James Bond has a lot to answer for. Every guy that ever watches him would give his right arm (or at least a pinky) to be in his shoes even for a day. Thank goodness for games then, which let us live out that ridiculous fantasy without the downside of possible dismemberment.
Que Alpha Protocol.
Obsidian has had a history of crafting some excellent RPGs and I must confess I have been a little partial to their offering. On the flip side, they also have a history of buggy releases. Regardless of how good their stories and characters tend to be, I have yet to pick up a single title that was playable on day one. AP has been out for a while. And from all the early reviews I had read, it seemed that the unfortunate trend is set to continue. That’s part of the reason why I resisted the temptation to buy and review it early. I was waiting for the inevitable patches to fix the game.
To be honest, I find it hard to be completely impartial with this review. Mainly because playing it across two different rigs felt like playing two different games altogether. On a lower end laptop (which was still well over minimum spec) it was frustrating. On a mid range desktop with a decent 3d card, it was a lot more enjoyable.
So let’s do away with the bad news shall we? The engine is bloody awful. Not only is it a resource hog, it does absolutely nothing to justify it being one. The color palette is uninspiring at best, with a weird fixation for brown and blue. The load times are dreadfully long and the lip syncing is unconvincing in most places. Textures are outdated with certain parts feeling like it was out of a PS2. I hasten to add here that most of the technical issues I had were noticed only on the laptop.
The camera is an absolute pain. This is a title that was clearly designed with consoles in mind and does absolutely nothing to make it enjoyable on the PC. The whole game suffers as a result of being gimped and severely so. For instance, there is a sensitivity slider for the mouse but not one for controlling camera speed. Therefore, a setting that works for one simply does not for the other. If it wasn’t for the fact that my mouse had variable DPI settings, I doubt I would have been able to play through it.
The controls can be customized (whew) but still does not help the fact that combat is not intuitive. It just does not feel right. Weapons are hard to aim (again, more so on lower end hardware), regardless of how much you fiddle with the sensitivity. Combat overall felt like something out of a console based 3rd person brawler. It employs a cover system that’s become common but implements it poorly. Shotguns have the same range as rifles which have the same range as bloody pistols. And as for SMGs, I have never come across anything as hard to control. It’s as if the developers wanted to punish you for firing one. It just makes no sense. The weapons have no sense of “weight” to them at all. Melee is a bit more forgiving, and dare I say, fun. But considering how it becomes useless during boss battles (more on this later) it’s a bit of a letdown.
And the characters. Ah yes, the characters. When the game first started, it seemed like this was something Obsidian nailed. The NPCs were well voiced and infused with personality. The protagonist, the smart mouthed Mike Thorton, is instantly likable. But soon enough, I ran into her:
At this point I realized what the problem with this game really is.
It’s trying too damn hard.
Somewhere during the development process, the developers decided (or were told to) cater to everyone. And I do mean everyone. If you are a hardcore RPG player that thrives on making hard choices, you are covered. AP has them in spades. Want action? Here you go. The ability to execute someone midway through a conversation? No problem. A shooter mechanic with a cover system? Step right up son. How about some wacky anime / JRPG villains? Oh yes sire. I’m surprised Mario didn’t show up halfway through a gunfight.
It’s not that all these elements cannot come together well, but if even one of them isn’t done right, it just mars the entire experience. At its heart, AP is very much a typical Obsidian RPG. And this is where the good new begins. It does have a decent story, in many ways it’s speaks to what is happening in the world around us today. Big corporations in bed with demagogues, political assassinations, religious extremism and all that good stuff. Its well written, and presented well. The subject matter is actually quite serious which is why the wacky bosses that show up seem so jarring. Missions in the game are divided into sub-missions that the player has the freedom to approach in any order providing a certain degree of freedom.
