Obsidian’s made a name for itself over the years for taking on the daunting task of producing sequels to complex, high profile role-playing games. First it was Knights of the Old Republic II, then Neverwinter Nights 2, and soon we’ll see what the studio is able to do with Fallout: New Vegas. With Alpha Protocol, though, we get an entirely new game. There aren’t any preconceived notions: no established fan base, no gameplay systems that need to be preserved. Finally, this is a chance to see what Obsidian can do on its own terms. Unfortunately, it wasn’t worth the wait. It’s a wobbly, inconsistent game that gets a few things right, but is filled with so many awkward and glitchy bits you get the feeling that it should have spent some more time behind closed doors.
The setting and story are highlights. It’s a spy thriller filled with crime bosses, turncoats, global conspiracy and corporate greed, all told within a flashback framework. You are Micheal Thorton, an agent who’s forced to go rogue and unravel a sinister plot to shift the tide of global events for nefarious purposes. Set in real-world environments, this isn’t the type of setting we often get for role-playing games. Those used to flinging fireballs or swinging broadswords might relish the opportunity to strap on bulletproof body armor and burst fire with an assault rifle for a change. Like other games where choice and consequence play a role in how the story develops, Obsidian’s done a good job in Alpha Protocol making it feel like you have power over progression. As Thorton takes on missions in locations like Moscow, Taipei, and Rome, he encounters characters that want to partner up, offer helpful information, or greet him with a bullet. By engaging in a Mass Effect-style conversation system, you determine how you want to deal with them: professionally, with a flippant response, or by planting a bullet in their chest.
Opening up these kinds of options strengthens the role-playing aspect of the game, letting you feel as though you’re driving the story instead of being led along by the hand. Don’t like that machine-gun toting mobster wearing the pink sunglasses? Then get into a shootout with her. Or, if you’d rather, offer up a few flirtatious comments to win her over. Is that one love interest getting annoying? Well, then just prioritize the mission goal over her safety. Arriving at crossroads like these and determining who lives and who dies also has effects later on, netting you statistical bonuses for your relationship status with characters, unlocking new items to buy, and reaping other rewards as you correspond over email with those you decided to keep around. It’s an exciting system because you have a timer attached to inputting dialogue options so you have to think fast. Your response could be trivial, or it could wipe out a character entirely. It’s just too bad the personalities of the supporting cast aren’t developed better.
Most characters, even those around for the entire game, are flat stereotypes who rarely act in a way that feels human. Some scream, swear, and double-cross you and some wear gaudy clothes and dye their hair, but that’s no substitute for genuine personality and emotion. When one of the most intriguing characters in the game is a pistol-wielding bodyguard who doesn’t speak a word and nearly half of the Alpha Protocol experience is spent in conversation, it’s not a good sign.
Despite many of the characters being little more than cardboard cutouts, Thorton, even with his generic appearance, can be entertaining. As long as you don’t choose the boring response every time and decide to test the boundaries of what can be done in this game world, it’s possible to inject energy into the sometimes dry and meandering conversations. It’s especially rewarding to hear characters specifically reference actions you’ve taken throughout the course of the game, giving you a better sense that you’re having a permanent effect on events. Email messages, of which there are quite a few, tend to be of a different tone entirely, sometimes involving crude and crass language the likes of which appears nowhere else in the game. Is it trying to be a goofy spy tale filled with silly character designs and intentionally terrible accents or a grim story about international espionage? Alpha Protocol uncomfortably straddles the line. When it’s trying to be serious, it’s boring. When it tries to be funny, it’s like an eighth-grader writing on a bathroom stall.
At least the decisions you can make are exciting even if the characters generally aren’t, but all that washes away when you’re in the combat zones. For each location in the world you’re given a safe house; a room in which you can correspond with your handler to receive missions, check email, buy additional intel, and decide how to adjust your gear for the battle ahead. Shotguns, SMGs, pistols and assault rifles can be upgraded to alter and enhance functionality, and a range of armor kits and explosives can be equipped to make you more resilient, stealthy, and deadly. It’s a solid customization system, one that doesn’t surprise but allows for the kind of variation role-playing gamers would want, balancing loosely defined realism with the standards of the genre. Then you step into the field of combat and things start to unravel.
