Obsidian Entertainment and Sega are out to prove that RPG’s aren’t just for sword and sorcery epics anymore with Alpha Protocol, a modern day espionage story. Alpha Protocol is an ambitious game that takes some cues from the Mass Effect series. However it also underwent a rather unorthodox last minute delay last October that saw the game get pushed back all the way to earlier this June. One would think that all that extra time would have really helped to create an outstanding role playing experience. Unfortunately, Alpha Protocol misses the mark in some key areas. Let us explain:
Alpha Protocol is centered around a new recruit to a covert agency named Michael Thornton and is played in a series of flashbacks. That agency’s name? Alpha Protocol. After his initiation rites, Thornton is hand picked to undertake an operation to Saudi Arabia to assassinate the leader of the terrorist group Al-Samad. Unfortunately things go very wrong and Thornton is forced to flee as a rogue agent.
After Saudi Arabia, players can walk their own path for a while with a series of missions in Rome, Moscow and Taipei to choose from. Which order you complete these missions is much less important than how you complete them. Players can choose to make alliances with certain NPC’s. They can also choose to either execute enemies, bring them to justice, or try to turn them into allies. All of these actions will change the game’s narrative and will make each player’s game feel more unique to them.
One of the ways players can change the narrative is with the game’s dialog system. Much like the dialog wheel in the Mass Effect games, players will choose a stance rather than pick from lines of dialog. Where the dialog system varies in Alpha Protocol is that players are only given a limited amount of time to choose a stance and often the game autosaves immediately after the choice is made. This locks players into having to make a snap judgment of what is appropriate for the given circumstances and forces them to live with the consequences of their actions.
As with most western RPG’s, players can customize their character to a certain extent. Players can make some changes to Thornton’s appearance, but visually the customization options are not nearly as varied as many other western RPG’s. Where the customization really branches out is in the character’s skill tree. Players can choose what type of spy they can be depending on which skills they choose. Also available to players were a handful of templates to choose from with which to base their characters. Players could choose to be ex-soldiers, specializing in weapons training. They could also choose a spy background, featuring skills in stealth and martial arts. The third template offered the tech whiz, which improved a character’s hacking and skill with a number of gadgets. We chose to take the stealth approach.
Story wise, Alpha Protocol delivers. The options available to the player, combined with good writing and an interesting plot make for an enjoyable experience. Unfortunately where Alpha Protocol fails is in the gameplay.
One of the first thing players will notice is that aiming just doesn’t feel right. The reticule seems to almost move a little too slow. And even when you line up the perfect shot, there’s no guarantee you’ll hit anything. While some veteran RPG players will recognize this as a simulated “dice rolling” mechanic hidden in the game’s background, this is still incredibly frustrating to the average gamer. Most gamers will feel like if they can line up a headshot, then that should be good enough to register a headshot. Once players begin to unlock perks through their skill tree, combat becomes less cumbersome. However using most perks will require a cooldown time, which can leave players right back with the shoddy aiming mechanics.
Combined with the inconsistencies in the game’s aiming mechanics, players will also discover some questionable enemy A.I.. Enemies will sometimes not see players walking right towards them for an easy silent takedown, and other times when players will think they’re completely hidden they’ll find themselves taking fire from enemies who should not be able to see them. Add to this the occasional framerate drop and combat in Alpha Protocol can be very frustrating.
Alpha Protocol also features a number of minigames and puzzles for computer hacking and lock-picking. These minigames, while conceptually interesting, don’t seem to work as well in actuality. Untenable time limits and imprecise controls can make these minigames some of the most frustrating portions of the entire game. Players may find themselves sneaking quietly through a level with the objective of hacking the information out of a computer terminal or stealing documents from a safe. After succeeding in avoiding detection through an entire level, failing at the overly difficult minigames will cause the alarms to go off, leading to much player frustration and the occasional broken controller.
Lastly, we couldn’t let a review of Alpha Protocol slip by without bringing up the graphics. For a game using the Unreal Engine 3, Alpha Protocol just doesn’t look up to snuff. Everything looks just a little bit washed out, whether it’s the characters or the backgrounds. On top of that the draw time on the textures was much slower than one would expect. This would lead to quite a bit of texture popping. Clearly a little more polish could have been used to pretty up the visuals.
Honestly, we had high hopes for Alpha Protocol. We were intrigued by the concept and by Obsidian’s RPG pedigree. But unfortunately much of Alpha Protocol falls short of the mark. Inconsistencies in combat, enemy A.I. and overly difficult minigames seriously hamper what could have been a very good overall experience. Despite all that, we enjoyed the story and might be drawn back in for a continuation of the franchise if some of the more serious gameplay flaws can be addressed in the future.
Overall Score: 6.5/10