Ah, that time during the lulls of a new console generation where you can go back and give those games you missed on the last-gen a try. Alpha Protocol really appealed to me in the run up to its release, but its disappointing reviews put me off. Its proper bargain bin stuff now, I bought it for £2.00. Let me put it this way; there are very few things better than this that you can get for £2.00.
Alpha Protocol follows Mike Thornton, an American agent with a backstory chosen by the player. He is recruited by Alpha Protocol, a clandestine organisation working for the US Government. For his first assignment he is sent to Saudi Arabia to investigate the terrorist group Al-Samad and its leader Shaheed. It’s not long before he finds out that things are much more complex than they seem, uncovering a massive global conspiracy involving the weapons dealer Halbech and Alpha Protocol themselves.
The whole ‘evil weapons dealer causes global instability to create sales’ has been overdone a lot, and it can’t really be said that Alpha Protocol tells a particularly original, or even especially interesting story. What it does do well, perhaps even among the best I’ve seen, is react to the player’s choices in meaningful ways. Where Bioware hyped up the branching paths of the Mass Effect series, Obsidian quietly released a game that actually lives up to that promise, with a story which can go in quite different directions based on your choices, although admittedly still ending up in roughly the same place regardless. This element of choice gave me a sense of player agency which has only really been matched in The Walking Dead. Thornton himself is pretty bland, with generally the options for conversation being professional, aggressive or suave, but there’s a colourful supporting cast, which can at times get fairly ridiculous. This isn’t a plot to take particularly seriously, but it is intricate and well put together.
Sadly, where Alpha Protocol falls apart somewhat are its basic mechanics. It’s a third person action RPG, with a bit too much action and not enough RPG. Mass Effect got away with it because the action was actually quite good, but here it just isn’t strong enough to support the light RPG elements. A VATS like system might have worked a lot better. You can invest in different areas to shape your play style, from guns blazing, to stealth to gadget mastery. I went for stealth, and most of the time this worked fine, almost getting enjoyably overpowered towards the end. Where everything fell down is the horrendous boss fights, which much like Deus Ex: Human Revolution before it, throw all choice out the window, and become punishingly difficult if you hadn’t really invested in guns. There’s a noticeable lack of polish to the whole thing; this is a game released six months, maybe even a year too soon.
The game is structured as a series of missions centred in a selection of hubs, which include Saudi Arabia, Moscow, Taipei and Rome. From these hubs you can check your email, buy equipment and intel for your missions and then set out. Some missions are just conversations (which was fine with me because they were my favourite part of the game anyway), with many being much more lengthy, and a handful actually being quite clever. It’s not a truly epic RPG, but considering its messy execution it’s probably the right length. The game ended just before the dodgy gameplay became too much.
The voice acting is a strong point, with performances ranging from nuanced to enjoyably silly. Alpha Protocol has a large a varied cast, well brought to life. The character models are ok, but the environments are pretty ugly, with an overwhelmingly bland visual style. This game runs pretty horribly, with constant texture pop up and regular glitches marring the experience. It’s a shame, because this game actually has plenty of the little details that give it away as a labour of love for a talented team, who likely simply weren’t given the publisher support they needed.