Alpha Protocol is the new espionage RPG from Obsidian Entertainment. This game has had an interesting development cycle that started almost four years ago and has been sitting on a shelf, finished, for over six months. Obsidian should sound familiar to RPG (Role Playing Game) fans in particular. Prior to becoming Obsidian, many of the key people worked for Black Isle Studios. That company created some of the highest regarded RPG's such as Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, and Fallout. They also worked with BioWare on Baldur's Gate. Now, Obsidian has finished a new game in an area of the RPG genre none have yet tried.
Story: This is the meat of Alpha Protocol, and you can send the story down varying paths based on what you choose during the game. The game allows you to drastically alter how the story progresses, however, the backbone of it remains the same. The game is set in recent times, a terrorist as acquired cutting-edge missile technology and brought down a commercial aircraft. You, Mike Thorton, have been selected to join Alpha Protocol to put a stop to them. Alpha Protocol is a super-secret government organization where missions are handed out and the agents have free reign on how best to complete them. The program is not on any balance sheet and few people in the United States government are even aware of its existence. If it is discovered, the program is shut down and restarted as something else, somewhere else. As a spy, you can approach the story in a myriad of ways such as the professional route, the hot headed "shoot first" route, the suave James Bond route, or any combination thereof. In every key mission, you can take actions which alter how the story continues. For instance, you can keep a terrorist alive by faking his death, then calling in a favor for sparing his life later on, or you can terminate him. You can also select who you want to send your intelligence to, such as using it to blackmail a company, post it in the news, or sell it to the black market. Your choices affect which missions you get to go on, who your handlers are, item availability, who your enemies and allies are, and major key story events. The story evolves based on what you want, there are over 30 different endings and they can be very different. Dialogue sequences flow differently. Instead of other games, like Mass Effect, which this game gets compared to frequently, where you have unlimited time to make a dialogue choice with a very specific answer, this game merely allows you to take a stance from aggressive, suave, or professional and you only have a few seconds to make a choice. You also have the option to take action such as execute, spare, or bring up specific points with the person you are talking to. This allows the sequences to flow more naturally and remain suspenseful and not every character will respond to a particular stance the same way as others.
Though the story is largely generic, the cast of characters is memorable and bring the game to life. You have Mina, who acts as your primary handler for most of the game and is a by-the-books sort of character, Scarlet Lake, who is a journalist with a deadly secret, SIE, who loves aggressive men and is a domineering one woman army, Albatross, who is elusive and favors stealth approaches, you also have Steven Heck who is a sociopath that likes to blow stuff up and cause chaos, and Madison Saint James, who is just a bystander that got roped into everything thanks to you. There is also a large supporting cast that alters the story is a more peripheral way. Because the game allows for so many different choices, you may not be allies with all of the main characters and you may find yourself having to make difficult, split second decisions as to their fate. This game rewards you based on choice, good or bad. You gain perks during the game based on those choices, so, for instance, if you romance characters, you gain permanent bonuses. There are over one hundred perks you can unlock that provide a number of special bonuses from increased health, increased damage, to better evasion abilities, and more. The game takes itself seriously, but also has a sense of humor with the occasional cliche or funny mission debriefings. I like the "Veteran Attitude" perk which gives an experience bonus and additional dialogue choices, but upon closer inspection it reads "You've saved the world once, you'll do it again, and anyone who questions you can go ... themselves." There's also the Star Wars inspired "These Aren't the Agents You're Looking for" perk you get for talking your way past guards. You can also view television news stories which show your various missions and other stories. The developers made the news broadcasts similar to a popular cable news channel famous for its sensationalistic stories and politically motivated news actors, err, anchors.
