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SummaryA 2020 Review - Alpha Protocol (PC, 2010)
The Good- Character progression and leveling are rewarding and leave you excited to play further.
- Shooting the AI like fish in a barrel. It's also a barrel of fun. - Reputation system makes conversation and dialogue choices all the more interesting.
- While minor - cool thematic settings, locations, and safe houses. They breathe some extra life into the game.
- Great and fitting characters. While there are some exceptions, most play their part well and add an extra bit of intrigue.
- Unique concept we don't see enough of. Spy action RPG.
The Bad- AI is absolutely dreadful and brain dead.
- Unfulfilling ending conclusion. Especially with the characters outside of Michael.
- Dialogue options can feel shallow and limited. The responses based on options can be a bit off.
- The main character, Michael Thorton. I just don't like him.
- Bugs & Crashing are a present and occurred numerous times.
- Limitations of stealth and the options to employ it.
The Bottom LineScore: 6/10
Mediocrity Score: Mediocrity on a Good Day.
While taking it slightly out of context - Christian Donlan with Eurogamer describes it best, "[Alpha Protocol is] a contemporary super-spy mod of Mass Effect...".
Tags: A few words or tags that come to mind are: entertaining, anticlimactic, buggy, bittersweet.
Avg. Time to beat: 13 hours
Quickest Speedrun: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Ten years after its release, Alpha Protocol still sneaks by with a passing grade. A spy thriller, action role-playing game from Obsidian Entertainment casts Michael Thorton as the spy protagonist. Diving deeper into the world, you'll be split between safe houses in Taipei, Rome, and Moscow where you'll execute various missions. While I found this title to be quite buggy and shallow in some respects, it still managed to entertain and amuse its way into my recommended list - even if narrowly. Many accounts have detailed the many missteps between Obsidian and Sega, but ultimately lack of direction and organization is what led to this release not being more of a slam dunk. Alpha Protocol has entertaining gameplay and the narrative, characters, and dialogue hold up well. Unfortunately where it sags down is in its lack of depth. Many components or aspects of the game either feel shallow and unfinished, or appear to be directly lifted and shifted in from other games (like Mass Effect in terms of leveling up, skill progression, and combat). I feel much today about this game as I did the first time I played it. And In a way, it's satisfying to see that my opinions on some things don't change through the years. I just wish in the case of Alpha Protocol, they weren't so bittersweet.
Concept: A spy thriller, action role-playing game starring Michael Thorton as a special agent and our main protagonist. Working for a secret government agency, Alpha Protocol, Michael takes on missions from various safe houses around the world conducting covert operations. It is dialog and choice heavy, and it does feel like your choices have an impact on the narrative - even if it's minimal. A big part of the combat is the use of gadgets, active skills, stealth, and tactical coverage. I'll hand it to Obsidian for thinking outside of the box and coming up with a lot of really interesting ideas for gameplay, freedom, and pacing.
Graphics: Dated by 2020 standards, but not uncomfortably so. Nothing is wowing, but it holds up well enough for a game that started development some 14 years ago. Although if memory serves me right, this wasn't too wowing in 2010 either. The good news is, it is not very graphics demanding and can be played on budget gaming systems. Michael's face, expressions, and animations could have been better. Michael, in general, could have been better, graphics aside. The ragdoll death physics are amazingly exaggerated and makes watching Michael die even more enjoyable.
Sound: Voice acting is done well, except for Michael who is often very stiff and bland sounding. I've had breakfast cereal with more personality. SFX audio overall is sufficient. Alarms are constantly going off in the game, and while they have at least localized the noise somewhat, it is very annoying none-the-less. The soundtrack was average with the most notable track being played on the main menu screen. I'm not sure that it is bad, but it sounds strongly early to mid-2000s and quite campy.
Gameplay: Character customization allows for some flexibility within the different skill paths you can choose from throughout the game. Unfortunately, the game is not long enough to permit enough points to play an effective jack-of-all-trades, so stack up only 2-3 skills. Alpha Protocol employs a series of minigame challenges for accomplishing certain tasks like lockpicking, bypassing, and hacking. Unfortunately, these are mostly annoyances. Bypassing is an atrocity against gaming, especially in the later levels. One of the most disappointing aspects of the game was the amount of bugs and fatal crashes. Enemy AI is dreadfully bad and exemplifies what not to do when designing enemy combatants. Combat reminds me of Mass Effect. Aiming and bullet spread are overly interpretive and frequently seem amiss. A decent portion of the cover does not protect you and will get you quickly killed. It again makes you, the professional secret agent spy, look less like James Bond or Jason Bourne and more like something Leslie Nielson or Steve Carell would be cast to play. Clumsy, amateurish, and down-right careless often describes what Michael Thorton must look like to the enemy shortly before he kills them.
Entertainment: Alpha Protocol is such an odd experience in that I found it entertaining and wanted to keep playing but on a component level, I found a mess of problems across the board. I think the entertainment in Alpha Protocol ultimately boils down to getting more stuff so you can kill more bad guys, rinse and repeat. Multiple weapons, armor, and gadgets; Lots of which can be upgraded or modified in some way. As you level up and your skills refine, you can really feel the difference in combat and gameplay. It does get a bit repetitive at the end of the game which felt appropriately long. Overall I found the game to be quite entertaining. All issues aside, I still enjoyed Alpha Protocol and would recommend it. Just keep your expectations realistic if not low.
