Playing through Alpha Protocol is frustrating. Not because of the issues the game has - of which there is plenty - but rather it's frustrating because you're playing something that you know should be better than this. Earlier this year, 2 games came out which also had some real lack of polish and iffy design decisions but they were games that I put in quite a bit of time into anyway: those being Nier and Deadly Premonition. Those 2 and including Alpha Protocol are games where half of your brain is completely criticizing nearly every facet of what it has from the graphics to the AI to the unrefined gameplay and yet the other half keeps playing regardless and you're left wondering how's that possible with a game this flawed. Of course the game did have its share of problems from the delays to Sega apparently saying it wasn't "RPG enough" yet the game, which was supposed to come out in October, was delayed till the very beginning of June so that's roughly 8 months or so for polishing so makes you wonder if the game needed more time or if Sega interfered too much. Let me say now that this is a very hard game to recommend since you'll either be like me and can see yourself doing a 2nd playthrough just for the hell of it and the others will be like "I can't even finish it, it's so bad".
Story: The story centers on Michael Thorton, an agent in Alpha Protocol, one of those secret spy organizations that gets the job done without the official acknowledgment or help from the US government. His latest mission is to go after the leader of a terrorist organization who shot a commercial airliner while in-flight but when evidence surfaces that a defense contractor, Halbech, supplied the missiles, Michael goes into investigating Halbech and what their motives are for the attack.
One thing I never liked about Bioware's approach to choice in Mass Effect was that they wanted you to feel like the game was all about choice and repercussions yet most of it was small lines of dialogue that were changed and only in a few instances were things outright different. Alpha Protocol on the other hand you really feel that your progression in the story can divert completely based on what you do and you might even find complete cinematics that you didn't receive your first time through based on what you did or said, choices that have nothing to do with whether you were a nice guy or an evil prick.
Graphics: There's 2 types of ugly graphics: game's like the aforementioned Deadly Premonition with bad textures, wonky framerate, technical glitches and a general presentation that does not scream "HD graphics". On the other hand we have what Alpha Protocol has which are "HD graphics done poorly". There's a whole host of issues with the game graphically such as slowdown (with me thinking my Xbox might be warping or it's too hot), textures that load in eventually and even load back out, an almost pervasive amount of motion blur at times and this game is really bogged down graphically by these issues. Strangely enough, Obsidian is no stranger to these kind of things from Neverwinter Nights 2 and KOTOR 2 both having graphic problems so not sure if that's just how they are or whether they're a better developer that can never get it right due to money or time. On a sidenote: the girls of the game look cute.
Sound/Music: One thing I will commend the game on is the voice acting which is like Bioware games in that they're really top notch. While the VA for Michael Thorton isn't the most emotive guy, he does a commendable job at being likable and especially tolerable considering how much we have to hear him talk. And practically everyone from your handler Mina to journalist Scarlet and the various villains you'll come across. Music also has that very Bond-esque tones with some bigger action scores to the intrigue and quiet moments. Sound effects though are...okay. Guns are quite loud but aren't satisfying loud a la Battlefield but everything works fine, it's just not wholly impressive.
Gameplay: Here's where the sleeves get rolled up, the part where you basically get ready and go "alright game, you're gonna get it". Let's start with what the game bills itself which is the "espionage RPG" so let's look at the RPG bits. The game does offer a range of skills that you can maximize yourself in from better gun handling and skills, stealth, gadgetry such as grenades or even a big fist fighter but the problem is is that unlike Mass Effect, you always feel like you can't rely entirely on one "build" since you never know when the other build will be needed. So for instance, let's say you make the ultimate Splinter Cell build and make him entirely stealth-based and silenced pistol but then there's moments where you're basically in a shoot out and a more offensive force is required such as shotguns or assault rifles well tough. It pays to be a more well-rounder then go for one total approach because half the time you might be lamenting not being able to do certain aspects. And unlike Mass Effect 2 where the RPG stuff was your character and skill build and the shooting was normal shooting, this has the Fallout 3-esque dice roll where your attacks can hit or not hit so even though you're 4 feet away from a guy with a shotgun with a good spread, this health bar's barely going down cause that's what the dice of Vegas say so...or something. The counter to this is the more precision aim where the longer you hold your gun aimed towards a specific spot, the smaller the reticule gets, making for a very precise shot but when everyone's running around or not standing still, it can get a bit annoying.
