Alpha Protocol: Maligned, But for the Wrong Reasons

I recently finished Alpha Protocol, another valiant, but ultimately disappointing effort by Black Isle refugees at Obsidian.  What I find interesting is that the reviews of this game seem to deride it for all the wrong reasons.

For instance, because it is an Obsidian game it gets hammered for being buggy.  Nevermind, that Skyrim is orders of magnitude worse, requiring fan patches for the base game after multiple expansion packs (which also have their own fan patches).  This is Obsidian and so it must be buggy.  I, for one, encountered only two bugs (if you discount occasional clipping issues), both of which are well known and solutions exist to circumvent.  The one that is perhaps more annoying due to its persistence is that if you die you must go back to the main menu to reload or the game freezes.  This game is pretty easy so this doesn’t happen often and it only adds a few seconds to a reload.  The other involves reloads on specific levels wiping out the guards.   More troubling, but again you can circumvent it.  That said, there are more bugs reported on the internet that I did not encounter.  However, a perusal of forums suggests it is no buggier than any other RPG release in recent memory and in fact seemed the most polished Obsidian game yet.  So in my opinion the game was technically proficient, but many words were spent on how terribly game breaking all the bugs were.  Sadly, the bad press probably hurt the game enough that they never got a proper patch out.

What then are the actual faults?  Well it’s just that pretty much everything else is mediocre.  Take for instance the dialogue.  Adding a time limit to dialogue responses is a great idea.  Too bad the characters are mostly boring and underdeveloped.  I mean there are four romances in the game and yet in my mind if the time spent with all four women were focused on just one you would still be hard pressed to write a convincing romance.  Your rival spy in Alpha Protocol doesn’t show up enough to actually feel like a rivalry.  Part of this was a decision to not actually spend any time in Alpha Protocol, instead you go globetrotting as a rogue agent for most of the game.  Returning to AP at the very end ofthe game is nowhere near as interesting when you only spent the intro in that locale and with those characters.

The uni-dimensionality of the characters is underscored by the easy discernment of how to influence them (and the dialogue wheel conveniently puts the “correct” choice in the same location every time).  The game obviously wants to encourage you to build a personality for your Thornton, but it’s hard when you know the NPC likes professional responses and they put the professional response in the same spot and label it “professional.”  What I am saying is that I game the system a lot.  Interestingly enough situations where you would want to game the system, such as bluffing past some guards, are curiously absent for the most part.  I think the game would have been much better if you did indeed build a personality for Thornton and people expected you to act a certain way and are surprised when you don’t.  Instead you can be aggressive with the aggressive NPC and suave with another without any problem.

Apart from that the plot is really standard stuff about evil corporation selling weapons and the missions rely far too much on gathering intelligence over actively deterring the villains.  We know from near the beginning of Halbech’s dastardly plot, yet we spend the entire game globetrotting so we can find more evidence that yes, evil corporation do evil shit.  It’s not clear to me at all what Thornton actually accomplished between going rogue and the final sequence back in Alpha Protocol.

Then we come to the actual missions.  The foremost problem in my mind is how easy the game is.  I went pistols and stealth.  Pistols allow you to freeze time to aim multiple shots and it lets you aim from cover and you get a silencer that works far too well (the guards can’t hear it at all, even in the same room).  Stealth makes you quite invisible by the end and even allows tens of seconds of complete immunity to detection as an ability.  Guard are fairly static and usually pretty blind.  When you kill someone the body sticks around for a bit so patrols could find it, but rarely do and you can shoot them in the head before they sound the alarm.  Usually this isn’t a problem because bodies disappear after a bit.  Which apart from just being weird is messed up for a stealth game.  Anyways, it is quite easy to go into room and kill everyone silently.  Either use super stealth move or just line up a chain shot to the head on everyone in the room with the pistol.

The straight up combat in this game is really awful, even worse than Deus Ex which at least becomes tolerable when you master a skill.  Here you just hover over an enemy and it rolls a die or you can aim at an enemy for awhile for a critical hit.  The boss battle are at least as bad and incongruous as Deus Ex 3, but thankfully the pistol chain shot to the head works wonders on most of them.  Also it is again fairly easy even without points in assault weapons or health.  When killing people from stealth is easy and even if you are detected enemies are easily dispatched it ruins all the tension of a good stealth game.  This is no Splinter Cell, the game it obviously intended to emulate.

The levels themselves are incredibly linear and when you get to checkpoints it mysteriously locks the doors behind you.  The obvious influence for the RPG half of this game is Deus Ex where you would tackle the level based off your skill set.  There is no possibility of that here with claustrophobic levels that can make a Call of Duty game look nonlinear.  If I am a hacker I should be hacking my way in and if I am really stealthy I am looking for a keycard to pickpocket or if I am gungho I just shoot the guy and take it.  This is a basic example and yet it never occurs.  No matter what, you are bypassing that door either through the hacking minigame or with an EMP grenade, no matter your character’s skills.

The big thing that AP does right is consequences to your actions.  Rather than some goofy karma meter that only influences the ending, almost all of your choices effect something.  What order you do missions determines your allies, as does how you treat NPCs.  Did you go guns blazing or stealthily walk back into the night?  The NPCs will notice and say something and can even be influenced by such actions.  The missions are still mostly the same with only one major mission opening up depending on your choices.  Yet it feels very organic and your choices feel far more efficacious than any RPG I can recall.  It’s a strength of being a fairly linear and story driven game that they can reference your actions more easily.

AP is not a bad game.  It’s just that this game should have been amazing.  My dream game would have been Deus Ex open levels with Splinter Cell stealth (I think that the guns blazing approach should be de-emphasized).  You would have spent far more time in Alpha Protocol because spy agencies are a vital part of the spy genre and it gives you a hub where you can talk to people rather than just checking your email and buying weapons.  The plot would include a mole in the agency and it would be written such that all your interactions can be colored by paranoia if you wish.  Or maybe you are more subtle trying to befriend them and find the discrepancy in their behavior.  The possibilities are exciting and I hope someone tries their hand at a spy RPG again.

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