Replayability: Obsidian has provided reasons for you to replay like different dialogue choices, or different character builds. Multiple replays are a must to catch all of the content, especially the other perks maxed skills can provide. Plus, one playthrough you can be a professional by-the-book spy who plays it safe and the next playthrough you can be a suave womanizer who offends everyone and abides by no rules. Both playstyles can bring you to the finish line. The problem is that I don't find any of it compelling enough to go back through. I don't see that there is any missed content that I'd benefit from obtaining. Don't get me wrong, it's a fun game, but I didn't find its lore or story captivating enough to go back through so soon.
Cheats??: Unsure. I did not seek out any as easy mode was a breeze as is.
---Elaborations & Extras---
Characters: The cohesion of characters, settings, and scenes are all an above-average amount. The over-arcing story wasn't that interesting to me, but the progression in relationships and subplots kept me curious and entertained enough to power through. They work well together and help hold up the game when it becomes repetitive and wears thin at points. Unfortunately, this comes crashing down in its conclusion when the majority of the characters are unmentioned in any way that felt satisfactory. I found Michael Thorton to be a rather stiff and annoying character, which is why I opted to dress him like some pro-fisherman southerner who's a NASCAR enthusiast. If my character is going to act like a second-rate spy, why not go full tilt with it? Strangely, Michael seemed less stiff and weird after adding the pro-bass-fishing reflective shades. I honestly think it has something to do with his eyes. Something about them is wrong.
Systems & UI: Alpha Protocol provides a reputation and dialogue positioning system which impacts your relationships with characters throughout the game, as well as directly within live conversations. Some of this becomes a moot point as many of the characters are never seen again and don't get any kind of fulfilling follow-up at the end of the game. While there are choices in dialogue, I found in most situations a professional-stance wins. Humorous, suave, flirtatious, or aggressive can be risky moves. Even if the others bring negative reputation, sometimes the cringy awkwardness of your character failing socially is quite enjoyable. Alpha Protocol employs a series of minigame challenges for accomplishing certain tasks like lockpicking, bypassing, and hacking. Unfortunately, these are mostly annoyances. Alarm and door bypass minigames are downright miserable and should have been removed from the game. I found lockpicking to be simple but fun and hacking to be a nice challenge.
Character Progression & Leveling: Character progression and leveling up are a genuine pleasure in the game. It feels like a treat each time you advance your existing effectiveness, improve a skill, or add a new skill/power. It makes running back into combat or another mission all the more alluring so you can check out the new stuff you might unlock at the end. The combat itself, while greatly flawed, is still very enjoyable and fun to try and perfect. Character customization and focus allow for some flexibility within the different skill paths. Unfortunately, the game is not long enough to go for a jack-of-all-trades build. I'd suggest focusing on 2-3 skills, with two of those being your weapon classes, and the third being a mix of stealth, sabotage, and technical aptitude.
Dumb AI: Shamefully bad AI. It's a mess. Some stand in-place glitched out, some stand in-place out of cover shooting at you, others run around aimlessly occasionally hailing gunfire your way, some lob endless grenades towards you, and for the strangest reason some enemy AI, with a pistol in hand, will charge you head-on to punch you just once, and then will begin shooting you at close proximity. It is horribly ill-fitting for a spy game that takes itself pretty seriously. Stealth is super inconsistent. Sometimes you can have a whole gun battle between a few guys and no alarm trips. Step on an eggshell, and the alarm goes off.
Bugs: One of the most disappointing aspects of the game was the amount of bugs and fatal crashes. Perhaps it is due to the advances in technology and drivers versus the age of the game, or maybe it is because the game has always been this way - either way I ran into many issues. The game crashing and freezing is most common. Getting stuck in the map or body physics-related were also frequent. Luckily, the vast majority of the game crashes were while exiting the game to the menu or exiting the game to the desktop. So, minimal risk/impact. Admittedly, the body or ragdoll physics are mostly hilarious. One enemy combatant died in a doorway that another enemy closed at the same time. The dead corpse got stuck in a weird starfish position just convulsing and wiggling around stuck inside the door. I laughed really hard at this. Also, every time Michael does is pretty enjoyable simply due to the over-exaggerated physics. Especially when it's death by explosion. I know, it shouldn't be praised but I'll be damned if I didn't say it made me laugh.
Conclusion: Alpha Protocol is almost exactly how I had remembered; good but not great. A lukewarm, bittersweet, "so close" kind of game. It got some things right, but did a lot wrong - or sometimes even really wrong. Part of what makes Alpha Protocol good is it taking a different approach in being an action spy RPG adventure that has a skill map and leveling up involved. Very standard fare for modern fantasy games, but not for action games and certainly not any spy ones. It's just such a cool and refreshing genre and idea. Unfortunately, that alone is not a sufficient selling point to lure people into playing. It had a rough time during development and had to be majorly redone in parts. I think it shows through in many spots, but for the most part, holds up. I'd fully support either an HD re-release or a new title in the series.
If you're wondering where Alpha Protocol can be purchased, sales for Alpha Protocol halted in Summer 2019 due to expired licenses for music within the game.
If you have any interest in gaming history, I strongly recommend the following article which provides back story and interviews with the developers about the making of the game. It's quite a fascinating read that highlights why some aspects of the game seem so messy or poorly thought out.
Thanks for reading!