Speaking of "everyone's running around", the AI is a bit of a mess and that's putting it lightly. Some will stand there and not fire while I'm shooting at his 3 other companions and THEN starts firing, some will run up to you like they want to shoot you, stop, get down on one knee and start firing completely out in the open, start running in circles like a dog chasing their tail and goes on and on. Even the game says it's best not to do anything while in sight of cameras so no killing dudes on camera or anything of the sort yet if you takedown a guy near a camera and it looks over the knocked out or dead body, no alarms trip. That however is not taken into account when you take on boss fights which are some of the more infuriating to get through and I guarantee you most of your deaths will come from these guys. They tend to be more accurate, take a lot more punishment and have unblockable attacks that do a fair bit of hurt and you can't do bugger all. Let's just say that if Obsidian were to name this the "espionage shooter RPG" well the shooting part would be kind of laughable.
Then there is the mini-games. There's 3 types: a word search type where you have to find 2 codes buried in a mix of rapidly changing codes to find the 2 that aren't moving but when you're scanning over the entire grid and literally seeing nothing standing still, it gets a bummer, not to mention the controls are incredibly sluggish and more than once you'll be like "hurry up!" The 2nd type is akin to those "follow the line to the end" mazes where you have to turn on circuits in order as you follow their number back to whichever circuit it ends on. When there's like 4 or 5, it's fine but when there's 8? And you don't have much time to do it in and the slow cursor doesn't help makes it a bother yet there's points in the game where you literally can't progress unless you hack it so be a good spy and buy the upgrade that slows down the hacking mini-game timer. The 3rd is less of a bother: the left trigger controls the pressure of a lock and by based on how hard or light you're pressing, it raises the lock while the right trigger locks it so you're aiming for that small space in between the 2 segments. It's decent and not as bothersome but can potentially be a hassle.
The last bit of gameplay isn't so much gameplay but it's part of the experience anyway which is the dialogue trees. Occasionally in conversation, you'll have the option to give a certain tone or response to an NPC so against the females you might have dismissive, flirty or professional whereas against a character you're not completely trusting of, you might get flippant, curious and understanding and it's based on these responses that will dictate where the game will go. For instance in one scenario you meet a German commando/milf type woman named SIE who you can befriend and potentially even bed later on. When you're on a mission, you can either bring the leader of a military group you've fallen in good graces with or you can bring SIE, which results in not only useful information and even help in-mission but dialogue between her, you and your normal handler Mina with some jealously going on between Mina but bringing the G22 guys as they're called, you might get a completely different cinematic or dialogue. This helps the game's replayability since you really feel like there's so much of the story you didn't see and unlike Mass Effect where you can make 2 or 3 big choices and the rest is really just how thorough you are, Alpha Protocol's narrative and story feels a lot bigger than just that first playthrough. Whether you can stomach additional playthroughs though is another thing.
You know that old saying which can be something like "this is really bad but I can't stop watching?", like you know you should be liking this less than you are but you keep doing it anyway? Alpha Protocol is similar in that in a year which has had so many polished and worthwhile games, this one comes out and it's unpolished in nearly every aspect except its story and characters (which seem to be an Obsidian trademark: iffy to decent gameplay but excellent storytelling) yet you keep going. Like Nier and Deadly Premonition, these are games that I'm enjoying and could easily see myself playing it again yet the more I want to see more of the game, the more I'll be seeing the glitches, bugs, unrefined...well everything yet I tolerate it because I want to see more of what else it has. It's like a sick gaming circle of life thing or something.