Written by  :  Oleg Roschin (181731)
Written on  :  Jul 18, 2010
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars

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So rough you can't see the diamond

The Good

Obsidian tries to establish itself as BioWare's main competitor in the field of modern story-driven RPGs. The games they had made so far proved they were a worthy heir to the venerable legacy of Planescape: Torment. Yet with all their undeniable quality, all their games were sequels, built upon the formulae created by their predecessors, the first installments in Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights series. Alpha Protocol is their first completely original, independent product.

To the best of my knowledge, Alpha Protocol is the first RPG ever that is set in our time and contains no sci-fi or supernatural elements at all. Try to walk down your memory lane, invoking images of great RPGs: they all have something that cannot happen in real life. Alpha Protocol has no monsters, magic, mutants, robots, or anything of the kind. To make a RPG that is rooted entirely in our reality was a bold, unprecedented move. Obsidian deserves praise for this decision.

It is obvious that the creators of Alpha Protocol put a lot of effort into designing "choices and consequences" - in the modern sense of selecting dialogue lines that lead to different results. For the most part, they did a really good job. Every person you associate with changes his or her attitude towards you depending on your behavior towards this person. And the game is built in such a way that you can never satisfy everyone.

Those decisions rarely feel like the easily classified "good versus evil" problems of earlier BioWare titles. Kill a terrorist, arrest him, or let him speak to hear his side of the story? What is more dangerous - a riot or an assassination attempt? There is a suspect: should I just shoot him, perhaps preventing further bloodshed, or should I consider the possibility that he might be innocent? One of the toughest decisions in the game: your friend is about to be executed, but in another place a bomb is going to explode, killing many innocents. Whom do you save?

The choices you make may affect later missions and dialogues. The game begins with a conversation between the protagonist Michael and the antagonist Leland, and this conversation serves as a frame for all the events they discuss. I was pleasantly surprised to see how the dialogue changed depending on the decisions I have made before Michael reported the events to Leland. You see a different picture of the hero and the world around him depending on how you handled the tough, morally ambiguous situations he found himself in. What's more, all such decisions are timed, which adds a realistic tension to those uneasy moments.

Alpha Protocol has a good diversity of locations. The game is a "globe-trotting" adventure, sending the hero to four very different countries: Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Russia (Moscow), and Italy (Rome). Each country typically contains five-six missions, each mission being set in a different location. The locations include familiar urban environments such as subway station or hotel, outdoor areas, and even such exotic places as a villa designed in the style of 1980's disco.

As for the actual gameplay, it's pretty much your standard third-person shooter fare with role-playing specializations (hand-to-hand combat, firearms, stealth, etc.). Those work fairly well, and it does feel rewarding to develop an unstoppable first-heavy son of a bitch or a sneaky bastard out of your hero. To those who complain about weak pistols in the beginning of the game I can only say that this is an RPG: if you are not weak in the beginning of a role-playing game there is hardly any point to play it. Invest points into talents, build up, and you'll be fine.

The Bad

Alpha Protocol is plagued by a myriad of problems, big and small.

Okay, first of all, let me get this off my chest: why is it so that every bloody modern RPG has to have minigames? Which game started that, anyway? Final Fantasy VII? Well, just for the record, the minigames in that game were diverse, fun, and - with a few exceptions - non-obligatory. I'm feeling a different influence here: Mass Effect. It almost looks like the folks at Obsidian decided to imitate whatever the Big Brother's newest and flashiest titles did wrong. And minigames is unfortunately just one of those things. Mass Effect had minigames? Okay! Let's populate all the levels of our new game with minigames. Only this time, let's turn every objective in the game into one of the three possible minigames! Need to download data? Quickly match text fragments! Need to disable security? Quickly match text fragments! Need to disarm bombs, stop the villain and save the world? Quickly match text fragments! Very exciting, eh?

"It's not a big deal", - you'd say, but I'll say yes, it is a big deal, because stupid optional minigames are okay, but even the most intelligent compulsory minigames are not okay, because they turn the entire game into a series of identical exercises. And the problem here is that those minigames are just part of Alpha Protocol's very serious flaw: level design.

The locations are varied in that they mix indoor and outdoor areas with diverse architecture and environment. The problem is that they are built out of identical components. It's not just the problem of aforementioned mission objectives taking the shape of woefully repetitive minigames; there are similar challenges, similar enemies, and similarly artificial, linear layout. Remember how Deus Ex had those huge levels with different challenges? Well, there is nothing of the sort in Alpha Protocol. A few tiny areas behind locked doors (which you can unlock - you've guessed it - with a minigame) is all you've got here in terms of exploration; otherwise, all the locations in this game are a straight line from A to B. By the way, that was also one of the weakest aspects of Mass Effect. But that game had space travel and optional locations on planet surfaces to partially make up for this deficiency.

Let's move on. Mass Effect drastically reduced the size of non-combat areas, where you could just walk around, talk to people, explore, etc. What does Alpha Protocol do? Removes those areas completely! That's right, in the entire game there is not even one friendly location; with the exception of the safe houses where you are alone, you'll spend the entire game in combat areas. This is a return to dungeon crawlers at their most primitive - except that good dungeon crawlers had complex, challenging mazes, whereas Alpha Protocol has disjointed, weekly designed third-person shooter levels. Forget about "world map", forget about exploration - in this game, all non-combat activities (shopping, receiving missions, etc.) are performed in your house. Did you want to explore Taiwan, Rome, and Moscow? Tough luck - all you are going to explore are linear levels full of enemies. There is no sense of a world in this game, just a bunch of locations slapped together. Many regular shooters have larger, more continuous worlds than this.

There are also plenty of technical issues (the camera that begins to jerk maniacally at the beginning of each area comes to mind). The visuals are, to put it mildly, unappealing and lack vibrancy and artistic touch. Combat exhibits all sorts of hiccups and quirks, and the overall balance is greatly compromised by relentless bosses that respond well only to combat-trained heroes and completely ignore those achievements in cunning stealth you were so proud of.

Last but not least: the story is not great at all. It is banal in concept and predictable in execution. There is hardly any significant plot development worth mentioning, and the whole thing boils down to the very, very old "kill the big bad guys" formula. It's a shame that the same people who wrote the magical story of Mask of the Betrayer descended to the level of hackneyed conspiracy theories and trite premises such as "big corporations are evil". Characters sorely lack warmth and charisma and are, at best, eccentric, bordering on cartoony. They aimed for a realistic setting but found nothing better than decorating it with a completely "videogamish", "pop culture" story without any depth or credibility. They'd be better off populating their world with robots, mutants and half-orcs.

The Bottom Line

Alpha Protocol has interesting ideas and can at least boast a somewhat unique blend of role-playing-imbued shooting within a modern-day, realistic setting. However, among its numerous flaws are severe restrictions imposed on exploration coupled with a particularly weak level design, which largely ruined the experience for me.