Welcome back to a regular series of retrospective articles on recent games of this generation that slipped under the radar, were given a commercial drubbing, or were ignored commercially by the gaming audience at large. These are games that deserve a second chance, that deserve the opportunity to be rediscovered and re-assessed. Next up: Alpha Protocol.
Derided upon release, Obsidian’s Alpha Protocol, subtitled The Espionage RPG, does exactly what it says on the cover – and not much more. However, what is does do is dare to attempt something a little different. The developers have deservedly received a reputation as a sequel for hire studio that loves to inject a little ambition and humour into a series. Knights of The Old Republic 2, Fallout New Vegas; they are known for buggy, yet more involving and better written iterations of series, courtesy of Obsidian.
Alpha Protocol takes place in a modern world setting, wrapped in a familiar narrative of shady government organizations, international terrorists and exotic locales, and follows the attempt by freshly appointed, and via a laboured tutorial, freshly tested agent by the name of Michael Thorton, who is tasked with trying to unravel and thwart a series of terrorist organisations from unleashing attacks on the world.
Though nothing ground breaking, the story takes a number of suitably generic twists and turns to keep you wanting to see it through. It also takes you all around the globe, to a variety of environments from Russia, to China, to the Middle East. And it’s refreshing to have this type of game based in a new kind of setting, away from the usual fantasy and sci-fi trappings that dominate the genre.
Alpha Protocol didn’t strive for a realistic, gritty environment; it was unashamedly a game. The visuals are pretty bad, looking very last generation. Areas are basic and perfunctory at best and bland and repetitive at worst. Only the Russian nightclub stands out, splashes of neon adding colour to an otherwise insipid looking game. Enemy AI is shocking, and character animation is stiff and robotic – crouching is atrociously badly animated, with Thornton looking less like an elite spy and more like a man suffering from acute constipation. Crucially though, there are no pretensions in Alpha Protocol, no wishing to be anything more than is wants to be or actually is: a solid role playing game.
Where the game shone, is in it’s writing, characters and conversations. Way before The Walking Dead received praise for it’s timed and dynamic conversations, Alpha Protocol was already doing it. It also encouraged experimentation and mixing things up. There were three types of response, aggressive, charming, and professional, as well as an option to cut conversation short. There was no penalty for mixing things up, and in fact there were subtle rewards for doing so, allowing you to truly role-play your character according to situation and character.
This Bond, Bauer, Bourne triumvirate underpins the interaction with NPC’s across the game. However, you are never restricted to one type and in fact are rewarded for variety. That’s the beauty of Alpha Protocol, your actions actually do have a consequence. Taking Mass Effect’s paragon and renegade system as an example, you chose a path and run down it. Not so in Alpha Protocol, as it steadfastly refuses to punish you for mixing it up, merely offering consequences for the dialogue choices you make. Mission handlers might like, you offering stat boosts, but it isn’t just about getting NPC’s to like you, as dependent on the lengthy Intel you collect on everyone and everything, it could be beneficial to have a character absolutely hate you, offering unique dialogue choices for you and reduced stats and options for them should engage in combat or confrontation.
And this is one of the things that make the game so impressive and deserving of praise and of remembrance. Everything you do has some consequences. For example, you might stumble upon a cache of materials in an enemy warehouse on a mission. Sabotage it and subsequent encounters with the same organisation will find them less well equipped. Did you go in guns blazing into a particular operation? A character you meet might in a future assignment admonish you for it, whilst another may show unexpected respect.
The thing about Alpha Protocol is it’s an RPG, and an unashamedly old school one at that. In this day and age of games chasing the passive cinematic experience, this game eschews it. Whilst Mass Effect 2 was blending the RPG with cover shooter mechanics, creating an admittedly slick mix, Alpha Protocol stuck to numbers. There is no argument that the gameplay is clunky, especially if you haven’t upgraded certain skills. It simply cannot match the slickness of something like the Gears series; it doesn’t need to. Yes, shooting was poor; until you upgraded your skill with a particular weapon and it was merely adequate. Wanted to sneak around? Plough points into the relevant skill and you can literally become a ghostly silver phantom, walking straight past oblivious enemies.
Yes, the game is game through and through, and it shows in many aspects. However, if you can accept it as that and take it on it’s own number crunching, fairly old-school terms, you may find something to like here. Cheap to pick up now, Alpha Protocol is well worth your time. If RPG’s are your thing, it offers a refreshing alternative to the usual fare that is churned out on a monthly basis.
Next time on Reloaded:it’s up to you!. Vote on the subject of the next article, and choose from the following under-appreciated gems:
- Brutal Legend
- Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
- Dead Rising 2
- Driver: San Francisco
- Fallout: New Vegas
- Ghostbusters: The Video Game
- Infamous 2
- Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
- LA Noire
- Mafia 2
- Max Payne 3
- Transformers: War for Cybertron
- Spiderman: Shattered Dimensions
- Warhammer: Space Marine
- WWE All Stars
The game with the most votes gets the Reloaded treatment! Get involved and DM me on the site, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter me via @craigieh28