RELEASE DATE: June 1, 2010
PLATFORM: X360, PS3, PC
GENRE: RPG (Espionage)
PLAYER(S):1
ESRB: M
PUBLISHER: SEGA
DEVELOPER: Obsidian Entertainment

Alpha Protocol is a third-person espionage role-playing video game, developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Sega. The game revolves around the adventures of field agent Michael Thorton.

Plot

Michael Thorton is the newest member of “Alpha Protocol” an unofficial branch of the U.S. Government.  Its purpose is to defend US interests while simultaneously allowing the US Government to deny any links to them.  During your first mission to assassinate Osama Bin Laden Ali Shaheed leader of  AlQaeda Al-Samad you discover that Haliburton Halbech has been selling weapons to both sides. Halbech has an insider in Alpha Protocol who sends a missile strike on your position.  While you survive, you get listed as a rogue agent and lose all the support and funding that Alpha Protocol provided you.  You spend the rest of the game attempting to crack the conspiracy and discover who at Halbech and Alpha Protocol tried to kill you while also attempting to stop Halbech from starting a war to raise sales in their weapons department.

GamePlay

Alpha Protocol is played from the 3rd person perspective.  This gives the player the ability to see his surroundings at all times.  The controls and movement are pretty intuitive. You can move at a variety of speeds: Sprint, Jog, Run, Walk, and Sneak.  Otherwise combat is fairly simple: Point at the thing you want to die and pull the trigger. For defense, you can make use of terrain and hide behind obstacles. If you are near the edge of a wall, for example, you can pull the left trigger to temporarily expose yourself, shoot, and when you let go of the left trigger you hide behind the cover again. Depending on the style of agent you want to play, you can specialize in strength, stealth, gadgets, or a bit of all three to complete your objective.

The strength approach, also known as the Leeroy Jenkins method, is the standard soldier approach.  Alarms be damned:  Get a hold of the biggest gun you can find and keep spraying bullets until everyone is dead.  This approach will have the highest body count.

The Tech approach involves setting traps like stun grenades, anti-personnel mines, or EMP grenades to take out the enemy and their gadgets.  EMP grenades are especially effective for taking out technological measures like auto-turrets and cameras.   This approach can either be very bloody or non-lethal depending on the traps used.  As a Tech specialist, just remember a bullet may have your name on it but grenades are marked “To whom it may concern.”

The stealth approach (which is the one I picked for my play through) involves, wait for it… being quiet and undetected.  The stealth mechanic works very well in this game.  When you sneak up on a target you have 2 options: kill them or knock them out.  You kill your opponent by a stab to the neck, while knockouts are done by sleeper holds or blows to the head.  Why would you want to do knockouts you ask?  Because some of the missions involve infiltrating civilian areas, and it’s just bad karma to kill a local cop or hotel security.

While you can use all these options, you improve and specialize in them by allocation of skill points.  Skill points are earned at each level up.  There are ten different skills in the game and each skill has a max of 15 levels that can be gained.  Some of the abilities learned through skill advancement are passive and others must be activated by the player.  The skills can be used any number of times but each use has a cooldown period before it can be used again.

Dialogue System

One of the unique elements of Alpha Protocol is the dialogue system.  Yes Mass Effect had a system where all the dialogue is spoken and you have to pick from 1 of 4 choices to respond, but where Alpha Protocol puts a twist on this is that there is a time limit on your choices.  Once the timer is up, the highlighted choice is automatically picked.  This forces you to think on your feet.  The 4 choices fall into the categories Suave, Aggressive, Professional, and Dossier/Special.

Suave is the jerk/smooth talker option depending on if the person your talking to is male or female.

Bond: [in bed with Jones] I was wrong about you.
Dr. Christmas Jones: Yeah, how so?
Bond: I thought Christmas only comes once a year.

Aggressive is the testosterone filled “Kill’em all let God sort it out”  choice.  Best when used role playing R. Lee Ermey.

Sgt. Hartman: I’m gonna give you three seconds–exactly three fucking seconds–to wipe that stupid lookin’ grin off your face, or I will gouge out your eyeballs and skull fuck you!


Professional is the type of soldier you should act like if you are a good little drone.

CO: Go to this elementary school and kill everyone inside.

You: Sir! Yes Sir!

