information so that your choices are more informed than going in blindly, however, again it’s your choice to dig deeper or ignore them and create your own path when dealing with the shady characters throughout the game.
What is neat is the option to visit the three main areas of the game at will once you’ve beaten the initial training and opening missions. You’ll visit Moscow, Taipai, Rome and can choose missions in each area as you see fit, although it’s not recommended if you’re easily confused. The missions are reasonably varied, although this is largely down to how you play the game. It’s certainly very rewarding to go pure stealth and not kill anyone as an example.
There’s plenty to kill with if you do so choose, with toys available of a typical nature such as pistols, shotguns and assault rifles amidst a bevy of grenades and mines. There’s also your fists if you like to get up close and personal after tossing a few flashbangs into a crowd. What is quite in depth is the option to customize weapons with things like silencers, magazines, sights and parts to improve their overall handling. There’s certainly plenty to do each time you visit the safe-houses between missions including checking emails which adds some additional depth the to the game, especially as you can often send responses based on the type of stance you’ve adopted.
Alpha Protocol sticks very close to the role playing elements to make the game distinct and varied as an action game, however after hours of playing and for some players even within the opening moments, cracks begin to rear their ugly head. The overall look of the game looks pretty decent when hooked up to a small monitor, but when connected to a HD TV you’ll notice some low res textures and a lack of decent lighting and shadows. With other games using the same Unreal Engine, it’s a shame Obsidian didn’t push the graphics further. The character models for the main players are good with some interesting detail, but things like animations which look more goofy than anything, and silly graphical glitches presents a game which feels unpolished. Considering the years the game has taken to develop, it’s a shame these imperfections haven’t been addressed. There’s some bad clipping where characters move through solid walls, the camera can be a little too close when in confined spaces, and on occasion enemies will get stuck on each other or bits of scenery and at times act in unusual ways in terms of movement.
Overall the audio is well produced with some decent voice acting (albeit a little cliche) from the numerous cast members, although one is a mute and therefore has an easy time of thing.Leading character Thornton, who you’ll hear most often is typically a like or loath type character. The sound effects are good, and there’s some excellent music that is fitting to the missions you’re on to drive you onwards.
The game is a single player only affair but due to its role playing roots means you won’t be finishing in a mere six hours. expect to play for a lot longer (possibly 18-20 hours) on the first play and then factor in the replay value which is very high indeed due to choices you make through the game having a distinct effect on events in the future. The skills you choose also means, playing a second or third time can offer a different experience.
Alpha Protocol is actually a very good game deep down, but perhaps a little too ambitious in its execution. There are some genuinely great ideas on offer here such as the choices you make having an effect on future events, the gameplay changing skills and the diverse cast of characters, however the technical aspects let things down. Fiddly controls to access skill powers, stiff movement and poor camera placement which hampers gameplay, enough glitches to make you notice far too often and some unusual design choices which seem a little too random – such as guards not spotting you when you’re out in the open and not on their level of view.
If you can ignore these shortcomings and take the game at face value, then Alpha Protocol offers an encompassing adventure that will keep you intrigued and glued to the TV. Like any cheesy spy flick, the game has all the right ingredients to keep you entertained. It’s a shame the overall levels of polish aren’t as ambitious as the rest of the game. For gamers who are after another third person action game, you might be left a little underwhelmed at the lack of skills in the opening moments of the game. However, give it a chance and you’ll be rewarded. If patience isn’t your forte, then perhaps you should look elsewhere. For RPG fans, there’s a fair bit of action to sink your teeth into, namely some aggressive boss fights, but with all the tinkering you can do with the character, you’ll find a rewarding game that allows for multiple ways of approaching tasks.