Alpha Protocol is not a great game, in fact by many accounts, it’s not even a good one. What it is, however, is an ambitious mess that compels nearly as much as it infuriates; for every clever idea there’s an equally inexplicable one. Despite these realities, Alpha Protocol remains a refreshing alternative to the sea of third-person shooters available, assuming you’re willing to brave these choppy waters.
Cast in the role of former CIA operative Michael Thornton, Alpha Protocol immediately thrusts players into its present day spy fiction. Waking up drugged and in a strange facility, it’s quickly evident that face value acceptance of the events and people that populate Thornton’s world is unwise – unless you enjoy the feeling of betrayal. Engaging Thornton’s handlers and superiors at the agency serves as an adequate appetizer. It introduces the ropes of conversation and lays the groundwork for the single friendship that will help define the sort of agent you will become.
Alpha Protocol combines elements of cover based third-person shooters, stealth-action titles and role-playing to create a distinct hybrid effort – Mass Effect, with contemporary spies, would not be a wholly unfair comparison. Given the history of the developer, Obsidian, it’s no real surprise that the role-playing third of the title, specifically the conversations and relationships, is the strongest aspect of Alpha Protocol. By making dialogue choices quick-time events, essentially, conversations never fall into that tempo breaking lull where the player pauses to weigh their options. The timer forces a choice to be made quickly, which requires players to pay attention to what NPCs are saying and also how they’re saying it.
Building relationships and gaining reputation – good or bad – depends heavily on having the appropriate responses. Finding intel and testing different tones with an NPC is essential to find what they respond well or poorly to – though in-game actions can also hurt/help individual reputations as well. Building a friendly rapport or pissing someone off can each have their own benefits, which are clear from the many small consequences that are triggered in-game, but early on your boss claims there may be negative repercussions if someone becomes too fond of you – I’m still waiting to see those consequences. As fun as it is to con NPCs and romance women, it’s still very binary and vapid. Although there are often three or four dialogue options at one time there’s still usually only one correct mood per character, and once you’ve found it you can leave the controller defaulted to that button and generally be alright.
As an action title, Alpha Protocol feels equally restricted and shallow. As a straight-up shooter, it’s difficult to truly enjoy running and gunning since the mechanics are laid on top of RPG guts, meaning your physical ability to line up crosshairs is only half of the equation. Having to fight against your character’s various weapon proficiencies makes stealth the most desirable and logical route.
From the very moment you perform your first silent takedown it’s evident just how good stealth is, and how broken it might be. One of the first passive skills you get is called Evasion, which makes you temporarily invisible if you’re spotted. This allows stealth players to be careless, but also by my estimates, masks the weirdness of being spotted in cover, which is something that happens in Alpha Protocol more often than it appears it should. But, even if you’re sighted, one of your other abilities such as Shadow Operative (full invisibility) or Chain Shot (time freezing multi-kill shot) can quickly get you out of danger. To combat just how good a lot of the Skills are each has a substantial cool down period, but if you’re patient enough, you can generally wait them out and have them ready for any engagement.
The other aspect that makes stealth the definitive choice is the enemy AI; the opposing forces have the absolute worst peripheral vision in game history. Stealth killing a single guard within five feet of another that is facing the same direction will not alert the dimwitted comrade. The kill itself, the short cry of terror, the tossing aside of the body, none of it will alert his friend, and don’t worry, the body will disappear in a few moments, no need to clean up after yourself. It’s almost as if their vision was comically reduced on purpose because of the amount of cramped corridors to bypass, in-between the small sandboxes that make up any stealth title, which they still expect you to sneak through.
Speaking of those sandboxes, Thornton’s severely restricted ability to traverse these locales is a serious detriment to their enjoyment. For some ridiculous reason Michael Thornton is incapable of vaulting over waist high obstacles, including crates, sandbags, whatever. This forces players out into the open, when the simple act of stepping over a small barricade can spell the difference between cover and detection. Infuriatingly, Obsidian has chosen specific drop points on multi-leveled stages, meaning if you want to jump down behind someone, you can only do it from predetermined places. These restrictions are lazy, arbitrary attempts to balance Alpha Protocol’s stealth gameplay.
Still, despite the many, many shortcomings, Alpha Protocol is weirdly compelling. The narrative is structured in a manner where Thornton’s actions are recounted in an interrogation, which creates some interesting foreshadowing, comparable to the manuscript pages of Alan Wake. The fates of characters are teased, pulling you into the following mission, just so you can decide who lives or who dies. And that is ultimately what makes Alpha Protocol much more than the sum of its hackneyed parts: fate. You may not care what happens to Thornton personally, or any of his associates, but it instills a weird sense of duty on the player; you’ll likely want to see how it all plays out, if only for morbid curiosity’s sake.
Alpha Protocol is not the deeply customizable espionage-RPG it was billed to be: your choice is stealth. It’s clear that Obsidian bit off more than they could chew and it’s those lofty aspirations that make the game so infuriating, because it simply never achieves them. Still, it’s difficult to write the game off completely. Despite being a mediocre shooter, a broken stealth title and an above average dating sim, Alpha Protocol is a far more engaging experience than it has any right to be – assuming your agent Thornton is a glass half-full sort of guy.