Ever since the first reports about Alpha Protocol, way back in 2008, I’ve been extremely excited about the game’s release. The concept of a Mass Effect-type RPG set in a realistic world of international espionage was one that seemed like a surefire hit, and the kind of game that would be right up my alley. Initially set for a 2009 launch, the game’s developer, Obsidian Entertainment, experienced numerous delays, and pushed the game back repeatedly. At this point, many wondered if Sega’s spy game would ever see the light of day, and if it did, whether or not it would be worth the wait. After more than a year of missed deadlines, Alpha Protocol is finally on store shelves, but after so many delays and apparent missteps by Obsidian, can the game live up to its promise? Sadly, no; not even remotely.
Ostensibly, Alpha Protocol is an attempt to marry the stealth-action genre to a western-style RPG. Players start off by choosing a background for protagonist Mike Thorton; Soldiers specialize in firepower, Tech Specialists focus on gadgets, Field Agents are experts in stealth, and Freelancers choose their own abilities. The Recruit background offers an additional challenge by starting players off with no abilities. The background that’s chosen for Thorton affects the abilities that will be available as the game progresses, and also play into several conversations during the game.
While Alpha Protocol is touted to be all about choice, there’s really no choice to be made in selecting which background to use. Players who try to play as a stealthy, ninja-like agent will be quickly disabused of the notion that this is a legitimate way to play the game. Stealth relies on upgrading your character’s abilities to make him less visible (and in some cases, completely invisible), which works fine, but it also relies on enemy NPCs and level design. Alpha Protocol’s levels are so poorly crafted that stealth becomes virtually impossible. Many sections of the game will start your character in full view of several enemies, making it impossible to remain unseen. Likewise, enemy behavior is so erratic and unpredictable that attempting to plot out moves according to their patrol patterns is a joke. This isn’t erratic and unpredictable in a smart, adaptive AI kind of way; it’s more of the walking into walls, floating ten feet off the ground, spotting Agent Thorton through brick walls kind of unpredictable, and it sucks. This leaves two methods; run and gun or gadgets. Alpha Protocol’s idea of “gadgets,” however, is a bunch of grenades, a few stun traps and a simple noise machine that can lead enemies to strategic positions. Since players almost never have the opportunity to scout a room before it fills with bad guys, setting up traps isn't really viable . Honestly, I’m not sure how Obsidian or Sega ever thought that this game would be playable as a stealth agent or a gadget expert, but as far as I can tell, neither option is really an option at all.
Sadly, while playing as a run-and-gun agent is the best choice for Alpha Protocol, it’s still not in any way satisfying. Similarly to the first Mass Effect, the game uses characters’ stats to determine whether or not shots will hit their targets instead of using a real-time battle system. The problem with the system is that early on, it feels almost impossible to hit anyone. No matter how precisely a player aims, if the dice say his shot doesn’t hit, then he’ll see bullets flying errantly over opponents’ heads. Between this fake combat system, the extremely stupid AI, the underpowered weapons, and the downright broken cover system, Alpha Protocol is one of the least enjoyable shooters of this or any other generation. Everything involved in fighting enemies is a mess, from the claustrophobia-inducing camera to the need to pull up a game-pausing menu to use any sort of special ability. In fact, for almost every situation in the game, the best way to clear a room is to run around punching and kicking everyone in sight. It’s a laughably bad combat system, and one that, after such an extensive development cycle, Sega should be ashamed of.
The one part of the game that works is the dialogue sytem. During cut scenes, players have the ability to choose their responses to NPC statements. Unlike other games that use this mechanic, though, Alpha Protocol gives players three (sometimes four) stances to take, rather than specific lines with which to respond. Each situation can be dealt with professionally, aggressively, or casually, and in most cases, the stance Thorton chooses determines the likelihood of that NPC to befriend or shun him. The system is surprisingly deep, with hundreds of branching dialogue paths, and really does impact the game, as do other similar decisions like whether to execute an enemy leader or arrest him and gain valuable intel for future missions. In my playthrough, I managed to make several faction leaders like me enough to back me up on certain missions. Likewise, I also drew the ire of certain individuals who then went out of their way to prevent me from reaching my goals. Regardless of which stance players take at any given time, Thorton’s dialogue always flows naturally, and the difference between the responses aren’t so dissimilar that he’ll seem like a different person from conversation to conversation. These well-voiced, well-scripted conversations make up the bulk of the world-spanning plot of the game, and it’s a pretty good one. It’s really a shame that such interesting and satisfying RPG elements are attached to such an outright debacle of an action game, because there’s a lot here that’s worth experiencing; it’s just not worth experiencing in this game.
After countless delays, one might assume that Obsidian had plenty of time to polish up the presentation in Alpha Protocol. One would be making a grievous error in doing so. Filled with ugly textures and an astonishing array of technical issues, Alpha Protocol doesn’t look very good. Player models are mediocre at best (though Thorton looks good in cut-scenes), and environments are boring and entirely non-interactive. Far more egregious, though, is the constant screen tearing, flickering, and frame rate stutters that happen far too frequently. Even when Michael Thorton is alone on the screen, the screen will often stutter and even begin loading for no apparent reason.
It’s rare that a developer can so perfectly nail one aspect of a game while completely failing at so many others, but that’s the case here. It’s as if the RPG elements and dialogue system were developed by a respectable studio under a normal development cycle, and the core gameplay was slapped together over a weekend by unpaid interns. I would love to be able to recommend that people at least try the game out, only to see the dialogue system in action, but with so many elements of the title so fatally flawed, I simply can’t. So far, it’s the biggest disappointment of 2010 for me, and it’ll be tough for any other game this year to surpass it.