There are plenty of great moments in Alpha Protocol. In a split second, rouge agent Michael Thorton needs to decide whether to save the life of the Taiwanese president or the hundreds of people in the crowd. Earlier in the game, Thorton chooses whether to execute a known arms dealer, arrest him or let him go for a bribe. There are ramifications for such decisions.
For every intriguing decision, three times as many stupid moments arise from the weak gameplay. Enemies act like keystone cops, comically climbing up and down ladders whilst getting shot. Some bosses fail to move entirely, and nasty villain got stuck floating above his henchman’s head. The gameplay is flawed, and the main character is a smarmy tool no matter what dialogue options are chosen.
This represents the dichotomy of Alpha Protocol, the self-described “espionage RPG.” The RPG elements, with branching plotlines, distinct dialogue choices and a convoluted plot, are entertaining. Occasionally these elements combine to create something great. There are plenty of character options and loot to equip, too. The gameplay, which ranges from stealthy sneaking to action-packed firefights, fares much worse. These awkward elements make Alpha Protocol either a decent RPG or a bad action game. I’m still not sure which.
The protagonist, Thorton, is the type of agent who does a wheelie on his motorcycle as explosives erupt in the background. His dialogue options, according to developers, can either emulate James Bond, Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer. He’s a poor imitation of all three due to unconvincing voice acting and some poor writing, so he comes across as a dimwitted frat guy. After being seemingly double-crossed by his own agency, he embarks to Russia, Taipei and Rome on the trail of information, cute supporting females and a shady weapons manufacturer trying to start a war.
The plot is a needlessly intricate (yet not particularly mature), but some great characters and the aforementioned decisions make it easy to forget Thorton’s lame pickup lines. Missions can be chosen out of order from one of several safe houses, which serve as a hub. E-mail messages can be read, the TV can be flipped on for news snippets and a vast array of equipment can be purchased. It’s all very nice and RPGish, but then the gameplay inevitably begins.
Depending on how Thorton’s skill points are allocated, he can either be a heavily-armed bruiser, a sneaky spy with a pistol or something entirely different. The action route is painful due to uninspired level design and mindless enemies. With guns blazing and alarms raised, enemies practically walk into oncoming gunfire. They also take cover in plain view of Thorton’s sights. With such buffoons trying to stop Thorton, it’s hard to feel any suspense. Alpha Protocol fares better when a stealthier approach is taken. The cool power ups, one of which is temporary invisibility, makes quietly slicing the henchmen enjoyable. Sneaking around, while simplistic, creates a lot more tension than the mindless guns blazing route.
The gameplay itself is lacking, yet the RPG elements sprinkled in outside the plot takes some of the pain away. Money and weapons upgrades are scattered throughout the levels, and experience is gained by successfully hacking computers or picking locks in a minigame. The level design, which consists of empty hotels, empty street markets and empty warehouses, doesn’t do the game any favors, and a handful of original stages reveal an underlying potential that is never realized. Even when the settings are unique, like Italian ruins or a late-night party at a villa, the visuals aren’t up to scratch.
In the final stage of Alpha Protocol, all those difficult choices come to fruition as the plot takes many different paths. The endings are varied, and the events leading up the climax flow into different scenes depending on past decisions. Even the storyline, the game’s strongest feature, falls flat here. At the onset of the level, one of three different handlers to guide Thorton through the mission need to be selected. One of those available handlers is a character that was only in one level that ended in a fierce battle between the two.
How on earth did she creep back into the plot, and as a supposed ally? No explanation was given. Then again, no explanation is needed. It’s just one of the many baffling elements of a game that tried – and failed – at doing too much.