The lights are on
Michael Thorton is not the most interesting secret agent of all time. Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer would run circles around him, and James Bond would simply make a snide remark his way while sipping a martini. Despite having a flawed protagonist, among other flaws, Alpha Protocol deserves a shot, mainly because it does have redeeming qualities.
The bad parts of Alpha Protocol are pretty obvious upon first booting up the game. The graphics are sadly sub-par, especially upon first loading the game, with missing textures and an odd fuzziness surrounding the player-character sometimes when he moves. The odd part is that the game uses Epic's Unreal Engine. It is hard for me to believe that this game is running on the same technology that gave gamers such visual masterpieces as Borderlands and Gears of War.
The moves available for Thorton are also a point of frustration. The game wants to play like Mass Effect, that much is obvious; the problem is, Obsidian forgot to give Thorton some essential moves that make Commander Shepard so mobile on the battlefield. For one thing, Thorton can not vault over cover. Thorton actually can not vault over much of anything, which severely hampers movement while in cover. Another movement problem for Thorton is that taking so much as one step while not crouched will alert any nearby guards; this sometimes even applies to guards that are behind doors in another room! Expect to spend a lot of time moving slowly if one wants to avoid detection.
Combat is very hit-or-miss as well. When the player gets involved in a firefight, the game relies on an RPG system of invisible dice rolls to determine whether a shot will hit, and for how much damage, so hardcore shooter fans may be disappointed to learn that their perfect headshots either dealt less than lethal damage or missed entirely. Watch out if an alarm sounds, as well, because the player's position will become a lethal hornet's nest of angry guards. When players do manage to pick out that perfect route through a room, however, and everything falls into place, the game really makes you feel like a superspy in the field, stealthily lining up critical hits and moving along with ease.
The minigames tied to hacking, lockpicking, and bypassing will surely anger those gamers who have grown tired of such concepts. For my part, such minigames exist in masterpieces like Mass Effect 2, so I think I can tolerate them here. Besides, with practice they lose some element of their frustration, and completing them often nets rewards such as XP and money.
Now, onto the good parts. Alpha Protocol constructs a pretty intriguing premise. As Agent Michael Thorton, the game begins by prompting the player to select from a number of backgrounds for their specific agent, determining the skills at which that agent will excel. The choices focus on combat, stealth, or tech, while also providing an option for a custom agent, as well as a "recruit' option that leaves players with a green agent and simply average skills (for an additional challenge). From there, Thorton is recruited into Alpha Protocol, the eponymous clandestine government agency the needs help tracking down stolen missiles from a Saudi Sheik. The plot of the game is actually a high point, providing political intrigue, double-crosses, good allies, and shady enemies. All the elements of a strong international espionage tale are in place here.
The missions are also pretty well set-up. There is a nice variety of environments for missions to take place in, while still managing to adhere to the theme of the country where they take place. Bonus mission objectives can also be purchased through the in-game shop, which net bonus that can ripple over into later missions. For example, taking out a VIP's elite guard in one early mission causes his security detail to be much lighter when you attempt to bring him in later on. This continuity also applies to nearly every action the player takes. Prior decisions, alignments, and mistakes are referenced down the road, and the player must deal with the consequences of their actions (and the order in which they took them). This fact creates a fluid, dynamic world not seen often enough in gaming.
The character progressions is detailed and easy to follow. The progression chart is based on Ability Points, ten of which are awarded at each level gained. Each ability set costs a certain amount of AP to unlock the next ability, some cost six points, some five, four, and three; the strategy comes in knowing when to spend and when to save. The weapon customization is also pretty deep, with each weapon having a slot for a barrel, scope, magazine, and accessory attachment that is represented cosmetically on the gun in the field. Like pimping out a blade in a fantasy RPG, this system is well-executed and sometimes awesomely ridiculous in terms of the end results.
Alpha Protocol is a game that must be approached with the knowledge of its B-level status. It has its flaws, but the game is not without merit. If one is able to overlook the rough edges and sub-par protagonist there is an exciting tale to be told with some pretty innovative features. Fans of Mass Effect will dig this as long as they keep that fact in mind, as will anyone who enjoys RPGs and 3rd-Person Shooters.
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