With its original 2009 release date delayed seven months to the day, Obsidian Entertainment’s much-discussed “espionage RPG” has been a long time coming – it’s not entirely surprising, given the game’s apparent ambition. Obsidian has maintained a clear emphasis on choice, citing a dynamic dialogue system, flexible mission structure and multifaceted narrative that are constantly informed by the player’s decisions. Fine words indeed, but now that Alpha Protocol has finally arrived, does it actually deliver?
Meet Michael Thorton, an agent newly recruited by the eponymous covert ops organisation Alpha Protocol; he’s drugged, tested and trained before being sent on a mission to assassinate the leader of an Islamic terrorist cell. His job becomes a little trickier, however, when he finds himself at the centre of an international conspiracy involving government corruption, illegal arms trafficking and mass murder. Betrayed, disavowed and hunted by his own country, Michael goes rogue as he searches for answers.
This is only the beginning of Alpha Protocol’s dense and intricately tangled narrative, one that encompasses a truly astonishing amount of variables. Every decision the player makes has consequences, either immediate or long-term, that can significantly alter the storyline. Which mission did you choose to complete first? Did you complete the previous mission without civilian casualties, or without being seen at all? Did you execute that small-time arms dealer, or spare his life in return for information? Even seemingly trivial actions have deceptive magnitude – a small mistake can easily develop into a catastrophe, while an exemplary display of tact or skill can bring unexpected windfalls down the line.
Most of the crucial decisions are made during conversations with other characters, through the game’s Dialogue Stance System. This functions a little like Mass Effect 2’s dialogue wheel, as you are given a choice of reactions that steer the dialogue in particular directions, but the comparison isn’t entirely fair; whereas ME 2’s interactions were all measured by a simple moral dualism, Alpha Protocol’s system is considerably more complex. You can choose to be Aggressive, Suave or Professional, but there’s no universally “good” or “bad” approach – every character you encounter has their own individual temperament, and it’s up to you to judge which stance is most appropriate to the situation. Glib one-liners might impress your flirtatious handler, but they’ll hardly score you any points with a dour, tight-lipped corporate kingpin. The fact that you’re only given a few seconds to make each selection lends urgency to the exchange whilst keeping the dialogue running smoothly.
With so many tenuous relationships in flux, the storyline is continually overwrought with plot twists, double-crosses and lurid liaisons, but such devices are hardly unusual for the genre. The amount of planning makes the execution feel entirely deliberate; the developer knows, for example, that you won’t remember half the shady characters and organisations that are hurled at you in rapid succession, and the game helpfully arranges them into Intel dossiers that become more detailed as you discover more. You can even buy additional Intel between missions that will help you understand your adversary’s history and psychology, giving you a better idea of how to approach them. There are so many subplots and hidden agendas in play that by the time you’ve completed the game, you will only have experienced about a third of the entire content – Obsidian clearly wants to encourage substantial replay value by the sheer volume of narrative to explore.
As far as choice is concerned, Alpha Protocol’s plot and dialogue tick all the boxes. Unfortunately, the gameplay is altogether less innovative – once you actually jump into the action, the cracks become all too visible. When starting a new game, you can select from a number of basic ‘classes’ with pre-determined stats, or you can distribute them yourself if you prefer; specialties include stealth, hand-to-hand combat, sabotage, gadgetry and proficiency with each of the game’s firearms. While such customisation effectively allows you to mould the gameplay to your own personal tastes, it’s much too restrictive, as Michael is rendered almost comically inept at any skill he hasn’t invested points in. Stealth agents who bulk up their accuracy with the pistol will be silently capping guards in no time, but when forced into a firefight, they’re about as effective with a shotgun as Elmer Fudd. Forcing the player to engage their strengths and avoid their weaknesses is understandable to a degree, but the stats you’ve chosen too often play a greater role than your actual skill – Michael is supposed to be an accomplished agent, after all. You can, however, customise your weapon loadout with barrels, sights, clips and accessories that improve precision and stability, in order to counteract the worst areas of ineptitude.
The cover system is also unreliable; parts of your body are exposed to the enemy even while you’re crouched behind a barrier, so you’ll still occasionally take damage. Once you “stick” to a wall or column, it’s also a little tricky to detach yourself, which can be incredibly frustrating if you’ve been biding your time for the perfect ambush. In spite of this, however, you won’t encounter much resistance from the enemy – almost by way of compensation, the game’s AI is hopelessly dim-witted and oblivious to your actions. Even if two guards are standing only a few metres apart, you can sneak up on one and drop him with a thud and a muffled cry without the other ever noticing, as long as his back is turned. Their peripheral vision is minimal; they might as well be humming with their fingers in their ears as they patrol in fixed patterns, stopping at regular intervals as if inviting an assailant to garrotte them from behind. There’s still a certain satisfaction to slipping into a room and clearing it without being seen, but an element of unpredictability would have made success more rewarding and less contrived.
The game’s graphics, which utilise Unreal Engine 3, are generally solid – be it sun, snow or sandstorms, each environment is well designed and features some striking weather and lighting effects. There are, however, moments when the camera breaks through walls, and some models have poorly-formed shadows that don’t give them a proper sense of weight. The facial animations don’t quite meet the emotional delivery of the dialogue, but it’s a triviality given that most of the characters are spies with well-trained poker faces. The worst offender by far is the bump mapping; the textures take so long to load that you’ll still see them being gradually applied well after the mission or cutscene has started. It’s incredibly distracting to watch a room full of unidentifiable shapes slowly come into focus while you’re trying to get your bearings. The game’s menus, however, are admirably stylish, particularly those in your PDA.
While any combination of these faults might ordinarily be regarded as a deal breaker, Alpha Protocol is far more than the sum of its parts. The gameplay and visuals would certainly have benefited from further fine-tuning, and yet the experience holds together with almost inexplicable cohesion. This is most likely due to the game’s exceedingly involved narrative, which exhibits far more polish; if only Obsidian had been as conscientious in all areas of its design, the game would have been truly engrossing. As it is, Alpha Protocol isn’t quite the paragon of self-determination that it had hoped to be – instead, it’s an intriguing hybrid whose divergent plot is the primary incentive for subsequent playthroughs. It’s a new franchise with room for refinement and growth; hew away the jagged edges and there’s definite potential for a sequel.
Final Score: 7.0