“Your weapon is choice,” boasts the box of Alpha Protocol, the new espionage roleplaying game (RPG) from Obsidian Entertainment. If my weapon is choice, perhaps I have should’ve chosen something else. I should have chosen to replay Mass Effect 2.
It’s not that Alpha Protocol is completely awful. There are many things to like about the game if you’re a fan of action-RPGs. It’s just that you need to have the time and patience to endure the game’s many flaws and to get to its redeeming features.
And patience with Obsidian is wearing thin. The developer has a track record of delivering buggy and unfinished games that somehow manage to redeem themselves on the strengths of their stories and core gameplay. After Knights of the Old Republic II and Neverwinter Nights 2, this is the company’s third and final strike.
Alpha Protocol plays much like Bioware’s Mass Effect games with a similar mix of dialogue, character development and action. It’s set in a generic Tom Clancyesque world of geopolitical intrigue and follows the missions of an American operative call Michael Thorton as he tries to unravel a terrorist conspiracy.
The idea of an RPG rooted in gritty action-movie conventions rather than in the worlds of high fantasy and space opera is an appealing one. But as good as the premise is, its execution is flawed. The single biggest problem with the game is its lack of technical gloss.
Even though it’s based on the Unreal Engine 3, Alpha Protocol often looks a generation behind other games based on the same engine. Environments are bland, characters have dead eyes, character animations are laughably simplistic, and, worst of all, art direction is uniformly dull.
Alpha Protocol is dogged by frequent frame-rate drops (on the Xbox 360, at least) and texture pop-in — unforgivable problems for a game that isn’t doing much to push the hardware or the engine. Enemy artificial intelligence is also shaky — you’ll often find henchmen running around in circles or standing around doing nothing while you’re shooting their friends.
And gameplay is deeply flawed. Alpha Protocol’s mixture of turn-based and real-time mechanics doesn’t always gel. It looks and feels like an action game, but, like a true RPG, it uses statistics in the background to calculate whether your bullets and blows are landing and how much damage they are dealing. It’s initially disconcerting to line up perfect head shots that miss the mark because the dice didn’t roll in your favour.
The interface is unwieldy — managing your inventory and abilities involves navigating endless menus. Alpha Protocol is also full of annoying mini-games for hacking computers, picking locks and disabling alarms. And to round off its litany of sins, Alpha Protocol is stuffed full of cheap, frustrating boss fights.
Obsidian has always known how to craft a good story with memorable characters, but even here Alpha Protocol falls short. Though the plot has enough twists and turns to pique interest, some of the writing is poor compared to the work that Bioware’s scribes do.
When he’s trying to be smooth, Thorton unintentionally wanders into Austin Powers territory. When he’s trying to be tough, he’s more Steven Segal than Jack Bauer. The game world also lacks the depth and attention to detail you’ll find in the best RPGs.
Perhaps the biggest reason to attack Alpha Protocol is that it could — and should — have been so much better. It’s brimming over with clever ideas that could’ve made for a compelling experience. The basic RPG mechanics are sound and give you the flexibility of developing a character that specialises in dealing with enemies using firearms, stealth or gadgets.
Alpha Protocol video trailer:
And the game’s conversation system is truly engaging — it’s Alpha Protocol’s best feature. The conversation system allows Thorton to pick from a range of approaches when he interacts with people in the game world. He can try to be persuasive like James Bond, intimidating like Jack Bauer, or businesslike like Jason Bourne. At points in the game, he’ll have choices about whether he should kill certain characters or allow them to live.
Picking the right responses can swing an enemy over to Thorton’s side, providing him with bonuses such as extra cash, new weapon options and information. And these choices also shape the way that the story eventually plays out. I found myself pushing through the actual game play segments to get to the conversations.
Whatever virtues Alpha Protocol has, it’s simply not good enough to compete with many of the games that have been released during the course of this year. Alpha Protocol would’ve looked dated if it had launched alongside Mass Effect 1; compared to Mass Effect 2, it comes across as antiquated. — Lance Harris, TechCentral
- Reviewed on Xbox 360. Also available on PlayStation 3 and Windows PC. Apparently, some of the interface and technical issues are less pronounced in the PC version