Returning To Alpha Protocol, The Spy Adventure That Survived

Illustration for article titled Returning To emAlpha Protocol/em, The Spy Adventure That Survived

Time and again they've told me, "Dude, you should play Alpha Protocol!" And time and again, I've ignored them. Until now.

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For some reason, this past weekend I decided to really play the game. There's a bit of a lull going on right now, with The Last of Us out of the way and, aside from the odd Nintendo release, the decks clear until bigger games start dropping in August. I also remembered reading some cool stuff about the game in Jason's profile of Obsidian, the development studio that made the game. Seems like a good time to give Alpha Protocol a chance.

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And so, I started playing it. I customized my dude, giving him "The Castro" beard that I'd heard so much about, ("The Castro Situation"™ Idle Thumbs), and got playing.

I remembered that I'd actually started this game once before, though I'd never made it past the first Saudi Arabia mission. What a depressing, boxed-in mess of corridors and brown on brown on brown! This game doesn't put its best foot forward, does it? But I soldiered on, figuring out how to sneak around the daft artificial intelligence. And after a couple hours, I started having a considerable amount of fun.

Side observation: When reviewing The Last of Us, Tom Bissell remarked about guards who trained at "the Stare-at-a-Wall Guard Training Academy." Those guys have got nothing on the guards in Alpha Protocol. This dude never moved:

Illustration for article titled Returning To emAlpha Protocol/em, The Spy Adventure That Survived
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I mean, think about it: He's a guard. And he's going to stare into the corner of the room, without moving? Okay!

I was happy to see that completely by coincidence, two game critics whose work I enjoy, Brad Galloway and Sparky Clarkson, happen to be writing a letter series looking back at the game. They're both replaying the game, and have posted the first letters today. They'll have more as they go.

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I'm still early enough that I don't have a ton of opinions, but at the time being, this seems like the kind of game that I wish so much would be the game it could've been (with proper budget and development time) that I'm willing to forgive a lot of crustiness. I mean… if this game starred Cate Archer and played like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I'd probably die.

I'll likely have more to say about the game as I play more, but for now, I turn it over to you: Anyone out there a fan of Alpha Protocol? Have you played it lately? What do you think of this game, and what have I got in store for me?

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DISCUSSION

Let me tell you about Alpha Protocol.

It's a bad game, and you should buy it.

I say it's bad because the overall narrative is bad, the core gameplay is broken, and, to be quite honest, the bugs are weird. I'm also exhausted, so while I'd love for this to be some lengthy, fantastic, in-depth exploration of Alpha Protocol, it probably won't be superb. But, I mean, it's a game I think you should play, so I'm going to do my best to tell you what I remember.

I'm going to do my best not to spoil you, but it's important to understand this: Alpha Protocol is an actual role-playing game. It is not—I repeat, not—what most people think of when they think RPG. It is a game where you are literally defining your role, improvising the person of Michael Thornton, and as such, things can change wildly based on your actions. And it also has the best dialog wheel-style system in the world.

Now, and I could be remembering this wrong—the ultimate villain of the game will actually change depending on your actions. Take this with a huge, huge grain of salt, because my memory is really crappy right now. The way I met the villain was through a video screen. He was like "YES, IT IS I" and Michael was like "WHOAH DUDE ITS YOU!" but I was scratching my head going "wait, who is thi—oh yeah, I met him in one cutscene near the game's beginning, I think? Maybe? I'm not really sure?" So that came kinda outta nowhere.

When it comes to story, Alpha Protocol not that compelling, characters kinda run all over the place (as does the story's tone), there's no real player motivation to do anything beyond "I was betrayed! I'm so genre savvy, I should have seen this coming! Also, that girl in The Agency that I kind of like kinda likes me back, so That Guy who is kind of a jerk is, to no one's surprise, also in love with her and hates me."

