There are many technical problems that plague Alpha Protocol, to the point where almost every aspect of the game suffers. Nothing comes together well enough to present a smooth and coherent experience, instead Alpha Protocol is a game with a few highpoints and several lows.
Texture pop in happens frequently throughout the game during levels as well as cycling through menus. The game’s environments leave a lot to be desired. All the levels are presented in a way that makes them feel staged and narrowly focused, to the point where they are dull and lifeless. Some building interiors are straight up recycled from earlier levels which really showed the laziness or time constraints of the development team.
If the world of international espionage was truly as portrayed in Alpha protocol James Bond could have retired years ago. The A.I in the game is a joke. While in combat you’ll be able to witness enemies running circles in place, aiming at the sky, entering cover animations where there is no cover, and generally shooting and moving illogically. When dead their bodies will often react ridiculously with the objects around them, displaying the limitations of the game’s physics system.
Obsidian must have recognized the faults of the A.I and in order to compensate for their ease, they introduced questionable control mechanics. Sarcasm aside, there are plenty of issues with how Alpha Protocol controls that can easily be a deal breaker for many gamers. While zooming in with a gun to a slightly over the shoulder viewpoint, the camera will often be blocked by Thorton’s head, greatly reducing visibility. As with Gears of War, sprint and cover are mapped to the same button. This system works in Gears of War but is not implemented as well in Alpha Protocol. Sprinting anywhere remotely close to cover results in automatically getting stuck to the object.
The cover system itself has a lot of quirks that will cause frustration with those who are fans of other third person action games released this generation. Often times while behind cover, for some reason or another it will be impossible to shimmy or move to another part of the same object while remaining in cover. There are also instances where you cannot cover behind certain objects when you clearly should be able to. One case that happened frequently was trying to cover at the bottom of a window. The rare instances where it would let me cover under a window, I was unable to aim and shoot through the window. Watching Michael Thorton crouch under a widow being nonresponsive with bad guys on the other side was very frustrating and unnecessary.
The game also suffers from a lot of load times which is very surprising considering the graphics look dated and there isn’t that much going on in each level. I also experienced a few instances where the game would completely freeze during cutscenes and require a system reboot.
Many of the mini-games that involve breaking a lock or hacking into a computer are challenging and fun. Putting xp towards different skill sets can help ease the difficulty of some of these activities. One question I continued to have however, was upon multiple failures at picking an analog lock why would the base’s alarms start to go off? This lock is the kind people would use on their lockers at the gym and wouldn’t be hooked up to any kind of surveillance system.
Another area of the game that could have been really cool but feel flat was being able to customize Thorton’s appearance. At each safe house you have the option to change the appearance, glasses, hats, skin tone and facial hair of your secret agent. The options for each category weren’t deep enough that I felt compelled to go back and change how he looked. Being a spy game, having the ability to change the character’s appearance could have tied into a mission. To infiltrate a certain organization Mike would need to look like a certain person to gain their trust. This would have been a really cool part of the game but instead is something that has no effect on the game and can be ignored.
There are also a lot of weird random glitches that happen throughout Alpha Protocol. At one point an enemy threw back a fire grenade that I had thrown previously, and it exploded directly behind Thorton. The fire engulfed the character model like it is supposed to but it did no damage. Even stranger was that the fire continued to surround me for the next fifteen minutes until I finished the level. It was pretty funny but illustrated to me that Alpha Protocol did not spend much time under the scrutiny of testers.
Alpha Protocol’s saving grace is the dialogue system and the surprisingly deep choice and consequence system. The dialogue takes a cue from Mass Effect, allowing you to choose from three designated responses. However instead of showing exactly what Michael Thorton will say, it displays the general tone of the response. The responses change frequently but usually fall within a suave, aggressive or professional response. There are also special action prompts which may allow you to punch, kiss or execute someone mid sentence.
Each character you interact with will respond positively or negatively to different dialogue options. The flirty reporter may like suave responses while your nerdy handler likes being treated as a professional. Also the situations in which you use different responses will often change how a particular character reacts. If the flirty reporter is being very serious the suave response will not work like it did before. This system works great and makes you pay attention to each character and anticipate how you should respond. The dialogue choices are on a ten second timer, if you fail to choose a response the game will choose the neutral one for you. This keeps you on your toes and makes you pay attention during cutscenes.
Having certain characters like or dislike you will come into effect later in the game. Access to special items, Intel and backup on certain missions will change depending on how you are liked by your associates. The choices that you make also have dramatic repercussions that can change upcoming missions and how characters react to you in the future. Choosing to spare a certain character will present you with the opportunity to make a new ally with a powerful organization. You may be presented with an opportunity to plant a bug in an ally’s base which will lose their trust but gain valuable Intel for your next mission. The dialogue options and choices you make throughout the game will have lasting effects up until the very end of the game.
Alpha Protocol’s story is another strong element that helped me ignored some of its technical issues. While it is not always clear and sometimes left me scratching my head the story has everything I want in an espionage thriller; corporate greed, government conspiracies, exotic locales, sexy ladies, danger, and interesting characters. All the characters are well written in their dialogue and the voice actors behind them do a great job, particularly Nolan North as Michael Thorton.
While I was pretty critical of Alpha Protocol in the first half of this review, the positives sprinkled throughout the game kept me coming back and wanting to play more. I enjoyed it a lot more than I initially expected, especially after a rough couple of first hours with the game. There are a lot of awesome elements to be found in Alpha Protocol but they can easily be overshadowed by many of the graphical and technical hiccups that occur frequently throughout.
With the game being priced at $60.00 I can rate it and compare it against other recently released games in the same price range like Splinter Cell and Mass Effect 2. Compared to those games there is more wrong than there is right with Alpha Protocol. However if the game was priced slightly lower I wouldn’t have been as hard with some of the criticism discussed earlier in the review. After spending a lot of quality time with this title I do think it is a diamond in the rough and I plan on eventually playing through it several more times and I look forward to a sequel.
This review is based on a retail copy of the 360 version of Alpha Protocol.