Dossier/Special is not always available.  It is a situational dialogue choice based on several factors including previous dialogue choices and how complete your intel (i.e. the dossier) was on the person you are talking to.  This choice can also take the form of a sneak attack or execution.  Essentially you decide not to listen to their story or pleas for mercy and you just pop a cap in their forehead.

The “personality” of the dialogue is heavily influenced by the “three J.B.’s”:  James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Jack Bauer.   There are no right or wrong choices but they all influence your game play by deciding where the story line goes, your reputation with different characters, how much information you can gather, and whether or not you are getting laid.  Each NPC will react differently to these choices; some may shit their pants if you use an aggressive choice, another may laugh at you for being insulting or childish.   The consequences may be immediate, or they may not materialize till later in the game.

Customization

Alpha Protocol has a home base system in which Thorton utilizes safe houses in each city to prepare for his next mission.  From a safe house, Thorton can change his facial appearance, his armor, weaponry, access the black market, check his email, and leave on missions.  Some missions are critical to the progression of the story, while others are optional.

Facial Appearance:

Players can customize  skin tone, head wear, facial hair, hairstyle, eye color and eye wear.

Armor/Weapons:

Your choice of weapons and armor has a huge impact on how you will approach a mission.  You can only bring 2 weapons and a limited amount of ammo for each.  They fall into 4 categories; Pistols, Assault Rifles, Shotguns, and SMGs.  Pistols have the shortest range, can be silenced, and can be used for precision shots.  Assault rifles can be used for precision shooting, but you trade distance for silence.  Shotguns can be charged for a critical hit, and SMGs are great for spraying a room full of lead.  On top of the basic weapon types you can customize the barrel (for distance, silence, heat dissipation for faster firing rate.), the magazine (to hold more ammo), add  scopes, and change out the type of ammo (penetration, stopping power, tranquilizers, etc..).  Your choices modify, both positively and negatively, the basic attributes of the weapons (Damage, Accuracy, Recoil Control, Stability, and Magazine size).

The main function of armor is to provide Endurance (a pool of regenerating hit points) to Thorton, but different armor can also specialize in stealth, damage reduction, or  increasing the amount of gadgets Thorton can carry in his inventory.

Skills:

The player can choose which skills to advance, allowing them to reinforce their play style.  The skills cover 5 basic areas.  The character can become a more efficient killer (Pistol, Assault Rifle, Shotgun, Submachine Gun, Martial Arts), better with his gadgets (Sabotage), harder to kill (Toughness), harder to detect (Stealth), or provide miscellaneous benefits like lock picking or computer hacking (Technical Aptitude).

When the game begins you are limited to 10 points in any one skill out of a max of 15.  After a certain point in the story, specializations become available allowing you to pick 3 skills which will have their level cap raised to 15 points.

Personally, I tried to play the entire game as a stealth based character.  I picked Pistols, Stealth, and Martial Arts as my specializations.   Whenever the story didn’t require a firefight, I would use sneak attacks and martial arts to take out the enemy without setting off alarms.  This it turned out is the most difficult way to play the game as there are story points that involve massive firefights and a stealth specialized character will die very quickly if you have no cover to shoot from (which happens a few times).

Romance

It is possible to bed 4 different ladies in the game.  And yes you can hit them all in one play through if you work your kills and dialogue properly.  Kills you say?  Yes.  Some ladies like the Rambo type and others want as little death to civilians as possible.  Read your dossiers and pay attention to the dialogue, and you will figure out who likes what.  I only managed to get 3 of them myself.  While I could have made the choices to get the fourth, it would have broken the character type I had decided to play at the start.  That is the point of the role playing, is it not?

And Now The Bad News

The Minigames (Lock Pick, Computer Hack, Keypad bypass)

I had some frustration with the “minigames.”  All three had their own quirks, but they all shared the same two major annoyances.  The game does not pause while you are in the minigame screen, and they are all timed.  I can’t count the number of times I was sneak attacked by a guard while trying to pick a lock or the number of times I set off the alarms because I ran out of time.  I guess this is more realistic but it was a big pain in the ass.  Raising Technical Aptitude increases your time limit, but otherwise does not make the task any easier.

