Ahh, Obsidian Entertainment, a veritable institution in the gaming world, particularly the PC gaming world. For years Obsidian has made a name for themselves, filling the sequel duties for various BioWare franchises. From Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic (KOTOR) 2, to Neverwinter Nights 2, Obsidian has made a name for themselves for delivering fun, entertaining continuations of game franchises that we know and love.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Obsidian Entertainment also has a solid reputation for technical issues with their games. KOTOR 2 was plagued with bugs, cut content and glitches throughout the game. It was clear that they got behind and then had to rush to finish their game and release it on time. Neverwinter Nights 2 in particular suffered from a rough launch and was plagued with bugs post-release for some time, creating the cycle of patch after patch after patch.
Taking all of this into consideration, we are left with a company that releases fun, solid games that are often rushed and plagued with their fair share of bugs and technical glitches. Alpha Protocol is therefore the quintessential Obsidian Entertainment game.
The game is set in the world of the modern war, waged in the middle east, Taipei, Rome, and Moscow, involving the use of government contractors that wage war for profit as well as the near mandatory inclusion of the evil, corrupt, military-industrial complex. All of this is taken and thrown into a blender with the Bourne Identity, Burn Notice, and a splash of James Bond to create a unique, story-driven third-person action RPG.
You are Agent Thorton, an agent for a clandestine government project known as Alpha Protocol. It takes only a few moments before you begin making choices to define just who Thorton is. These choices determine what type of Operative experience, if any, you have. For the sake of story, I chose to be a recruit, which meant I started with no skills or bonuses, but it did create various unique dialogue choices in the beginning of the game that would become recurring themes throughout the adventure. After a standard story-driven tutorial, you quickly find yourself faced with your first set of missions.
"…you will find that Alpha Protocol is all about choice."
As a game that has been inspired by the way BioWare make their games, you will find that Alpha Protocol is all about choice. You will be given choices on how to move through the levels, be it run and gun, stealth, or a combination of the two. You get to choose what type of weapons to specialize in, what types of gadgets you wish to use, and what type of skills you wish your character to possess. In addition, your choices in dialogue scenes will have a large impact on the characters you deal with, the scenarios you encounter, and, in some instances, how much assistance you receive throughout the course of the game. This dialogue is played out with a fast moving timer and some sometimes confusing but often colorful dialogue choices. This portion of the game was very well-done and helps add a lot of personality to the various characters you encounter throughout your missions.
Alpha Protocol makes use of a third-person, cover-based combat system with which most modern gamers will be very familiar. There are a variety of choices in combat, from silenced weapons to fully automatic assault rifles and grenades, each one of them having a variety of customized add-ons to choose from. I personally proceeded through most maps using stealth takedowns and silenced pistol shots. I did sink quite a few points into assault rifles as there were plenty of encounters where stealth wasn’t an option, and I was required to run and gun against heavily armed opponents, many of whom had varying levels of skill.
While the combat and controls were fairly competent, I did find them to be somewhat loose. The sniping portions of the game were fairly annoying due to some ridiculously touchy aiming. In some cases the damage modeling was very off, as head shots magically missed, and sometimes enemies were capable of laser-precise head shots before they even saw me on screen. This brings me to the next topic of discussion: the artificial intelligence.
AI in games is always the subject of discussion and often criticism. It seems that often the AI is either impossibly hard or ridiculously simple. In the case of Alpha Protocol, the AI is in fact a solid combination of both types of AI. There are times when I would use my stealth and just creep through my missions. These easier missions were offset by some boss encounters that were ridiculously unfair. Just a tip for my fellow gamers: don’t ever try hand-to-hand combat when dealing with the bosses found in the game.
There are so many commands and keys in the game that this almost seemed to add to the difficulty in the game. I found that the more I learned how to play Alpha Protocol, the easier many of the missions became. This was due in large part to learning to use the skills, gadgets, and weapons properly. Still, I must mention that quite often you could kill an enemy right within eyesight of another enemy, and he would just keep looking. The security cameras also didn’t seem to mind the body of a guard lying on the ground in front of them. Then again, after a minute or so the enemies would simply magically vanish anyway.