Gameplay: Alpha Protocol is an RPG, not a shooter. It says so on the box and the game should be approached as such. With all good RPG's, you can customize yourself to a large extent. As with the guns and armor, everything about Mike's appearance can be modified with the exception of gender and bone structure. You can level up your character in a manner similar to that found in the first Mass Effect. You have a wide selection of skills you can level up, with four gun-based weapons, stealth, sabotage, toughness, martial arts, and tech as choices. At every level up, you are given advancement points to spend on the skills. Obviously, the more points in a given skill, the better you are at it and the more you can do with it. There is a level 20 cap and you cannot advance every single skill to the max, in fact, at a key moment in the game, you can select three skills to specialize in which will allow you to advance beyond the standard, non specialized, skills. Those three skills should be ones you use most often, if you use martial arts, for instance, you want to specialize in it to do greater damage and unlock high-level abilities. All skills require more than one point and the game gently pushes you towards the more spy-centric skills by having a lower point cost on those. Thankfully, the game gives you a sort of trial period. During the first set of missions in Saudi Arabia, which act like a tutorial, you play with the skills you chose when you started. But, if they aren't working out for you, when you're able to select your specialization, you can also redo all of the skills again to better suit your play style. As a spy, you have access to all sorts of gadgets from standard grenades and flashbangs, to more exotic items like radio mimics and EMP charges. Your tech rating will determine how good you are with the tech-based items and it will also determine how many you can bring on a mission. Spies also have various abilities they unlock during level up. These can be passive such as allowing you to evade detection for a few seconds, should you be detected, or active like remotely hacking terminals or fury which slows down time during martial arts attacks. When you are sent on a mission from one of your handlers, you can approach it any way you choose from a stealthy approach all the way to the more loud and violent one. Depending on the mission, you have to select your loadout before you leave, do you go with heavy but loud armor or quiet and weaker armor, do you go in with shotguns or pistols? Guns and armor can be heavily customized with a variety of add-ons and all of which will be needed. You have a number of guns to choose from such as pistols (Low damage unless fully aimed, close range and can be silenced), sub machine guns (Inaccurate spray and pray weapons with low damage on each individual bullet, medium to short range), shotgun (High damage and it can allow you to move without losing much aim, but the shots go everywhere, short range), and assault rifles (Can be highly accurate and very damaging if appropriately equipped and aimed, long to medium range).
The gun mechanic in the game is unusual for people accustomed to shooters. You can fire your weapon without aiming, but the bullet can go anywhere in the rather large reticule if you do. You must aim your weapon by holding a button down, the longer you hold it, the smaller the reticule becomes and if you let it shrink all the way, you get a critical hit which, on most enemies, will take them out. If you move or stop aiming, the reticule expands. The speed at which the reticule shrinks is determined by your skill in that weapon. Even if you don't have any skill points invested in a given weapon type, you can still use it but you will not have access to abilities or special bonuses until you spend points. Because of this slower take on gunplay, you cannot run-and-gun effectively, nor can you go into a situation with your guns blazing like Rambo and expect to survive for very long, thus forcing you to strategize. I found that guns can be a more supportive element and I favored using martial arts whenever possible. In battle, you have endurance and hit points. The endurance is determined by perks, skills, and largely by armor. Endurance regenerates after several seconds of not taking damage, however, hit points are permanent until you heal. There is also a cover mechanic, but, if you aren't covered completely, or choose to hide behind something an enemy can see through, like a chain link fence, guards will be able to spot you if they get close. In this situation, it is best to stay out of sight completely and then jumping an enemy with a martial art skill when they get near, or setting a trap. My preferred method of clearing a room was to isolate a guard, and make some noise for it to come and investigate. I would then jump out and K.O. the guard then hide again. Another guard would hear what happened, but not see me, and when he got close, I repeated the tactic. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. There are also a number of fun minigames, the lock picking minigame can be tricky since you're on a timer and you have to use the pressure-sensitive triggers to move tumblers into place and lock them. The hacking minigame can be aggravating. You are given two lines of code and you have to match those two codes to randomly changing lines of codes. If you're able to find the code that isn't changing and matches the code you have, you must quickly move it into place and lock it down. This minigame is on two timers, one is the overall timer and the other is a shorter timer which randomizes the location of the static code after a few seconds.