Lock Picking involves a pressure sensitive control utilizing the left and right triggers.  The left trigger raises the pin to the desired location and the right trigger locks it in place.  Each pin has a different strength spring and the margin of error that you are given is laughably small.  This in itself would be okay if there was no timer.  The hardest locks have 5 pins to set and 10 seconds to do it!  On top of that, you lose 5 seconds on the timer when you misalign a pin.

Keypad bypass requires you to cut the wires in the keypad in a specific order in the allotted time frame.  The hardest ones have a 12 wire cut and 15 second timer. Once again you lose 5 seconds for every mistake.  Movement from wire to wire is done by using the D-pad; so, jumping around from one side to the other is extremely slow.  Even after I decided that I did not care that the alarm was set off, I still could not move fast enough on the d-pad to get through the minigame in time.

Computer Hacking starts with a large grid of randomly changing numbers.  Above the grid are two sets of numbers.  Those same two sets of numbers are in the grid but due to the changing numbers around it they become hard to spot.  Your goal is to move the numbers above the grid onto its twin on the grid with in the allotted time.  Around when half the time is gone, the position of the static numbers in the grid will change.  Even so this was the least frustrating of all the minigames as even at it’s hardest setting their was plenty of time to find your goal.

Metacritic

Alpha Protocol was a great start to a new IP.  The dialogue felt natural, the controls were responsive, and the story kept you guessing about who was friend and who was foe.  It’s a real shame that SEGA decided not to continue the series.  The game received mediocre reviews (63 Metacritic for 360, 72 for PC) and had poor (by SEGA’s Standards anyway) sales.

SEGA boss Mike Hayes made the following statement regarding the game:

Let’s speak very commercially; the game hasn’t sold what we’ve expected, therefore we won’t be doing a sequel.

The concept was brilliant, though. You know this whole thing with Metacritic where you have to be in the high 70s to mid-80s minimum [to have any success] – well, with RPGs you have got to be in the late 80s.

This is disheartening, as I really wanted to see the continuation of the story.  This is also a great example of why I hate aggregators like Meta Critic (but that could be another post in itself).  The developers/publishers are basing decisions on a score based on a large variety of personal tastes and platforms that they really did “miss the forest for the trees.”  I had some aggravating moments as I tried to figure out how to beat a couple  missions, but nothing was so bad as to require the cancellation of the series.  Take this as a lesson kiddies.  Just because the aggregate score is low doesn’t mean the game is bad.

I’ve been asking myself if I played the same game as those other critics that rated it so poorly.  And I did find a pattern from Metacritic.  The game was optimized for the console and had a pretty bad port to the PC so PC users gave the most bad reviews and bug/glitch complaints.  For consoles there were 3 themes that kept repeating themselves which I will paraphrase here:

  • “But it wasn’t developed by SUPER GIANT CORP with a budget large enough to pay $1million per voice actor and I expect everyone to be as polished as they are now matter how little money is in the budget”
  • “I had the aiming recticle on his head, but my character had no points in weapon skills so the recoil of the gun made me miss. Stupid game, wheres my CoD or Halo Disc.  I wanna play a game where everyone is 100% accurate with their weapons from the start.”
  • Alpha Protocol was released after Mass Effect 2, and they use similar mechanics for gameplay,  therefore Alpha Protocol should have been an improvement on the genre.

Obsidian is not as big as EA.  With a very small budget they made a game that was on par with the first Mass Effect.  Mass Effect had the same issues AP had including the complaints that “I had the aiming recticle on his head, but my character had no points in weapon skills so the recoil of the gun made me miss.”  The complaint that Obsidian could not improve on Mass Effect is an Apples to Oranges comparison.  If EA had made Alpha Protocol then you could rightfully complain, as you had seen them do better in Mass Effect 2.  But Obsidian had never made a game like this before and your complaining that they were not as good as a company that had experience making this style game?  Might as well tell a freshman Physics student that he’s not as good as Stephen Hawking.

Verdict

Alpha protocol has great re-playability with it’s  multitude of endings and various play styles.  It  is set up to carry over your decisions, much like Mass Effect, and I think with the criticisms they received they could have made some changes and really wowed people in a sequel.  But alas, it is not to be.  Even so, I would recommend this game to everyone.  For me this is a definite keep.

Graphics: ★★★★★★★★★☆
Story: ★★★★★★★★★☆
Gameplay: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Balance: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Intangibles: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Overall: ★★★★★★★★½☆

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