Much like a dopey Facebook quiz, Alpha Protocol presents to the player one simple question: what kind of secret agent are you? Do you slither into the shadows like Splinter Cell’s Sam Fisher, leaving a trail of broken necks in your wake? Maybe you’re a Jason Bourne, running deep into enemy territory, kicking ass and taking names. Or do you prefer the more indirect approach, systematically dismantling the enemy’s defenses like wily vet Solid Snake? Any way you slice it, Alpha Protocol’s got you covered. And hey, even the spineless beta-male gadget fetishists can get their James Bond on in this game. All good.
The game takes the standard superspy tropes and shoehorns them into an action-RPG: duck and cover, meet stats and loot. Main dude Michael Thorton thus becomes quite a pliable superspy as the character decisions you’ll be making from the onset of the game will shape his “class,” as it were. The player can customize every stat, every piece of weaponry, and even Thorton’s appearance to a pretty good degree, as you would with any modern WRPG. The only difference is that you’re adding suppressors, scopes, and incendiary rounds to your weapons instead of buffing magic or equipping a +10 cloak of defense.
Protocol’s dialogue tree also differs from any of its contemporaries’ as responses are timed and flow in real-time. They call it the “DSS,” short for Dialogue Stance System, and instead of your usual “good” or “evil” choice, you get three different “stances” or approaches to moving the conversation. The player can be all cold and professional like Jason Bourne, suave and sophisticated like Mr. Bond, or even aggressive like 24’s Jack Bauer.
The action plays out… well, a bit too much like Mass Effect for my liking. Though not as stifled and lifeless as Bioware’s take on the space shooter opera, there are stark similarities between the two games; mostly relating to how they ape the cover system and other tropes from established FPS games and meld them with their own RPG conventions. Spells are called “abilities” in the game, and range from your usual buffs (Fury which briefly increases physical strength and Focus Fire which gives the player auto-aim) to neat powers like slowing down the action to scope out a group of enemies. And perks don’t work the same way as in Fallout. Instead of selecting from a pool of perks and building your character around them, the game actually awards you perks based on the way you play, which I thought was pretty clever as it forces the player to do missions a certain way instead of double-dipping with various half-classes.
Why didn’t Obsidian just steal the radial interface from Mass Effect? This is Alpha Protocol’s biggest downfall. This isn’t 1997 guys; I don’t need to wade through fifteen static menus just to change my skills. Thank God I didn’t subject myself to the console version of this game, where I’d imagine switching abilities would take fifteen button presses instead of holding down the left trigger and flicking the analog stick somewhere.
And it’s not as if missions are that linear in the first place; you’ll need to do multiple playthroughs to explore all the content Obsidian’s prepared for this game. There aren’t any particularly evil options, though; as is standard with most WRPGs, “evil” is relative: your real choices are limited to good, neutral, and douchebag. Spoiler alert—unlike other games that use the “good/neutral/bad” mechanic, the choices you make during the game are fairly reversible to a point anyways.
With the game’s numerous shortcomings in mind, Alpha Protocol is actually a pretty compelling little game. There’s a lot of good exploration opportunities on the dialog/pathing side of things; and the overarching narrative, though pap and hackneyed, does have its moments. It’s regularly $5 or less on Steam, so there’s lotsa chances for you guys to try it out. I’m a little sad that our coverage has to end here, as there aren’t a lot of mods that extend the game’s lifespan. AP was panned critically, I think for the wrong reasons: in my opinion, reviewers didn’t approach the game correctly; as it’s a one-of-a-kind throwback to the janky B-rated PC games of decades past. It really is a blast once you get past those tedious first two hours and get the hang of what you can and can’t do.
I’m kicking off the weekend by plowing through this game again, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on this underappreciated sci-fi jaunt.
Let’s Play is a new column we’re introducing where we spend a weekend and challenge the readers to hopefully tag along with us and play something on our collective backlogs.