I am a little late to the party on this one. Thursday I celebrated my 26th birthday and, along with getting Marvel vs. Capcom 3, I got some extra cash and paid Toys R Us a quick visit. Inevitably heading over to the games area, I started browsing until I happened to notice all the way on the top shelf hidden in a corner was a game I had always been curious to experience: Alpha Protocol. The Sega game was developed by Obsidian Entertainment, who brought us the sequel to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and recently Fallout: New Vegas. This is an action RPG game that borrows a lot of its design from Bioware’s Mass Effect titles. One of the more intriguing features in its premise is that this is pretty much a spy RPG, which you don’t see much.
I’ve played through the tutorial and the first two countries and at this point I think I have the mechanics of Alpha Protocol down pretty well. The beginning has you run through an institution that ends up as a test to see how well the protagonist, Michael “I Swear I’m Not Boring Ass Sam Worthington” Thorton, handles himself in the field. One of the more hilarious moments in the tutorial is the agency chief’s way of explaining CONVERSATIONS WITH PEOPLE, and Michael acts as if he’s never had different chats with different people in his life. I don’t know if real spies just have dialogue that’s only relevant to their assignment, or they stop to chat about the latest episode of Dexter in between neck-snapping, but hearing that acting like a douche bag might not always be the best approach to people or that you even have a choice to be nice, sarcastic, or professional/stoic. Although one of the finer points made is that people react to different approaches. One character might actually prefer that you’re a jerk, and flirt too much and you’re just a creepy stalker who needs to keep his libido in check.
"No, I was NOT Jake Sully in Avatar!"
Actually, the conversational system is one of the bigger, more impressive draws of Alpha Protocol. Typically, RPGs that give players the choices to respond to NPC phrases almost always have a black and white approach to them. One response is typically the polite, stoic, harmless response. The other is either incredibly polite, nice, on a knight-in-shining-armor level, or the incredibly evil, mean, plain douche-y response, and of course how you respond affects your relationships with other characters whether in a romantic sense or as allies or whatever. Alpha Protocol follows a milder approach to it, where Thorton’s replies can be aggressive, modeled after Jack Bauer from the series 24. Then there’s a suave response, which takes some phrases after famous spy James Bond, typically used as sarcasm and especially flirting if Thorton speaks to a woman. Jason Bourne of the Bourne books and films inspires the ‘professional’ responses, that tend to get to the point. This apparently genuinely affects the story and how mission circumstances play out, for once. I spoke to a gentleman who appreciated my professional, stern approach, and offered to assist me in my next mission. Apparently had I been an ass to him, I would be fighting his troops at the end. All of this happened because I spared someone close to him rather than shoot her face. I can even buy more weapons from the black market as a result.
When the fun chats aren’t going down, you’re on a mission that will require you to steal information, or kill someone important. After outfitting yourself with your preferred choices or weapons and armor, you can either go on your mission and just shoot up the place or take a quieter approach, sneak up on the bad guys and you have a choice of lethal and non-lethal takedowns. The gameplay is modeled after Mass Effect in that how you distribute skill points across the board affects how effective your weapons and your abilities are throughout Alpha Protocol. I’ve decided I like silence, and a challenge, so I’m honestly putting my points into stealth and pistol rankings. You can also upgrade health/resilience, and melee combat, another field I’m tinkering with. I actually kind of enjoy beating up bad guys when I can, but sometimes the bad guys will take a step back with their guns and Michael apparently has the reach of a nine-year-old.
The shooting can get frustrating if you come in expecting Gears of War style of combat. Your stats and weapon modifications can affect how powerful your gun is and how fast you can take them down. This is primarily why I like to sneak and take down guards. Sneaking is actually pretty easy although sometimes you’ll be forced into firefights.
Sneaking is honestly easy because all of the enemies in Alpha Protocol are, well, DUMB. They have zero peripheral vision, and take a while to recognize you as a threat. Plus if you upgrade your stealth ranking, you can unlock an ability that renders you invisible for a few seconds to get away before it all goes sour. However, in firefights they can get grenade-happy and chug frags your way. This is frustrating sometimes because if you’re crouched against a wall for cover, leaving cover will keep Thorton moving slowly and you have to stand up quickly enough to get far away from the explosion, which can do a LOT of damage. On top of that, the camera gets really stupid and closes up on random things, the wrong locations, and tricks you into thinking you have a shot that will just hit a piece of the concrete or whatever it is you’re using for cover. Bad guys also like to charge, and I HATE when enemies charge at you. Most people wouldn’t mind because enemies in shooting games tend to just stand there and fire away reducing their entire existence to cannon fodder. Luckily you can easily take them down if they charge down your way with a simple tap of a button.
One thing I can’t stop thinking about is that the game is kind of ugly. The cutscenes tend to have a washed out look with strange filters on the screen that’s supposed to emphasize the drama and down-to-earth attitudes of the narrative, but games don’t do this well at all. There’s also the frequent screen-tearing and ugly modeling.
The other thing I can’t get off my mind is that Alpha Protocol has one of the worst title screen tunes ever. It’s not even music. It’s like what evil scientists would blast in your ears to ‘experiment’ on you: just a bunch of random screeching noises with no rhythm whatsoever and I’m always desperate to hit the Start button.
I don’t know how far into Alpha Protocol I’ve reached, but this will be part one of a two-parter.