It’s not the lack of options that makes fighting fall flat. Every weapon has its own bonus mechanic, like holding a shotgun at the ready for a few seconds to enhance its knockdown properties, or keeping a pistol’s targeting reticule over a foe for a while to boost its accuracy. These help define each firearm, giving them more of a personality than their damage numbers and discharge sounds. Weapon-specific skills are also very useful, particularly the pistol’s chain shot ability that lets you freeze time and pinpoint the exact spot you want a bullet to land, with additional skill upgrades allowing you to queue up more shots. Once enemies are alerted to your presence, you can take advantage of an unreliable stick-to-cover system, ducking behind environmental obstacles as enemies do the same to exchange rounds with minimal damage done to health and armor.
As you fire away at foes, you’ll likely be overwhelmed and forced to retreat to search for health or allow shields to recharge. In these instances, the problematic artificial intelligence hurts the experience. Enemies flail about, trotting around catwalks and office hallways, incapable of recognizing that you’ve simply rounded a corner. Sometimes, they advance on your position and repeatedly unload shots into a wall with no chance of hitting you. They’ll even run into each other and get confused or climb up and down ladders for no clear purpose. In rare instances, they’ll get stuck in the walls and floors. Even when you’re out in the open, enemies infrequently engage in any kind of intelligent assault, content to sit in one spot while firing and reloading, or running directly into a waiting shotgun barrel. If you’re out in the open, for some reason enemies will make blind suicide charges to try and hit you with melee strikes while you’re spraying them with SMG bursts. It sucks out the excitement of combat and makes it difficult to believe these are elite operatives instead of random strangers who were handed guns and armor five minutes before Thorton showed up.
It doesn’t help that combat setups are repeated too frequently, making the game feel monotonous as you plod between increasingly familiar encounters. To shake things up it’s possible to invest in the stealth line of skills and attach a silencer to your pistol. Initially it’s decent fun to sneak up behind guards as they patrol around stages, to stay crouched and avoid making loud noises. But the stealth system becomes more imbalanced as you progress, with the upgraded versions of the Shadow Operative skill functioning like a ‘kill everyone’ button, letting you sneak around for long periods of time and murder enemies right in front of others without giving away your position as if you’d slipped on the One Ring.
Alpha Protocol’s boss encounters are among the most frustrating parts, as the super-powered adversaries sprint around maps unloading bullets and then close the gap to get in a few awkward melee hits. They may be challenging, but rarely any fun. These boss fights do break up the monotony of some stages, though, along with some additional mission goals like requiring nonlethal takedowns to stay in good standing with a handler or forcing you to choose between pursuing an assassin or the target you’re trying to protect. A few turret and sniper sequences are sprinkled in for variety’s sake, but they don’t do enough to offset the issues with the core gameplay.
Apparently, no role-playing game would be complete without a smattering of mini-games, and so you get a few in Alpha Protocol. They’re all designed for a gamepad, though. Console players will likely find some enjoyment in the alphanumeric code matching of the hacking or the pressure sensitive lockpicking minigame, but PC users will be left feeling largely ignored because the systems were not tuned well for the mouse and keyboard. This tilt toward the console versions extends across the majority of Alpha Protocol’s interface. The mouse-keyboard combo is functional, but the game definitely feels like it was designed for a gamepad. Those playing on PC might want to hook up an Xbox 360 controller for the best experience since making selections on menus, particularly the weapon mod customization, doesn’t seem to want to consistently cooperate with mouse clicks.
The notion that Alpha Protocol is unrefined is further reinforced by the visuals, which look dated regardless of your platform of choice, and on consoles tend to chop up fairly frequently. The character models are unremarkable, environments are dull and lifeless, and most animations are weirdly stiff and unnatural, like Thorton’s unintentionally hilarious death sequences as he bounces around like rubber. Thorton’s voice acting is good, but otherwise it’s a mix of suitable and what’s hopefully intentionally cheesy. Reject James Bond tunes make up the majority of the soundtrack.
Obsidian’s Alpha Protocol offers an original setting and the power of choice. It’s a game where you decide the fate of a majority of the cast, giving you the sense that the story is guided as much by you as it is by the designers. With a number of ways to customize the experience – you can play as a stealth agent with a silenced pistol or bullet-spraying berserker – it initially seems like everything should be in place for an entertaining role-playing experience. But Obsidian fumbled this one, badly in spots. A more rounded cast of characters could have helped out immensely because it’s difficult to build up any emotional investment with the stereotypical personalities wrapped up in this twisting tale of conspiracy and global domination. Imbalanced skills, glitches, dim-witted enemies, and repetitive encounters further undercut the entertainment, making Alpha Protocol a game you can safely pass by.