When we first took a look at Alpha Protocol last year, we were quite intrigued not only by the title's espionage concept, but by the grand scale of choices it was said to offer in order to allow gamers to craft the title's protagonist, Michael Thornton, into the super spy of their dreams. Whether you wanted to play the suave James Bond angle or go the stoic Jason Bourne route, the game would branch out in different directions, creating a ripple effect which would drastically shape your story. The title's most greatly boasted feature was that players would need to play the game multiple times to uncover all of the possible ways that this spy thriller could unfold, but ultimately one play through the campaign is all you need to see just how far Alpha Protocol falls from its original concept.
While it ultimately failed to live up to its conceptual goal, Alpha Protocol is not as entirely terrible as many people are making it out to be. Yes, it does feature a number of technical blunders peppered through, the branching conversation system wasn't all that it was hyped up to be and the combat mechanics run similar to that of your stock standard third-person shooters... so what is the point of playing Alpha Protocol we hear you ask? We have three words for you - role...playing...game. What the game does extraordinarily well is create a universe that places the player squarely amongst the fantasy of being a globetrotting spy. The premise of the title is that you are new recruit of the top secret government agency, Alpha Protocol. You know the kind of organisation we're talking about, the cloak and dagger secrecy, the shadowy group of individuals that take on the tough jobs that are too much to handle...insert any spy movie cliche really. Alpha Protocol's latest mission involves the agency getting its hands dirty by attempting to assassinate a reviled Middle Eastern terrorist. Of course Thornton's first mission doesn't go according to plan and from here on Thornton becomes a man on the run who tries to simultaneously piece together the conspiracy and clear his own name.
When your secret agent man isn't bashing in skulls or blowing stuff up, he's quite a chatty little fella - which turns out to be one of his greatest strengths. The branching dialogue options may not inherently change the course of the game's plot to the degree that the developer led us to believe, but what the dialogue does do is immerse players into the role and to some extent change the course of Thornton's future. How every other character reacts to your dialogue choices will affect their attitude towards you which can then have consequences to how future events and alliances will play out. For example, early on in the game players are tasked with choosing whether to kill an arms dealer or letting him escape, with the hope that he'll lead you in the direction of an even bigger, nastier bad guy. Either choice you make will yield a surprising outcome. The conversation tree does provide some nice moments like this one at times, but more often than not it encourages players down one particular path rather than letting gamers craft the story which they want to tell. This problem largely stems from the fact that there is a small 'like' meter on the side of the screen which encourages players to go with the response which is mostly likely to elicite a positive response from the other party, which then effects how much support Thornton will gain from other factions - and when you're one man on the run, you're likely to take help from any shady character you can get.
Aside from the clandestine conversations in dark corners, the rest of Alpha Protocol doesn't really fit in to the adventure we'd had planned out in our heads. While we envisaged Sam Fisher styled stealthy moments, most of the game's missions become bogged down into episodes of mindless bullet spraying. Of course, this wouldn't be so much of a problem if the shootouts were well-executed; edge of your seat gun battles. But when you fall foul of the many glitches and sloppy gameplay mechanics which lead to your enemies wave after wave of spazzy AI controlled goons, which require you to unload a clip of ammo into their head before they'll go down or watching Thornton die is slow motion as you have again fallen victim to the game's inconsistent cover system you'll soon throw your arms up in disgust of it all.
With this in mind players will soon come to the conclusion that it's easier to kill an enemy by running straight at him and whacking him in the face than it is to shoot him down. But just as the bad shooting mechanics have let us down thus far, we are equally as annoyed with the button mashing hand-to-hand combat which does nothing other than maximise the tedium the more you get into the game. That said, as hard as the game tries to disengage the gamer with its plethora of glitches and bland gameplay, something about Alpha Protocol just kept us coming back for more.
One of the saving graces of the title is the XP system, which allows the player to level up Thornton as he completes many missions spanning the globe. Players can put points into areas such as stealth, weapon handling or hand-to-hand combat in order to mold him into a particular spy archetype. What we enjoyed about this is that the choices you make in choosing Thornton's abilities can either greatly hamper or take advantage of Thornton's particular objective. One point where this became obvious to us was a museum battle which pitted Thornton against a character that was well versed in martial arts. While we went with creating a Thornton who stuck to the shadows and took out his enemies with his fists, this proved to be a great disadvantage when we met this boss as our own hand-to-hand skills were sub par in comparison and the lack of skill points in the weaponry categories meant that we got our butt kicked consistently and significantly. This then lead to us backing away from that particular mission and moving on to another city in order to build up Thornton's skills, and upon our return to the museum we found no contest in the speed and efficiency in which we were able to dispatch the enemy.
Another aspect that the title does well is create a believable game world. As Thornton jets from piazzas of Italy to the dirty, dingy alleys of Taiwan you'll see that the game does a great job of making players believe that they are actually inhabiting these locales. Graphically these atmospheric environments are solid, but looking over the game's graphics as a whole and you'll find that it looks quite dated - a bi-product of the many delays that the title went through perhaps? Cut-scenes also suffer from a prominent case of texture pop making it difficult to discern what's happening under the ugly, blurry mess.
Ultimately, Alpha Protocol is a title suffering from so many quality control issues that it's remarkable that it made it onto shelves in such an unpolished state. But beneath the glitches and somewhat bland gameplay lies a spy tale which makes us wonder if Tom Clancy is on Obsidian's payroll as it weaves a tale of international espionage at its finest; full of double-crosses, cheesy Europeans and more intrigue than you can poke a stick at - with a side helping of plot cliche for emphasis. Alpha Protocol is a commendable attempt at story-driven, role-playing action which sadly doesn't live up to its promise, leaving many of us to wonder at what it could have been with a little more polish.