In the “objective video game review” sense, Alpha Protocol is pretty much the worst. It’s super irritating to play, and every time I speak with somebody from Obsidian, the studio that made it, they just shake their head. But on the Phil Owen “Was This A Big Waste Of Time?” Scale, however, Alpha Protocol comes out on the good end every time I go back to it.
When it was released five years ago, everybody hated it. Like, it was so widely disliked that whenever I tweet about it being the best game ever people think I’m making a joke. But I’m not. I’m serious. Deadly serious. Let’s talk about why I like the janky, buggy mess so much.
-It’s very short. If you look at HowLongToBeat, you’ll see the average completion time is like 13 hours. And people on the forums and in Steam reviews often claim it’s upwards of 20. Those estimates are largely incorrect, though I suppose if you go full stealth it will lengthen the game. My normal playthroughs of Alpha Protocol, though, are under eight hours. The key there is to always always always play on easy, because that minimizes the irritation of the brokenness of the “game stuff.” What makes Alpha Protocol great isn’t stealth karate chopping or shooting bad guys anyway. Like all the great Bioware RPGs, the “gameplay” is what you suffer through to get to the good stuff.
-The ways the game changes based on how to treat people and the tactics you use during missions are super interesting, and make the game feel worth playing multiple times. There are major characters you might never even meet if you play the missions in a certain order. This is why it’s good that the game is so short—the longer a game is, the more prohibitive it is to play more than once, which is clearly a bad thing for games which have “branching story = replay value” as a marketing hook (coughmasseffectcough). When I played Alpha Protocol for review at FileFront back in the day, I played it through three times. That’s the only time I’ve done that in my career writing about games.
-It has the most hilarious RPG protagonist ever. Alpha Protocol’s dialogue wheel is tone-based, and player character Mike Thorton has three tones: super dull and matter of fact, humongous impatient asshole and smarmy piece of shit. It’s incredible. You can play it like “this is just what Mike is like” by picking the same one every time or you can use the different tones as affected spy personas, but either way this system which at first comes off as limiting turns out to be far more fun than more robust or straightforward dialogue systems in other games.
Much to my surprise, Alpha Protocol has seen a pretty remarkable public perception turnaround lately. It was widely maligned upon release, but on Steam right now the user review consensus is “very positive” and if you type “alpha protocol is” into Google you’ll get some surprising suggestions.
It’s so good people still want to pirate it!
And before you tell me about how you’ll never have time to play Alpha Protocol with that backlog you’ve got, remember this: it’s way shorter than that Witcher game you still haven’t finished.
You can yell at the author of this post about how much Alpha Protocol actually just sucks on Twitter at @philrowen