Alpha Protocol Reader Review
Where did everything change? Was there one specific point in time? I remember, 12 odd years ago, discussing the finer points of a hilariously bad cinematic from an expansion pack to Lucas Art's “Jedi Knight: Dark Forces 2”. A pixelated mess representing the greatest Sith Lord of the galaxy juddered his way towards a similar cuboid like a demented pogo stick. With rising violin strings, the camera focused in on the angular head of our antagonist whilst a skilled voice actor delivered impeccable lines worthy of any space opera. The textured face, like a poorly drawn Kryton from Red Dwarf, remained comically frozen in surprised bemusement.
Against this backdrop, a game like Alpha Protocol could have flourished, and perhaps the internet forums of today would be overflowing with nostalgic testimonials; sure it was broken, but that game was original - unlike the gumpf that gets made today! Yet times have indeed changed, and Obsidian's latest effort to establish itself in the upper echelons perches uncomfortably amongst modern high fliers like Mass Effect 2 and Fable 3. The bar has been raised, the rules have been established, and Alpha Protocol is still wearing the same tight gym shorts it has sported since primary school – albeit alongside some shiny new Nike running shoes.
To those unfamiliar with Alpha Protocol's premise; imagine a contemporary RPG – real-time action, timed dialogue sequences, branching narrative – set inside a James Bond espionage caper. It's the kind of project proposal which would leave any publishing executive slinging wads of greasy cash into a developer's lap, and thanks to some intelligent design decisions by Obsidian the game delivers on much of its early promise. As secret agent Thornton, Carl Thornton, you are swept from one exotic location to another on the trail of a shady weapons dealer come evil corporation. Sneaking through subway tunnels, blasting up a soviet weapons dump, chatting up the lovelies with your well rehearsed double entendres, Alpha Protocol ticks all the boxes with snappy dialogue and a refreshing variety to mission design.
One stand-out assignment sees your motley crew converging on a Shanghai hotel to steal some TOP SECRET documents from those loveable scamps in the CIA. Following a protracted dialogue where your team discusses the plan, you are thrown into action and have the pleasure of watching your earlier decisions acted out before your eyes. Did you tell the babbling socio path to “slip off the kiddie gloves”? Well then, you've only got yourself to blame for that flaming pile of bodies in the foyer. It's moments like these where Alpha Protocol really shines, and Obsidian clearly demonstrate that they know how to give the player meaningful choices in what must inevitably be a linear experience.
The options for character customization are also handled with care. Carl can march in the front gate touting a shotgun and heavy armour or slip up the drainpipe in Lycra swimwear, gripping a large hunting knife between his teeth (slight exaggeration). Similarly, Obsidian gives you options in the talky department by emulating the excellent Bioware dialogue system. You are presented with different avenues of verbal attack based on the generic stances of gung-ho (grr!), suave (well helloo), technical (eliminating the bogeys), or sneaky (get your sneak on). It doesn't matter whether you're the bullying blackmailer or the crafty politician, there is usually one train of thought which vaguely corresponds to your own, and each selection gradually influences the NPC's attitude towards you. Finally, if the shotgun and smooth talking let you down, then you can always turn to the impressive array of options in the facial hair department. Once you have tried the awesome “Lumberjack Beard” it is difficult to imagine wading into battle with another dull, beardless protagonist. Lara Croft be warned.
Of course since this is a Role Playing Game there is more to Carl than just aesthetics. Alpha Protocol regurgitates a traditional levelling system where accrued points can be spent on generic buffs (more health, more accuracy) or on developing specific skills such as Max Payne style bullet-time. The degree of options are adequately diverse although some skills, such as the aforementioned slow-mo, are considerably more developed than others. Consequently, players who select the stealthy or 'gun fanatic' archetypes are likely to have a considerably more enjoyable experience than the Jackie Chan bombardier. Part of this is due to the fact that shooting things is always more fun than not shooting things but also because many of the 'special abilities' just aren't that special. As far as melee goes think less Street Fighter and more NHL '96.
Unfortunately the problems don't stop there. Most of the enjoyable experiences are sandwiched between moments which will make you want to party like it's 1999, and by that I mean break down and cry. Enemy AI hops from laughably poor to downright embarrassing as soldiers fall over each other in their race to get stuck behind a piece of furniture. Likewise the bizarre hand-to-hand mechanic will leave you scratching your head in amazement as you ask yourself; “Just what were they trying to achieve here?”. The end result is a wholly schizophrenic experience. For example I struggle to remember the last occasion on which I circled around a room in what can only be described as a macabre Benny Hill sequence. Meanwhile the boss encounters hark back to a time when trapping a hyper-intelligent mad scientist behind an innocuous floor pot and then pelting him with rockets was the rule rather than the exception. Alas the landscape has changed. Plant pots now use Havoc™ physics.
Yet as I dwell on Alpha Protocol's many flaws, my mind is cast back to that discussion 12 years ago. I still hold dear those Jedi Knight cut scenes and, despite the laughable end product, I appreciate the effort that Lucas Arts made to inject drama into an otherwise tepid storyline. Like any man I enjoy polished, well executed game play mechanics but equally I prefer dog-eared, half baked ideas to none at all. Can I bring myself to punish Alpha Protocol for striving to bring something new to the table?
When all is said and done, the answer is “yes”. I would like to reward Obsidian for their creativity and unapologetic attempt to push the RPG genre in a new direction but too often their game feels more like Austin Powers than James Bond. For those who enjoy a bit of Roger Moore then Alpha Protocol is well worth a go, but those looking for a straight-faced Daniel Craig may wish to wait a bit longer before donning their black tuxedo.