The lights are on
Spies make up some of the best action heroes of all time. They also range the gambit from the suave, sophisticated ladies man that is James Bond (Connery edition), to the smart, plotting gadget whiz that is Ethan Hunt, to the improvisational expert that is Michael Weston, to the brutally efficient Jason Bourne. No two styles are alike, no two agents are alike, and while the missions may be impossible, they can generally be attacked in a variety of ways. With espionage so ripe with potentially good stories, intriguing characters, and loads of possible directions, an RPG based around spies seems like a no-brainer. It's too bad that this fertile niche was filled with the steaming pile of fetid excrement that was Alpha Protocol.As Michael Thorton, Alpha Protocol's newest recruit, you wake up in a medical bay with an IV in your arm, a Tijuana hangover, and a buzzing PDA as your only friend. Thus begins the game's "tutorial" level. After going through a seemingly endless (well over an hour) introduction on the basics of the game, you find yourself sent to Saudi Arabia to track down some stolen missiles. As you can imagine, things get a little out of hand, Mike gets "burned", and you'll spend the rest of the game trying to find out who burned you, assembling allies, collecting data, and trying to "finish the mission". While the plot may sound a bit generic, it is sadly the game's strongest attribute and one of the few things that kept me playing.After the initial mission in Saudi Arabia, you're given the option to choose from three new destinations, Rome, Moscow, and Taipei, each one complete with new missions, contacts, and data. Each location has a few missions which basically amount to "chatting up" new contacts. These missions highlight the innovative dialogue system which forces you to pick from three (sometimes four) possible dialogue options which can generally be categorized as either "Professional", "Aggressive", or "Suave". By reading up on the dossier of each contact, you can generally pick up hints on which track will work best (or worst, if that's your bag) for each contact. Being extremely liked or disliked will net you certain perks. In short, the only bad thing is if someone is neutral towards you. The big twist with this otherwise standard dialogue system is that it is on a timer and you need to select an option before the timer runs out, or else a default will be chosen. This is no easy task, especially when you're trying to focus on the the cutscene, analyzing the situation, listening to the dialogue, waiting for the question prompt, then examining cryptic choices, before ultimately rushing to select one. While this dialogue system had the potential to be fun, it completely destroys the pacing that most RPG fans love. A few hours of this mechanic will have you dreaming of the smooth conversations that BioWare crafts with their entries.The non-chatty missions are combat scenarios. Much like dialogue options, missions (in theory) can be tackled through combat, stealth, gadget utilization, or a combination of all three. I say "in theory" because I've seen one star hotel rooms in third world countries with fewer bugs than Alpha Protocol.How bad are the bugs? Let me treat you to a few of my favorites:After reloading a checkpoint (I was trying for a perfect, stealth run) guards simply disappeared from their previously loaded positions.Guards mysteriously and inexplicably spotting me behind cover in one load and not in the next.Speaking of guards, they love to get hung up on invisible level architecture or melt through/into walls, floors, and any other object around them.When in cover, I was delighted to find out that the blind fire reticule has a wonderful habit of disappearing without rhyme or reason.My personal favorite, however is the fact that some guards can't see you if you're 90 degrees to their right (no peripheral vision?) but CAN spot you if you're directly behind them.I could go on... really I could, but I'd like to keep this freight train of disaster rolling.The combat itself is nothing to write home about. You're given the basic four weapons to specialize in (Pistols, SMGs, Shotguns, and Assault Rifles), each has it's pros and cons, but regardless of which path you choose, your shots always feel inaccurate. The cover mechanic is spotty at best and you'll find yourself struggling to get into and out of cover, which is especially annoying if attempting a stealth path. When in cover, the camera also has a penchant for betraying you by blocking your view in the most aggravating way possible.As with any RPG, gaining experience allows you to level Thorton up. Unfortunately options are highly limited. Aside from the four weapons groups, you're able to upgrade fewer than ten other areas and, while most of the usual suspects are there (stealth, martial arts, toughness), they are so convoluted and the bonuses so random that it becomes difficult to get a handle on your customization.On the flip side, you can customize your Michael Thorton! That is if you enjoy choosing between six hair styles, a few different facial hair models, a handful of skin complexions, eye color, and hats/glasses. For an RPG this is borderline insulting; either let the gamer fully customize the character, or remove the option. The graphics are a pop-in loading mess that hasn't been seen since Mass Effect.The loading icon freezes the game all to frequently, completely destroying any sense of immersion.The sound design and voice acting are adequate, but the talented Nolan North is wasted on the most annoying character in the game.The greatest insult comes in the game's final mission, which drags on for well over an hour and is more buggy than the rest.Finally, and most importantly to some, the achievements are impossible to get in one playthrough, meaning you'll have to suffer (and I do mean suffer), through at least three playthroughs to garner the completion.The greatest tragedy of Alpha Protocol is the feeling that so many of these technical bugs could have been fixed with a post-release patch, but here we sit, almost two years after its release, and there are zero patches... none... nada. To me, this says one of two things: 1- Obsidian KNEW that Alpha Protocol was a buggy pile of crap and decided to bury it in the proverbial desert and move on rather than devote any time to fixing it.2- Obsidian doesn't care.The spy game is one of treachery and deceit, where trying times force men to come to grips with who they are and how far they're willing to push themselves in the name of their countries. Unfortunately, playing Alpha Protocol was all too close to that type of harrowing, non-fun experience.
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