Another area of note in Alpha Protocol is the use of hacking and bypassing security consoles. This ends up becoming a series of three different mini-games. The standard security pad mini-game involves choosing the paths of some lines from start to finish in a set period of time. By the end of the game, some of these become so difficult that you will begin bypassing them with EMP grenades. The second type involves computer hacking and is by far the most common I experienced in the game. This involves looking for 2 different numeric sequences within a set period of time. This mini-game was also annoying due in large part to the flawed manner of controlling the sequences of numbers. The first set are controlled with the ASDF keys, however the second set are controlled by the mouse, and this control is sometimes very difficult to master. Finally, there is also a mini-game involving lock picking and this one was by far the easiest as it involves moving the mouse to a set position and then clicking a button.
Graphically Alpha Protocol is the very definition of a mixed bag. There were times in cut scenes where the textures would pop in and out, and sometimes this would lead to not being able to actually focus on what was happening on the screen at a given time. When the graphics were functioning properly, I found the cut scenes to be quite pretty. The settings fluctuated from being jaggy and bland to detailed and engaging. The lack of variety I experienced in enemy combatants was blatant and obvious and after a while took away from my enjoyment. It was in the graphical presentation in particular that Alpha Protocol looks like it could have benefitted from another few months of polishing.
Fortunately, the sound portions of the game were spot on. The sound effects were used effectively and helped offer a sense of realism to the weapons and technology encountered. The voice acting was the one spot where Obsidian really seemed to get everything right. From the traditional, amusing guard conversations to the colorful NPCs and bosses you encounter, it is clear that a lot of time was spent ensuring that the sound was perfect. The voice acting was superb and really helped bring the characters to life. From the ever-steady voices of your handlers to the amazingly entertaining allies you meet in your journeys, all of this helps create a highly entertaining story with a cast of memorable characters.
In addition to the previously mentioned graphical issues and bugs, I must mention the save system. Despite being a choice driven game, Obsidian opted to use a checkpoint save system. I felt this really hurt the game, as I often enjoy playing though scenarios and discussions, only to reload and try different choices. The checkpoint system often required numerous saves throughout each level’s checkpoints, and occasionally I would have to replay entire sections of the game in order to change some of my decisions. Perhaps this is a personal style thing, but it felt like an intentional decision to try and overemphasize how re-playable Alpha Protocol is.
"…the sum of its parts makes up for its, at times, glaring faults."
What Alpha Protocol does right is create an engaging story and world, with a diverse number of missions and choices to allow you to create your own Spy moments. Many elements from popular movies and television series are present, so it was fun to finally be the badass making the decisions in an effort to save the world. The power of choice is extremely strong in this game, and ultimately it is what makes this game worth playing. Generally speaking, when a game is this glitchy and at times disappointingly ugly, it is hard to recommend it for playing, much less purchase. Yet, once again, Obsidian Entertainment has crafted a gaming experience where the sum of its parts makes up for its, at times, glaring faults.
From the beginning of the game, till the ending, I was relatively pleased with how important and impactful the decisions I made were. Not only my overall attitude with my handlers, but my decisions of whom to kill, whom to let live, and how to make alliances truly affected the game world. This really helped make me feel like my entire experience repaid me for my actions. If you are familiar with Obsidian games, you will have a somewhat decent idea of what to expect as far as the rough edges go. Despite some issues, Alpha Protocol is a fairly re-playable game and even a map-exploring completionist can expect to spend thirteen hours or so playing through the game one time.
Note: My overall score is for the entire gaming experience. I still cannot emphasize enough that there are a host of technical issues that need to be addressed to really help Alpha Protocol shine. If you are a fan of story-driven choice-filled games like Mass Effect, then Alpha Protocol will be a solid purchase for you.