Alpha Protocol (PC)

Alpha Protocol screenshot (PC)

Alpha Protocol. You will wait behind corners quite a bit. I’m a fan of the surprise attack from the front – if you’re decisive enough, you don’t have to creep up from behind guys to surprise them.

The “Espionage RPG” starts off very clumsy. I expect a lot of people to stop playing before they’re even properly out of the tutorial, because for the first couple of hours all you see is a cheap, not up to par third person action title with dodgy mechanics and unsatisfying, vague interaction. The environments couldn’t be more generic, and even those are delivered inadequately.

But by the time you get to Rome, after the first major plot twist, Alpha Protocol finds its stride and things suddenly become interesting.

I was a big fan of the TV show Alias and at times you reach that sort of experience here – a not quite so glamorous take on James Bond’s antics. At other times it defaults too much on its at best adequate, most often just frustrating action. You will be much happier if you play it with maxed out stealth, martial arts and pistol skills instead of the more aggressive combat skills, because as long as there is no alarm raised, it works well enough. The problems become more evident in heated combat, with the supposed super spy unwilling to get behind cover and unable to land hits despite aiming carefully. Maybe it’s because of that painful and awkward looking “crouch” walk he’s doing all the time.

Crucially, it’s mixed up enough to keep you on your toes. There is a variety and depth to the simple missions. Sometimes all you get is a cutscene with one or two decisions to make, sometimes a multi-level sneaking mission or a drawn out firefight. Sometimes all you do is get in, identify people, and get out – or decide to take someone out since you have the chance.

Compared to most games of this sort – Splinter Cell being perhaps the closest competition – there’s a clarity of purpose and a personal touch to everything. You know why you’re doing things and for the most part you care about it. In most important decisions you’re given a choice, which is impressively often not quite black and white. I don’t think it would really work if you decided to play it for laughs, portraying an utter bastard in all situations, but it manages that Mass Effect sort of approach where your choices feel realistic and in-character.

Alpha Protocol screenshot (PC)

The gigantic TVs in all the safehouses are a bit much.

I’ve been thinking about systems driving drama and narration in games a lot recently and Alpha Protocol does interesting things here, even if they feel like the beginnings of something that could’ve been much more involved. Almost every decision you make affects your relationship with the other characters. For a long time my best relationship was to my nemesis, which is great. I actually care more about what my enemies think of me than what my allies do!

High and low relationships result in a variety of mechanical effects, but the problem with those is that you don’t know when they’re going to be unlocked. The system would work much better if there was a map of everything you could be awarded so you could work towards them, much like the license board in Final Fantasy XII (what can I say, I love everything about that game). It’s still good, because having those effects in place makes the relationships feel more worthwhile, more real. Cause and effect. We understand that.

The network of characters and the options given to you are complex enough to make things that I usually pay zero attention to, like handling in-game email, interesting. You don’t just passively (not) read the email, but you can act on it: sell compromising information to the source, the black market or the press? Be a nice guy, a professional or (justly) defensive? When it works the best, you’re defining your goals on your own, and they’re all based on how you feel about yourself and the other characters. This makes the “RPG” part shine in an unexpected way.

Where the system doesn’t really work is the focus on your inventory. The most concrete awards you get are about your tactical options: active skills and gear. A lot of time and attention has gone to the equipment, but there is no way to make that anything but impersonal. The gear focus means that money is the main means of rewarding you, and that is never interesting. Binding the good stuff to your relationships would’ve been more in-genre and feels like a missed opportunity. The amount of focus you spend on acquiring stuff and finding bags of money and rare kit out on the field can make the missions feel like high-tech D&D dungeons, which isn’t really what I’m looking for in an espionage RPG.

The game design completely drops the ball with the bossfights. I almost lost heart in the museum fight and just altogether gave up. Once you figure out how easy it is to just bide your time until your special abilities have recharged and skill-pump them to death, well, it’s just about bearable as an experience, but it’s neither fun nor challenging. If you’re not confident you know what you’re doing when designing a bossfight, perhaps you shouldn’t. (Since then I’ve upgraded my pistol skill so that later encounters have barely registered, which is I guess fine. I’m okay with being a super-powered super-spy.)

While the writing is for the most part good, there are both interminable de-/briefs – if you lost the “I’m standing in front of the ridiculous TV, chatting to my allies” scenes, it’d be fine – and weird tonal inconsistencies with out of place, sleazy sexual overtones and a particular highlight in an astonishingly juvenile gay joke. A secret agent is supposed to be sexually aggressive, yes, but not dumb.

All told, it’s a “modern-day” D&D  take on Mass Effect, and I’m enjoying it a lot. You could spend your time much worse, even if it looks bland and lazy and plays like a My First Action Game. Except those times when it’s a unique experience that makes you wonder what could’ve been.

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