Technical: This is an Obsidian game, great story and gameplay ideas, but buggy. Alpha Protocol uses the Unreal Engine 3. This engine is known for problems on consoles and doesn't have anti aliasing for the PC. This is a Games for Windows title, but not a Live-enabled game even though it is a multiplatform release on the PC, PlayStation 3, and the Xbox 360. This means there are no achievements and updates will have to be downloaded manually. The game allows for the Xbox 360 Controller to be used, though you need to change a setting in the options menu to enable it. The graphics are passable and would be good if it were 2007, but nowadays, they look dated. Not bad per se, but dated none the less. It seems as though the art department had some great ideas but the programmers were limited in what they could use or ran out of time. The Italian set of missions, for instance, look great, especially the museum, but lack polish. The character models are a little bland and wooden at times, but there are moments when everything clicks into place with them and the voice acting, where their expressions and actions closely match what they are doing. Case in point: Mina. Her voice actor is very good and the model can show a shocking level of emotion at times. The main character, Mike, isn't as fortunate with so-so voice acting and a generic model. Speaking of voice acting, Nolan North makes a required appearance as Heck's voice. As noted before, this game has bugs. I encountered two technical bugs, a mouse stuttering issue, which is eliminated with a 360 controller, and graphics popping in or flickering. The graphics flickering was common but pop in happened about five times and lasted a second or two. Both of these can be resolved with patching or future driver updates. I didn't have any show stopping crashes at all. A gameplay bug I encountered from time to time centers around enemy artificial intelligence. If the enemies see you, they come storming in, but if they just hear you, they walk in circles with one or two coming to find you. AI problems are most noticeable during boss battles. I was fighting a boss that chased me with a knife but he got hung on scenery directly in front of me as his path finding is anchored to me and not on a trail avoiding obstacles. This allowed me to stand in front of him and shoot away without resistance while he ran in place. During two other battles, the bosses just seemed to have given up. They ran to the other side of the room and just stood there. Even though I was being pelted by supporting enemy units, I didn't waste an opportunity and opened fire. I didn't dare move from my location in both cases as that may have reset the AI and the bosses may have restarted their rampage.
Most PC releases have Digital Rights Management (DRM) software (For this game it is Uniloc: SoftAnchor), and this is no exception. Thankfully, the game's distributor, Sega, has made the DRM forgiving. There is no disc check, you will have to activate the game over the Internet but there are exceptions if you don't have an active Internet connection when the game is installed, the system works similar to SteamWorks but does not use that software even on Steam installs. You are granted up to five licenses and can reclaim them during an uninstall, again, if you are not connected to the net or your PC is somehow wiped, there are alternate means of reclaiming licenses. Unlike Ubisoft's system, a constant Internet connection isn't required. After 18 to 24 months, Sega will release a patch to completely remove the DRM altogether. The game will check in with Sega's servers occasionally, giving them limited anonymous gameplay data to further tweak the game in patches or add-on's. This communication is not required and the game will not harass you if an Internet connection is unavailable. The game simply won't check in and the process happens entirely in the background. Given the bugs in Alpha Protocol, I think Sega should have some kind of data to iron out the problems. No system-level DRM drivers are installed, either. The DRM is focused on Alpha Protocol exclusively and does not blacklist programs, it will also uninstall itself when the game is removed. Given the draconian nature of some DRM schemes, the method and permissions Sega allows are very lenient and customer-centric. It's not as good as no DRM at all, but it is fair. I experienced no slowdowns with the game and was able to run it at 1920 x 1200 resolution on an Intel Core 2 Quad 9450, 8GB of RAM, and two 9800 GTX's in SLI. This is a more high end system, but as of this writing, there is no SLI profile specifically for this game so I'm limited to one graphics card with Alpha Protocol. All four CPU cores are probably not in use, nor does the game use much RAM even though it is 64-bit compatible. This game will not push your hardware very much if you have a modern system with a decent graphics card, 2GB or more of RAM, and a reasonably fast dual core CPU.
