There’s no denying that Alpha Protocol has undergone a strange development cycle. Originally slated to be released in October of 2009, Sega suddenly announced that the game would be delayed until the following May with no specific reason given. The strongest argument for the delay was that it was to give time for Obsidian to make the game “more like Mass Effect” after a leaked Sega document was made public. It seems even the seven month delay wasn’t enough as the final retail release, although not without its merits, is an unfinished and buggy mess.
Alpha Protocol’s subtitle “The Espionage RPG” tells you right away what the game wants to be. Taking inspiration from other games, such as, Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid, and then mixing in RPG elements, like experience points and dialogue trees, Alpha Protocol sets out to be something unique. In some ways it succeeds with the RPG elements usually being fairly strong, especially, in the way your decisions actually affect what happens next. It’s unfortunate that the majority of the mission-based gameplay is so clumsy as it can be hard to see the impressive game that lies beneath.
The most glaring flaw of Alpha Protocol is the terrible enemy AI. I don’t know what the AI programmers were trying to do but the majority of the time your enemies’ actions don’t even make sense. I’ve witnessed enemies who climb up a ladder, reach the top, and then turn right around and climb all the way back down even though they’re being shot at the entire time. I’ve seen turrets that continuously fire in the wrong direction as I stood directly in front of them and destroyed them. Then, the most common sighting is the enemies who run straight across an entire room just to punch you in the face. They have guns, there’s cover to hide behind, and you’re shooting at them the entire time yet nothing deters them from their main objective: to punch you.
It’s no surprise that the bosses suffer from the same AI problems. I survived almost every boss fight because they would get stuck in a place where their shots would miss me but I could hit them. Most of the time, the bosses wouldn’t even try to maneuver to a different spot. They would just stand there while taking damage and dealing none to me. The thing is I didn’t even try to exploit the bad AI it was just unavoidable.
The game’s leveling up system is also unbalanced. There’s a variety of skills you can level up, but for the entire game I just stuck to leveling up my Stealth, Assault Rifle, and Toughness skills and never touched anything else. As the game went on it actually became easier to survive as I didn’t have to try to very hard to stay hidden, my assault rifle was more powerful and more accurate, and I had more HP. I was never even tempted to upgrade any other skills because those three were so powerful.
You can also buy guns and upgrades from an online storefront but it’s organized poorly and never really adds to the game. After purchasing a few upgrades and a better weapon early on, I eventually only used the store to purchase ammo and mission assistance (more on this later). I never had trouble surviving in the missions before so it seemed unnecessary to upgrade my weapons any further.
The one thing the online store did that was compelling was the ability to purchase assistance with your next mission. Depending on your allies and decisions in the game each mission would have several ways for you to make the next mission easier. You could hire an ally to place items and weapons around the mission area, take out some of the enemies before you arrive, give you a map of the area, give you information on your target, and a variety of other options. If the need to upgrade your weapons and gear had been stronger it would have made for some interesting decisions, especially for times when you’d have to choose whether upgrading your weapon or getting help with the next mission was more important. For my play through I was able to afford every piece of assistance that was offered so it was a decision I never had to make.
Surprisingly, with all that’s wrong with Alpha Protocol I still found myself enjoying the majority of the game. It wasn’t the story or the main character, Michael Thorton, as both were kind of generic and stereotypical of spy fiction. It was the way that Obsidian enabled you to interact with and change the story that drew me in.
After almost every mission it felt like the decisions I had made mattered and were going to affect me later in the game. For example, when you’re interrogating a target you’re always given the option to execute them right away. Doing this may take away a potential threat later on but it can also take away a potential ally or you may miss out on some important information that could be beneficial. There are also certain levels where the decision to kill your adversaries or avoid and/or knock them out will make a difference in the story. Some missions even have you make a choice that actually makes you think for a second. Do you save your friend/ally from being killed or do risk their life to save more people who you’ve never even met? The payoff of witnessing the way the story and dialogue change with your actions is incredibly rewarding and it’s something very few games have even attempted and fewer have succeeded at.
The dialogue system that Alpha Protocol uses should be mentioned, as well. While an NPC is talking, you are given three or four choices of what general type of line you want to say next. You’re not given the exact wording of what Michael Thorton is going to say, but rather general categories like, “Suave” or “Professional” are given. Different NPC’s will respond differently to how you talk to them so it’s up to you to figure them out. The dialogue system isn’t perfect as sometimes what Thorton says differs from what you were expecting. You may pick “Professional” thinking he’s going to be calm and positive to the NPC but instead he says something to piss them off. If Obsidian would have made the dialogue options a little less vague the dialogue system would have been less frustrating but it’s still impressive as it is.
Overall, it’s hard to justify the $60 price tag on Alpha Protocol, mainly because it feels so incomplete in many key areas. It’s a game with lots of potential and depending on what you enjoy you may be able to look past the many flaws and get some enjoyment out of it. It’s not terribly long, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re tempted to play through it a second or third time and see how your decisions can change the game. If Alpha Protocol would have been a complete and finished game I could see it being one of the best espionage games ever developed.
Unfortunately, it’s not a complete and finished game and thus I deem it worthy of a C+.