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.
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.
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.