Delayed Responsibility

I Shouldn't Be Gaming Right Now… But I Am!

Disappointment: My Name is Michael Thorton. I Used to Be a Spy…

Posted by deckard47 on September 14, 2010

Alpha Protocol

Commence Operation: Bropocalypse

Alpha Protocol is about spies and spying, nominally and narratively. Everyone in-game talks about how dastardly and sneaky their cloak-and-dagger endeavors are. Michael Thorton, the game’s hero and our PC, talks a lot about how he and other spies do their thing. Interestingly, if Alpha Protocol is any indicator, real spies are clumsy, violent boors who can barely walk down a hallway without murdering someone. Worse, real spies can’t shoot for shit, and they couldn’t land a punch of a turtle-necked goon walked right into it. Oh, and they have a lot of trouble getting into and out of cover. Oh, spies.

Alpha Protocol‘s writing and acting don’t hold up well to repeat playings and viewings; the dialogue generally doesn’t even hold up to the first viewing. Characters ponderously explain who and what they are, and what they’re doing. It’s as if the two and a half hour experiment in continuous exposition that is Inception was part of Alpha Protocol‘s script’s inspiration. The cast may be flat and boring and their motives and speeches may be worse, but Michael Thorton is in a wretched class of his own. He’s halfway between Roger Moor and Jack Bauer: he’s a violent, crude egomaniac, no matter how you play him. The game’s one interesting conversational mechanic, the timed, non-repeatable talking cutscene, is wasted on Thorton and his glum cohorts. AP‘s conversation system (always comprised of four options, each option generally corresponding to “suave,” “agressive,” “professional,” and “get to the point/kill” dialogue options) is different than the system used in the Mass Effect series, but only slightly. Whereas in Mass Effect players could (as they can in most games) loop basic conversations with NPC’s over and over, in AP, players have a limited time to choose what to say, and can never go back and talk about already discussed topics. Conversations become even more like games in AP. Now, if you mess up or do something dramatic, there’s no way to return, save for using the reload button. None of this means much, since suave Michael Thorton is just as much of a dick as Professional Michael Thorton.

Alpha Protocol Tuxedo

I think the suit is supposed to make him look like a suave adult, when he's really just looking for the Natty Light.

Maybe Obsidian was trying to say something about spies when they created this leering, “funny” bro? Sadly I think that the script (and thus the stupid, chuckling Thorton) are deadly serious. It’s unfortunate that there’s so little to like about the talking and decision-making (limited though it ultimately is) in AP, because playing the game (outside of conversations) is difficult, frustrating, and often next-to-impossible.

AP‘s engine and UI are badly, unintuitively designed and presented, and badly optimized. Going from menu to menu (in inventory, in-store, or in the meta-game save menu) often causes the game to stutter or completely halt for a few seconds. The same hangups occur while transitioning from area to area, opening and closing boxes, using keypads and locked items, and often simply looking at different bits of the environment. These aren’t performance issues. Alpha Protocol is in no way a system hog. It’s possible to turn every setting down (on my already too-fast computer), or even install the game on a comparable, different computer. The issues remain; there’s no way to get rid o them.

These pauses and glitches, while annoying out of combat and in-menu, often spell instant death for Thorton when they occur during firefights. Sadly, these severe usability issues go hand in hand with the game’s awkward, unimaginative approach to third person shooters, RPGs, and “spy” combat in general. Thorton aims, shoots, moves, and punches stiffly and often uselessly. It’s hard to tell what I’m punching while I’m punching it, just as it’s hard to tell whether or not my bullets will actually fly from my gun to their target, thanks to a bad cover system and all-around mysterious, ever-changing hit boxes. Ranged and melee attacks (that hit) provide the bare minimum of feedback. Enemies are mostly bloodless, and only sometimes jerk around  a bit when I shoot them. The strict, rigid nature of melee chains means that it’s easy to punch air, over and over, while an enemy stands millimeters away from your fists’ field of fire. Grenades often bounce off invisible corners, getting into and out of cover takes repeated, frantic button presses, and guns are (in a strange, RPG way) innaccurate to the point of silliness.

Alpha Protocol Ladder

Spies hate ladders. It's so hard to climb them!

