The Backlog: Alpha Protocol

With titles like Assassin's Creed III and Need for Speed Most Wanted out this week and the likes Halo 4 and Call of Duty Black Ops 2 on the way, this is the last week of The Backlog until next year. This week we'll be look at Alpha Protocol, but if you missed last weeks article on Red Dead Redemption Undead Nightmare, you can check it out here.

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Alpha Protocol is a game that has always intrigued me with its premise and it's ambition. It sounded like a dream combination: Obsidian's talent for writing mixed with a cocktail of Bond, Bourne, and Bauer. Despite my love for RPGs, I unfortunately passed over the game at it's release due to the poor initial response. I decided to give the game a shot after reading a couple of interesting threads about it.

The main selling point for Alpha Protocol for me is the fantasy of being a spy. In quite a few ways, it feels like it delivers on what you'd expect an espionage RPG to be. In other ways, the combination of ridiculous bugs and clunky action took me out of that fantasy, making me feel far from the spy that Obsidian intended me to be.

You play agent Michael Thornton, an operative taken into the titular Alpha Protocol, a covert organization that cannot be traced back to the US government. After the introductory mission in the middle east which results in some interesting twists and turns, you're then set loose to travel between Rome, Moscow, and Taipei in classic globetrotting spy fashion. You are basically given a safe house in each region where you can customize Thornton's appearance, buy new armor from the Clearinghouse, outfit your weapons and armor with mods from said Clearinghouse, and respond to various email in whatever fashion you choose. All missions in each region are launched from the safe houseand while it is convenient, I would've loved to see more hub exploration and the social espionage that is a staple of all spy stories.

Alpha Protocol's narrative revolves around the mysterious Halbech corporation, a defense contractor supplying weapons to various shady organizations in order to create a cold war arms race. The narrative is told in a series of flashbacks, with Thornton being interrogated by the head of Halbech corporation, Henry Leland. It's an interesting conceit, as after each major plot point you are brought forward to that conversation and are immediately given feedback on the choice you've made. It's a clever way of giving weight to choices that may not be felt until much further down the line. Often you'll have to deal with difficult decisions, and you'll quickly have to learn that you just won't be able to satisfy everyone. The story feels almost impossibly reactive. At one point I left Moscow for Rome without completing all the missions there, and I was surprised to have characters talk about my exploits in that region. It adds a feeling of weight since we're so conditioned to treat each region as entirely separate in these types of games.

Obsidian is known for their well written characters, and Alpha Protocol is no different. Whether it was the absolutely insane Steven Heck (portrayed by Nolan North of course), or the mysterious Omen Deng of the Chinese secret police, I actively felt interested in building relationships with these characters. The reputation system works well, granting bonuses that can be applied to the missions in a particular region, as well as further down the line on a broader scale as well. Often times I felt like there weren't enough chances to develop relationships with some characters, leading to payoffs that sometimes felt flat and half baked. The perk system plays into this as well, giving you abilities not only for a good relationship with a handler, but negative ones as well.

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The heart of Alpha Protocol is in the dialogue system, and it genuinely feels like the best version of a conversation tree in an action RPG. Thornton's responses are molded on the three iconic agents in popular culture: Bond (suave), Bourne (professional), and Bauer (aggressive). The main innovation here is the time limit, and the immediate gut response that you have to make closely simulates the feeling you would get in any real life conversation. There's no standing around for minutes thinking about your choices, you've got to choose in the heat of the moment. Additionally, you can purchase and read dossiers between missions like a real spy, and they will help you tackle conversations with characters. It absolutely delivers on the espionage fantasy, and its easily the strongest part of the game.

The problems with Alpha Protocol center around the combat, and it's unfortunately where you spend most of your time. The shooting is fairly basic, and Thornton starts out as a horribly inaccurate marksman with any weapon you use. It feels clunky, and is further accentuated by a wonky cover system that doesn't always work. You'll spend most of your time sneaking if you're like me, and it's hit or miss. The sneaking animation looks embarrassing  and is probably the worst I've seen this generation. The AI is atrocious, occasionally displaying what seems like X-Ray vision, or conversely, failing to see me at close proximity. Each mission tends to give enough options to tackle different situations, but occasionally they veer into heavy linearity from time to time. The different hacking mini games start off simple enough, but become excruciating towards the later half of the game. Failure of the mini games ends in tripping alarms, so it does become more and more of a chore with the increase in difficulty. The boss battles are mediocre for the most part, suffering from the same problems we saw in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. They offer little chance for stealth in a game that feels built around it, and it was hilariously easy to take advantage of the poor AI in those fights.

The combat is somewhat redeemed by the character progression, which gives you enough options to create a Thornton build that suits your style of play. I played a stealth and pistol based character that took out enemies as silently as possible, and the abilities actually made me enjoy the combat once I had them fully developed towards the end of the game. By the end of the game I was using my chain shot ability to headshot five enemies in an instant, and it was surprisingly satisfying to be able to clear rooms that quickly. That flexibility in the combat was just enough to make it enjoyable to romp through, even if areas weren't particularly well designed.

And I think that's what needs to be understood about Alpha Protocol. At some point I had to accept that this is a deeply ambitious game filled with crippling flaws, but I became willing to trek through the annoying parts because the highs of the game truly fulfill the spy fantasy I always imagined. So in that sense Alpha Protocol was a success. Despite its flaws and missed opportunities, the reactive story, dialogue, and interesting characters kept me engaged from start to finish. Those elements won me over to a point where I was willing to gloss over things that definitely needed more development time.

For some, those issues may too much of a hurdle to overcome and it's a shame, because while Alpha Protocol is not a great game, it definitely has grand ambitions.  It's not the complete fulfillment of the spy fantasy we all crave, but there are some inspired ideas here that did genuinely make me feel like a spy in a believable universe. It's a shame we won't get an Alpha Protocol sequel, because there is so much potential here that could be expanded upon. Instead, we'll have to settle for what we got: A solid espionage RPG that will be loved by some, but ultimately missed by many.

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And that's it for The Backlog. I hope you enjoyed our romps through random video games that we should or should not have played. See you next year, but until then, what are your thoughts on Alpha Protocol? Would you like to see a sequel or does the very name bring a chill to your bones? As always, leave you comments below.