Alpha Protocol

July 14, 2010

Obsidian made many bold claims about Alpha Protocol before its release. They claimed it would be the first espionage-based action RPG, that choice would matter to the way the story unfolded, that you could choose multiple ways to beat each mission, even that you could beat the game without ever killing anyone other than the required bosses. Unfortunately, Alpha Protocol just doesn’t live up to the expectations placed on it.

True to its RPG base, Alpha Protocol has 9 skills that can be leveled up throughout the game as you level up. These range from improved skill, and added abilities, for using weapons like pistols, shotguns, or assault rifles, to improved hacking or gadget use. You can even improve your ‘toughness,’ an important skill that increases your hitpoints-something that will become increasingly important the farther into the game you go. 

These skills and the accompanying abilities you gain are chosen and used in a method very reminiscent of Mass Effect. You are given an ability wheel that pauses the action while you select which abilities, tech gadets (such as first aid kits, grenades, or even EMP disruptors), or ammo you wish to use. Each ability and tech gadget has a cooldown time during which it cannot be used again. This prevents ability spamming, something that could drastically lower the difficulty of Alpha Protocol, given some of the abilities you can gain access to. One ability allows you to see the locations of all enemies and cameras within a certain distance from you, along with their alert status. Another allows you to pause the game for a few seconds while deciding where to place anywhere from 2-6 pistol rounds in the tableau in front of you, then unpause it and let loose all of those shots at exactly the same time. This can be used to great effect when you need to clear a room of guards quickly and quietly. Among the best abilities you can learn though, is one that will automatically revive you should you ever die. It gives you a brief period of invulnerability, some of your health back, and is able to be used once every 15 minutes. As long as you can find an abandoned corridor or room to barricade yourself in, this ability effectively makes you impossible to kill.

In Alpha Protocol, you are Michael Thorton, secret agent extraordinaire. You are a new recruit to Alpha Protocol, a secret black ops organization that allows the US government to perform covert attacks on their enemies, yet still deny they have anything to do with it. If that sounds suspiciously like Third Echelon, there’s a reason for it. Alpha Protocol seemed to be a more fleshed out version of Third Echelon, complete with baritone-voiced, no nonsense commanders. Michael Thorton begins the game a captive in a secret medical lab, and you are tasked by a mysterious woman to escape before something bad happens to you. This serves as the tutorial level, after which you discover that it was essentially an entrance exam to Alpha Protocol that you would have either passed or died from. Upon joining the ranks of Alpha Protocol, you choose a background for yourself that will give you skills in stealth, assault, or technology. Alternately, you can choose to start out as a green recruit with no skills whatsoever to start out with.

From this point, nearly every decision you make alters the rest of the game in some way, subtly or overtly. Every decision you make in communication changes how people view you, opening or closing later dialog options and sometimes even opening or closing parts of the story. Every decision you are faced with during missions impacts the story, and even how later missions will play out. As an example, early on you will be faced with the choice of arresting or executing an arms dealer. Arresting him will give you a bonus to weapons and intel in later missions in that area, while executing him hurts your intel for later missions but reduces the strength of the enemy in those missions. How you proceed in these decisions is entirely up to you, and changes how the story plays out. This leads to a good amount of replayability as you seek to experience every possible aspect of the story.

There are four types of guns you can employ: pistols, shotguns, SMGs, and assault rifles. Additionally, each weapon has 4 upgrade slots so that you can mix and match customizations as you see fit. Maybe you want to increase the amount of firepower your pistol can put out. Perhaps you want to improve the accuracy and reduce the recoil for your assault rifle. There’s dozens of choices for you to make for your load out in each mission.

Unfortunately, the actual gameplay and combat are where Alpha Protocol loses its luster. Alpha Protocol makes about as good a shooter as the original Splinter Cell did, which is to say, not much of one. How well you aim doesn’t seem to have as much effect on whether an enemy is hit as it should, nor does where they get hit by the bullet seem to have much of an effect on how much damage they take. Additionally the AI is very erratic. The enemy will usually rush into the room you are in to kill you, rather than trying to draw you out. On the other hand, they seem to have almost a sixth sense about your presence, making it almost impossible to engage in stealthy infiltrations.

There is also at least one bug that ruins the stealth path through the levels. Even when you are out of sight of any and all cameras in a level, one of them will see you anyway and send an alarm out to the enemy. Certainly, it’s likely that it is possible to beat the game using stealth throughout the game, without ever killing an unnecessary enemy; however, it is so difficult to do as to make it entirely worthless as a goal unless you are a masochist.

Graphically, Alpha Protocol is not impressive in the least. The characters are somewhat bland and the environments aren’t detailed. On the other hand, the voice acting is fairly good, while the sound effects are also fairly accurate.

In the end, Alpha Protocol is something of a mixed bag. The story is worth playing through multiple times, and many of the boasts made regarding choice are certainly true (heck, the slogan for Alpha Protocol is “your weapon is choice”). Unfortunately, it is marred by inconsistent AI, awkward gunplay, and bugs that really make it impossible to play through the game in any manner you choose. 

Pros: Choices entirely change the game; Story is intriguing; 

Cons: Erratic AI; Lackluster combat; Plays worse than the sum of its parts

Plays Like: Splinter Cell meets Mass Effect, only not as good as that sounds


Score: 3/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.