This last makes more of a difference than you’d think, as do the game’s difficult-to-predict combat animations and player movement. Since enemies can run around corners with robotic precision (and the shooting controls seem to have been badly calibrated to enhance moving targets’ bullet-shy alacrity), shooting and grappling with them is often a chance affair. I’m just as likely to kill an enemy as I am to punch the boxes next to him, stuck in a combo loop until he shoots me and kills me. The stealth system in AP (which mixes the awful, unresponsive cover mechanic with ludicrously wide enemy site cones and instant enemy reinforcements vis-à-vis alarms) is incredibly hard to navigate. It’s only on my second playthrough (what exactly is wrong with me, you may ask?) that I’ve gotten a handle on it. This means that I only reveal my location to enemies a third of the time, instead of my original average of fifty percent.

Thus, the life of a spy becomes one long, discombobulated journey from mob to mob. I’ll bump into walls, accidentally shoot desks, and generally fuck up more often than I succeed, all thanks to unintuitive controls, awful game feedback and information output, and an almost broken framerate and loading system. The spy game this creates is a spy game that lacks any sense of subtlety or grace. It’s quite clear that the developers wanted to create a mix of different conversational approaches, and several ways of moving through levels and dispatching opponents. Thanks to the worst controls I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with this generation, a bad script, and clichéd characters, Alpha Protocol fails at everything it sets out to do.

I’m impressed that SEGA released this game at all, instead of scrapping it like they did the Aliens RPG. Not only did I have to wait a half year to play this game (I was one of those gullible fools who pre-ordered the game on Steam), but what I played is the least complete “AAA” release I’ve ever played. I sincerely hope that Fallout: New Vegas and Dungeon Seige 3 are better-managed and designed than Alpha Protocol was, or I find it hard to believe that publishers will continue to knock on Obsidian’s door.

3 Responses to “Disappointment: My Name is Michael Thorton. I Used to Be a Spy…”

  1. vukodlak said

    I am slightly surprised by this – or by half of it anyway. I haven’t played the game, and Obsidian games are usually a technological nightmare of bugs, but their writing is usually pretty decent and sometimes (KOTOR2, NWN2: MOTB) superb. A lot of reviewers specifically singled out the writing of Alpha Protocol as the best part of the game. Is it really that bad?

    Then again, if you didn’t like Inception, maybe you are the problem :P

  2. Daniel said

    I don’t get why Michael Thornton is so universally reviled. He doesn’t come across as particularly more macho than Commander Shepherd. As far as James Bond movies go, he’s downright docile. He’s not really a bad character insomuch as he’s not really a character at all. ae’s an interesting video game mechanic, a cypher whose sole personality trait is manipulation.

    The biggest problem with this game is that the plot is both overly complex and overly simple at the same time. I’m still not quite sure how they managed it. The main thrust of the plot seems to be that the Haliburton stand in is evil and that your agency has set you up. We go through three or four different cities and like eight different spy targets to figure this out. Except, you already know everything. You know Haliburp is evil and selling weapons to the wrong people. You know your agency has turned against you, and you’ve been expecting betrayal from the creepy pedophile-looking dude pretty much since you met him. It’s not that the plot is bad, it’s that there is no plot to speak of. There are a bunch of characters, and some action, but nothing connecting them.

    Some of the gameplay was kind of neat as a Mass-Effect style action-RPG. None of it felt like a spy-game, though. While I actually kind of enjoyed it, I do agree that it feels like there was a point where somebody should have killed the thing dead before any more money was spent on it. It has the feel of something that was supposed to be much larger and grander, and now suffers for that failed ambition.

  3. vanlandw said

    I wrote recently about Alpha Protocol as well and found there was much right and wrong about this game.

    My least favorite part was the alarms. I played the 360 version and there are some lock picks that are impossible to nail the first time. So many times the alarms turn on due to failure my cover was blown and I had to reload a save to stay stealth.

    I found the combat got better the futher you got along in the game but those first few missions can be brutal and about impossible to play stealth.

    This game I found fails like most do in having to give the player something to do. Less combat and smarter conversation options could have saved this game. Much like Uncharted where it almost would be better if it was more about treasure finding and exploration then blowing the heads off everything that moves.

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