Monday, June 7, 2010

Alpha Protocol Review

In the late '90s and the early part of this decade, you couldn't talk about PC RPGs without mentioning two names: BioWare and Black Isle. While BioWare has gone on to develop some very successful RPGs (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Dragon Age) Black Isle sadly went down with publisher Interplay.

Several members of Black Isle went on to form Obsidian Entertainment, and Obsidian's been something of a mixed bag. Knights of the Old Republic II was pretty good, but buggy and lacking some of what made BioWare's original so great. Likewise, Neverwinter Nights 2 had an interesting story but failed to live up to the original.

Despite Obsidian's "good but..." track record, I'd been eagerly anticipating Alpha Protocol since it was first announced. Early details pegged it as an RPG with shooter elements and a rich dialogue system... something like Mass Effect, replacing the sci-fi elements with a 007-esque spy story.

Early reviews, however, were somewhat mixed (the game currently has an average score of 65% for the PS3, 64.1% for the Xbox 360, and 74.8% for the PC version at Reviewers have complained that the game is buggy, the AI is poor, that combat with most weapons is useless, and that the stealth elements are fundamentally broken. While I can't deny that the game definitely had some bugs, I'm going to call bullshit on the rest.

I think a huge part of the problem comes from how the reviewers approach the game. I even recall one reviewer belly-aching about your ability to hit a target isn't simply a matter of where you aim your reticule (I wondered if said reviewer complained about that same fact in Mass Effect, but I was too lazy to look it up). The impression that I got was that most reviewers associate spies with stealth, tried to play Alpha Protocol like it was Splinter Cell, and declared the game broken when that approach didn't work.

Newsflash, video game press: Alpha Protocol is an RPG.

As someone who plays tabletop RPGs, I feel comfortable telling you that all RPGs come down to probability, and statistics for yourself and your enemies that modify probability. On a tabletop, everyone rolls dice. On a video game the dice-rolling might be simulated behind the scenes, but trust me, it's there. So in a game like Alpha Protocol, if one guard doesn't notice you killing his friend two feet away but another catches a few strands of your hair peeking out from behind cover from down the street, that's not an AI issue. One guard rolled high on his ability to notice you, the other didn't. And let's not forget that the enemy rolls are likely against a roll on the player's part to stay hidden, or that the player's ability to stay hidden is affected by any armor worn. Likewise, shooting at an enemy in an RPG isn't enough by itself to hit that enemy. Your ability to attack, stat boosts from the weapon being used, and defensive stats for the enemy all factor in.

To be fair, if you hate that sort of thing, then you probably won't like Alpha Protocol, and if you expect to play Alpha Protocol the way you play Splinter Cell, you're bound to be disappointed. However, it strikes me as unfair to criticize Alpha Protocol for being an RPG and not a stealth-action game with RPG elements.

As an RPG, Alpha Protocol is actually pretty good. You play as Agent Mike Thorton, a new recruit in a super-secret agency called Alpha Protocol. The agency and the protocol its named for apparently exist in extra super secrecy so that they can act in what they determine to be the country's best interests while leaving the American government total deniability. Thorton's first mission for the agency is to track down some missiles believed to be stolen from an American company and used by terrorists to shoot down a passenger airliner. There turns out to be more to that than meets the eye, and Thorton finds himself on the run from everyone, including the agency he works for. Throughout the game, you're never entirely sure who you can and can't trust. When dealing with some of the major characters, you'll have two to four dialogue choices. How you decide will affect how the characters treat you and sometimes have serious repercussions. It's true that you'll play the main missions no matter what, but the order you do them in and the relationships you have will affect how those missions play out. It's a great system that has me looking forward to replaying the game in the future just to see how differently things could play out.

The gameplay is also pretty good, once you accept that it's an RPG. I chose to play the game as stealthy as I could. While this meant that I could often sneak up on an enemy and take him out silently, I soon realized that it was impossible to never be spotted. Unlike games like Metal Gear or Splinter Cell, where being spotted meant your were screwed, being spotted in Alpha Protocol meant fighting some guys until you could turn the alarm off. Which brings us to your gear selection. You can take two weapons, armor, and a few gadgets. You actually have four choices of weapon, though, and the armor you wear affects things like how many gadgets you can carry, how much ammo you can carry, how much endurance you have, how much damage reduction you have, and how stealthy you are. I chose stealthy armor, a pistol, and an assault rifle. I used the rifle in most of my fights, but I had a silencer on the pistol and developed a skill that would let me kill an unsuspecting enemy with a critical headshot. The game reviewers who complained that the pistol is useless in a firefight are 100% correct, but they're missing the fact that it's supposed to be, and that's why you take two weapons on every mission.

Of course, stealth isn't the only option. You can wear heavy armor and simply charge enemies, guns blazing. Or you can build up your tech skill and use an array of gadgets to distract enemies while you go around. It's all about how you build your Thorton. I even built up my Martial Arts skills, so that by the end of the game I found that unless an enemy was a good distance from me that it was often more affective to beat the living snot out of him with my bare hands.

Alpha Protocol's biggest problems aren't enemy AI or broken stealth mechanics. Alpha Protocol's biggest problems are game bugs and it's inventory system. I leveled my stealth skill up until I turned my basic Awareness ability (an ability you start with that lets you know what direction enemies are facing, even if you can't see them) to advanced Awareness, at which point it just stopped working. I'd hit the button to activate it, the game would make a sound, and nothing would happen. Sometimes the game would pause as if loading, then when it resumed a second later the camera would be pointed at the ceiling. And let's not forget the time I went through a door and stepped off the world, falling until I reloaded an older save.

As for the inventory system, I mentioned that you can carry two weapons out of four types. The game has pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, and assault rifles. As I mentioned, I found that assault rifles were great in a firefight, and that a silenced pistol was good for the occasional stealth kill. I played the entire game using those two, and never once did I feel like there was a reason to try the other two. Also, while it was easy enough to figure out if another weapon was better than the one you were using, weapon upgrades were a bit of a mess. Lastly, there didn't seem to be enough of it. As you ran about, collecting money and upgrades, you rarely got new weapons or armor. In fact, when you found money it was often a small percentage of the cost of a new weapon. I replaced my starting piston and my starting assault rifle once each, and my armor twice over the course of the entire game.

Minority though I might be, I actually feel like the game's pros far outweigh the cons. Like I said before, if you're expecting something else Alpha Protocol might not be what you're looking for, but taken for the RPG that it is I found it to be a very engaging game well worth the 15 hours or so that it took me to complete my first play through.

Final Score: A-

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