Alpha Protocol retrospective

Spy vs. sigh.

I must have thought about Alpha Protocol 2 a hundred times, which is pretty good going for a sequel that doesn't exist. It's not even really a game in my mind, but an aspiration - a benchmark, really - of what so many games I love could be, if they'd only lower themselves to take a few design tips from an RPG that was effectively deemed a failure before it even hit the shelves.

I suppose it's not too surprising that people haven't. Alpha Protocol is many things, but one of them is unquestionably a bit of a mess - a game of clunky shooting, appalling hacking mini-games and often poorly thought out RPG mechanics that could very easily lead to impossible situations. It annoyed the crap out of me many times while playing it.

Reinstalling it now, memories deadened by a year or so, time hasn't exactly been kind. It's far from a bad game, and it's one I'd still recommend checking out. But it is one you have to meet halfway - or at least, grit your teeth and endure the opening desert missions in all their awfulness. If there's one thing an action RPG with aspirations of shooterdom should never openly draw comparisons to, it's Call of Duty.

For all its faults though, what it does well it does really well. Alpha Protocol's greatest tragedy is that its ideas and brilliance have been completely overlooked by the games that could have benefited so much from them. Deus Ex: Human Revolution for instance springs instantly to mind. So many times, in so many games since finishing it, I've caught myself saying "You know what this needs? The words Alpha Protocol 2 in its title."

Rewind.

1

AP plays the spy game straight for an hour or two. Then invisibility cloaks and teenage super-assassins show up.

Alpha Protocol was "The Espionage RPG", and for all its faults, it's easily the best spy game ever made. By that, I mean it's the only one that's set in the modern world, and that has a crack at the entire experience - the action, which, say, Spycraft lacked, the social side ignored by the likes of Goldeneye, and at least an attempt at a strategic element via a web of contacts, assets, betrayals and negotiations with friends and enemies that nobody ever really bothers with, but deserves to be important part of any fictional agent's life. Other games offered bits. Alpha Protocol did it all.

The overall plot is fairly bland, though just to set the stage, it goes like this. Officially, the organisation known as Alpha Protocol doesn't exist. Unofficially officially, it's an American black-ops agency specialising in missions requiring deniability - though not to the extent that they won't hire a senator's son as part of an institutional policy about shooting themselves in the feet whenever possible. Maybe they think it keeps them on their toes.

Their newest recruit, you, is one Michael Thorton - or, as it's impossible not to think of him after this trailer, Michael, Mike, Michael, Mike, Michael dahling, Mister Thorton. He's not exactly James Bond, to put it mildly. Really, he's a good step down from Sterling Archer, not just because he starts out terrible at everything remotely connected to espionage, but because his attempts at suave, hilarious quips usually fall flatter than... um... a really big...

Damn. I totally had something there.

Surprising Thorton but precisely nobody else, Alpha Protocol turns out to be evil - the pawn in a slice of generic post-9/11 spy fiction involving a company called Halbech that's essentially Blackwater with a few serial numbers filed off, some missing missiles, and Michael, Mike, Michael, Mike, Michael dahling, Mister Thorton going on the run. Luckily, this turns out to be the best thing that could have happened to him, because it means Thorton is finally left to his own devices, and Alpha Protocol the RPG can finally bloom.

One of the first things you're told is that there are no wrong choices, merely choices - though openly admitting to being a spy to try and impress a sexy journalist is probably an exception to that rule. Many games have promised this kind of interaction, before it and after. No others have really delivered, but still even many people who can't talk enough about the power of story and narrative in games only remember it as 'that slightly rubbish RPG' rather than immediately doing an involuntary impression of Homer Simpson at an all-you-can-eat donut buffet.

2

If I'd written Alpha Protocol, every first contact while wearing this would have ended with 'By the way, nice beard.'

Not only is it this most beautifully fractal RPG I've ever played, it's one that's made everything since feel completely flat. Infiltrating an American embassy by going in guns blazing has consequences, as does actively avoiding casualties with stealth and a tranq pistol.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, just that it's worth thinking about. Handlers give bonuses regardless of whether they like or hate you, and there are enough factions and characters to be able to pick and choose loyalties. Sometimes, it simply pays not to push things. Getting too close to mute teenage bodyguard Sis for instance means losing reputation with her somewhat protective father figure, Albatross, purely on principle, even if he's otherwise an ally.

The detail here is insane. The stats screen doesn't just have "Pistol Shots Fired", it's got "Orphans Killed". Contacts react differently depending not only on how you talk to them, but how you've performed in previous missions - and even whether you came to see them first. Old school assassin Marburg for instance respects professionalism, with his highest compliment being that he had no idea that you were even in town. If you've made a scene though, he's disdainful of your methods. Likewise, if you've already spoken with a character he hates, German mercenary SIE will not be happy from the start. Even though it's possible to finish the game and never even meet her.

This is how Alpha Protocol rolls throughout. Make a bad impression on a Russian contact, and a guy you need to save won't trust you. A damsel rescued in Rome will quickly undistress herself if she decides Mike is as bad as the people she's threatened by, ambushing him with a taser as he returns to his safehouse. A bungled raid on an NSA listening post can be brought up later, not as a big dramatic moment, but simply to point out that Thorton isn't going to be able to use hero insurance to wipe it off his record. The game will always continue, but that doesn't mean choices don't have an impact. At the very, very least, the characters always act like they care.

Would somebody please steal this design already?

3

Look at the Alpha Protocol box art. See how he has a gun for a penis? You will never unsee it.

True, we have seen bits of Alpha Protocol's DNA in other games - though not necessarily as a direct inspiration - including Heavy Rain, and most recently, The Walking Dead. Nothing has come even close though, at either reacting to decisions, or expertly disguising the ones that don't really matter.

In Alpha Protocol, you could never know for sure. A boss might simply not want a fight. A crucial bit of information might remain lost, so that you never knew who was who's relative, or how a seemingly minor character tied into things... at least unless you were observant during the tutorial, where a big screen flashes up a fairly big spoiler along with a chunk of Lorem Ipsum text. Incidentally, artists, stop that! We all have HD screens!

It's understandable that nobody's picked up the baton here, unfortunately. Alpha Protocol failed as a game, and people don't generally draw inspiration from failures. More over, even if the ideas are taken up, they're a ton of work for an experience that people aren't currently crying out for - if only because we're all used to game responses being limited to binary morality checks, and optional love interests.

But screw that. That way lies stagnation, boredom, and madness. Any RPG or adventure designer without a copy of Alpha Protocol and a notepad with its name surrounded by little hearts is an RPG or adventure designer not doing their homework properly. Like Vampire: The Masquerade: Colon: Bloodlines, Alpha Protocol is nothing short of a treasure trove of ideas and unspoiled systems just waiting to be cracked open and presented as new innovation.

Whatever game finally picks up the baton won't, and shouldn't just copy Alpha Protocol. It makes far too many mistakes, many of them obvious, and anyone repeating them would deserve all the face-slaps in the world. Luckily, the good bits and the bad aren't intertwined, and the fact that Alpha Protocol didn't live up to its potential doesn't mean other games couldn't on their own terms. Even if one only pulled off its tricks half as well as it did, though, it'd still have twice the reactivity that any other RPG is likely to offer in the next couple of years. I'd like to think that counts for something.

Mostly though, I'd really like to play Alpha Protocol 2. Sigh.

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