So this is going to sound weird when I say that the characters are kinda fascinating, totally fun to talk with, and really quite cool. As an overall narrative, it doesn't make sense, but... y'know, despite that? It's awesome. There's one sequence where you can make friends with a professional torturer while he's torturing someone, and it's just amazing.

The only boss who sucks is the Russian guy. I hate him. Another boss was trivially easy—just hide behind the indestructible pillars and pop out to shoot him when he reloads. Another was amazingly hard until I realized that I could climb up a tower, avoid the waves of enemies that wouldn't stop coming until he died, as well as his never-ending grenade spam.

Like I said, the gameplay's kinda bad. That boss fight? Yeah, it's insanely hard... unless you climb up a tower, at which point, the only weapon that can harm you is the boss's sniper rifle, which takes time to reload. It's just... it's not good gameplay. The actual shooting element is serviceable, I can't remember much about hand-to-hand, pistol shooting is overpowered... it's just completely boring as any kind of third-person shooter or brawler or whatever else.

If you go into this game expecting good gameplay, remember that these were the guys responsible for Fallout: New Vegas, a game which scored poorly, not because it was the lesser RPG, but because it made no intelligent use of 3D space, having a mostly boring, flat map that just wasn't all that fun to explore.

Alpha Protocol's kinda like that: it's a game that never feels at home as a 3D game. Think of a studio that has made a 3D game that has thoroughly underwhelmed you (not disappointed, not raged... just... left you feeling kinda empty inside).

Got one?

Good.

That studio could do a better job with the actual gameplay than Alpha Protocol does. I don't even have to know who it is.

Alpha Protocol is all about the roleplay, perhaps to its detriment. It is, quite possibly, the best RPG released this generation, because there simply is no game out there that has as many consequences as a result of player action, with, perhaps, the exception of the original Witcher and its sequel.

But when it comes to the gameplay, it can be moderately fun, incredibly tedious, and yeah, sometimes, it's just downright bad... but I keep wanting to get it on Steam next time I see it on sale, because it's such an interesting game. It's a game that's stayed with me for so long. It's a game that you play despite the moving about and sneaking and fighting—a game you play for the roleplay.

Which brings me to the bugs.

Many times, I'd be walking through a map, hit a random loading sequence (remember how early Unreal Engine would pause for a second, load the level, and continue? Mass Effect does this in the Citadel, for instance, when walking from the shops to the hospital), and keep the forward arrow press down. Now, this wouldn't happen every time, but it did happen quite a bit—I'd just keep the arrow pressed down through the (rather short) loading sequence... and Michael would have turned 180 degrees.

This, of course, meant that Michael would walk into the loading sequence again. The first few times, I kinda got stuck in a loop. The next few times, as soon as I hit a loading bit, I removed my finger from the key until the loading had finished (usually a second or two) and progress from there.

Alpha Protocol had other bugs, but that one was the most memorable.

If they'd had consistent writing, significantly fewer bugs, better art design (art and sound design is why Mass Effect etches itself into our memories despite the poor gameplay), and, hey, gameplay that wasn't unbalanced/didn't suck... it could have been one of the best games of all time.

As it is, it's a weird little curiosity, a game that demands—and deserves—to be played.

Play it. Beat it. Let's talk when you're done.

"if this game starred Cate Archer and played like Deus Ex: Human Revolution"

Kirk, if I didn't think it was creepy, I'd say I was in love with you. Of course, I'm the guy who wanted to play Dishonored as Emily Kaldwyn, a girl lost and alone in a city being overrun by monsters, not knowing who to trust, hunting the man she thinks is responsible with new powers from The Outsider—and then becoming his pupil as he teaches her what it means to be a good person, though behind it all, he finds himself just a tad frightened and lost, since this little girl he has protected his whole life has proven to h—okay. Yeah. Okay, getting into fanfiction territory, aren't I?

No One Lives Forever and Deus Ex: Human Revolution are two of my favorite games, and NOLF is the game that made me want to play more first-person games as a female character.