Misc.: This has been an interesting game for me to play. I usually like most of Obsidian's RPG's, even before they became Obsidian. Initial reviews on the console versions of the game left me very concerned. After reading the reviews, both bad and good, I eventually got the game. I've never seen professional reviews vary so widely, both in quality and score. This left me with a number of impressions: The PC version of the game was better than the console (Unreal Engine 3 problems, maybe? The PC could be better at overcoming bugs? PC gamers could be more tolerant of bugs as they are accustomed to them and patching?), the game plays like an RPG first and a shooter a very, very distant second or third or fourth (It is spelled out on the box, it is an RPG.), some reviewers didn't understand the gameplay mechanics or had little patience for it (Alpha Protocol is not to be played as a third person shooter, it is not Mass Effect and should not be treated as such. The game's mechanics reflect this.), a false impression was developed from trailers (They were fast paced and action heavy, not reflecting actual pacing which can lead to a wrong impression of Alpha Protocol.), the story was usually decent (Even here there was disagreement as to how good it was. Some said it was standard fare but well executed, others panned it. One reviewer even contradicted themselves saying it was unique in one paragraph and generic in another.), there are plenty of bugs (This happens in all versions of the game, but Obsidian is known for this and for patching constantly.), it is designed for the PC but controls are for the console (True.), and finally the graphics aren't that amazing (RPG's typically don't have jaw-dropping graphics. Obsidian games are not BioWare games, and certainly not Square-Enix games. People play these games for story and ideas mostly. Becoming obsessed with the graphics and ignoring everything else, except problems, is just sad. This game looks about as good as Dragon Age, and it too drew complaints.) My biggest problem with how the reviews is that many just aren't that well done. One can dislike a game yet appreciate certain elements. For instance, one reviewer at a professional gaming website (I won't mention it, but it is obvious once you read it) tried playing the game as a shooter, even though it isn't one, failed, then tore into Alpha Protocol's shortcomings. Some of the rage was warranted like the increased number of bugs on the console versions, but some it wasn't. For instance, don't flashbang yourself, take a screen shot of it, then put a caption that says it is a constant visual effect because it isn't. Other sites make one review, even though they review games across all gaming platforms, and simply copy and paste the review, along with the usually low score, across all platforms. This is a game whose quality varies widely across platforms and reviewing it on each is suggested. This long rant about reviews is justified as they will leave gamers totally confused since many aren't well done with reviewers who didn't take time to learn game mechanics, who don't like this type of game at all, or are focused on what was done wrong rather than right.
Personally, I liked the game, but I knew what I was getting when I bought it. It is a very Obsidian game that is ambitious with many interesting elements and some glaring issues. The story is well crafted and its path is determined by the gamer, same thing with character development. I enjoy a good RPG with plenty of customizing rather than an action heavy game with a light story. This is probably why I enjoyed Alpha Protocol. Gamers who are debating whether or not to buy this game should keep this in mind: I cannot emphasize this enough, Alpha Protocol is an RPG not a shooter. The story takes center stage here rather than combat. When combat is warranted, the fact Mike is a spy and not a soldier comes into play. If you love RPG's and don't mind a slower combat system, Alpha Protocol is worth it. If you view stories as filler between the killing, look elsewhere because this game will not satisfy you. Alpha Protocol is available for the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. If you have the choice between a PC and a console, I strongly suggest the PC as it seems to run more smoothly and the bugs can be more easily overcome. If you can only get it for the console, pick your poison as both don't run very well until patches are released. If Obsidian stays true to form, they will release a large number of fixes which will make the game much more playable on all platforms. Sadly, PC gaming is more of a niche nowadays, and with all the problems the console versions have, plus bad reviews, I don't believe the game will do very well. Alpha Protocol will likely have a small but dedicated fan base who enjoys this type of game and will want a sequel or expansion to see what Agent Thorton gets into next. Whether or not the game will be successful enough to allow for this is in question.