The characters you come across during your globetrotting adventures are well voiced and believable (except for the crazy over the top JRPG ones). The conversations are not your typical “choose a line from the three presented”. No, the player just chooses a stance and the conversation plays out accordingly. You will have to be quick too, the game will only allow a few seconds for you to choose. This brings a refreshing sense of urgency to what is admittedly a dated mechanic. I would go far enough to say this might actually be the standard for all RPGs from now on. NPCs have fully fleshed out personalities (albeit stereotypical ones) and long memories. What you say and more importantly, how you say it matters. A seemingly innocent attempt at humor can have serious repercussions. Said repercussions range from not getting precious stat bonuses during missions to completely cutting off certain quest lines and even turning foes into allies and vice versa. Its moments like those that had me hooked to the game. This is certainly not the kind of title for people that do not like long lines of dialogue. On the other hand, if you enjoy engaging NPC’s in banter, you will love the well written script and excellent voice-overs. Thorton’s quick witted comebacks are definitely one of the highlights.
As fiddly as combat is, the skill system does make it more tolerable. At higher levels some of them end up making a mockery of most battles. For instance, unlocking “Shadow operative” in the stealth line makes you invisible for a certain amount of time. So you can go crazy while performing instant kill moves for 10 seconds. In broad daylight. With bad guys in full view of each other. There really is no sense of balance to the skill tree at all, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t fun. The same battle scenario that left me frustrated during early levels had me feeling like a bad ass once I had some experience points under my belt .The exception is boss battles. In these cases, melee is almost out of the question unless Thorton has a lot of points invested in it (and even then its a challenge). Experience is awarded for the number of objectives accomplished rather than how many bodies you left in your wake. How you accomplish them is up to you. Stealth is certainly one way to go. Setting traps to get the drop on your enemies is another one. And yes, taking the front door with all guns blazing is also an option.
The “floaty” feel of combat is a hard pill for PC vets to swallow but it does get better as the game goes along. As for AI, there isn’t any. You can take out targets silently within two feet of each other without fear of blowing your cover. And there isn’t any need to hide any bodies because they conveniently disappear after a few seconds. In fact, in some cases, enemies will actually walk over the corpses of their buddies without care as long as they didn’t actually “see” the attack that killed them.
There is an impressive arsenal at Thorton’s disposal and missions will allow you to get cash that can be used to buy better gear and upgrades from the black market. How you treat people will also decide what prices you pay. Carrying capacity is limited, so it pays to specialize in certain kinds of equipment to make the most of what you have. The black market can also be used to purchase additional intelligence for upcoming missions. These can make some missions relatively easier (by providing security loopholes) or provide extra objectives etc.
There will be plenty of opportunities to gather intel / additional ammo by unlocking doors or hacking into computers in a mission. As is becoming the norm now, these trigger mini games that the player must beat to be successful. This is another area where the games console roots become all too apparent. I personally find these annoying but you can use an EMP grenade to skip them. Seriously though, I really wish developers would get over the urge to shoe horn stuff like this. It’s repetitive and adds nothing to the experience apart from tedium.
The time spent between missions can be used to read up on dossiers on your PDA. Not only does this give you an insight into the organizations and people you encounter, in some cases it can give you an advantage by way of bonuses in combat.
Alpha Protocol is a flawed gem. It bristles with promise but its console centric development prevents it from delivering. It has an original setting with a good plot and the core experience makes you feel like you are dictating the course of the story rather being led down a set corridor. So much so that I immediately went for a second play-through of the 16 hour campaign. Even a third time is not entirely out of the question.
With a little more polish and some serious optimization for the PC this would have been a contender for Mass Effect’s throne. As it stands, it’s a shadow of the game that it should have been. Here’s hoping for a worthy sequel.
FINAL SCORE: 7.2/10
(Until recently, the game was not available to the Indian market via normal channels. Steam still does not offer it in this part of the world and you can pretty much forget retail. Gamersgate is the online vendor I used to buy it. The discount had it pegged at 5 Euros (approx Rs 300). At that price, Alpha Protocol is a must buy. I believe the standard price is around 20 Euros. Expect the same kind of offer to be up around Christmas time.)