Alpha Protocol Review
I have to admit that I was one of those cheerleaders for Obsidian Entertainment from way back in the beginning. Back before Knights of the Old Republic 2 was released, I was positive they'd make an even deeper, darker Star Wars game than BioWare's original, and in some ways I was right, but the meddling by LucasArts and the rather short year-long period meant that this epic RPG got cut short in its third act, and the game suffered terribly as a result. But with a resurgence in titles like Neverwinter Nights 2 back from a few years ago, an upcoming Aliens title as well as Alpha Protocol with Sega as publisher, I was sure that Obsidian could rightly put together the great games that I expected out of them earlier in their existence.
Unfortunately, that still hasn't happened yet. Aliens was canceled by Sega, Neverwinter Nights 2 never caught on for me (mostly because I spent the whole time distracted by having to constantly fiddle around with its atrocious camera), and here in June of 2010, the launch of Alpha Protocol has faltered due to issues, layoffs, and some very suspect game design. Maybe it happened because of problems with Obsidian's leadership or from publisher Sega (recent rumors around the internet point at both), but the tangible result of Alpha Protocol's development is an unfocused mess that tries to reach all these lofty action-RPG goals without getting the basics right.
You play as agent Michael Thorton, brought into a super-secret spy agency to take on a world conspiracy that threatens peace everywhere. (In other words, nothing you haven't heard.) You have the choice of dealing with a host of characters in many ways through dialogue options that give you the chance to be suave, professional, and aggressive in general, but you also get specific choices in certain situations that allow you to ask specific questions or take bold action directly from the game's time-sensitive conversation system. It's an attempt to build on the sort of flow-of-conversation system we saw in Mass Effect while increasing the tension and gravity of your choices, but I feel like the vastly over-generalized responses you're getting to choose from just involve too much guesswork. You'll have to use trial and error to figure out which characters like (or hate) certain responses, and the only way to undo a choice is to load a previous save game - which can only be done by loading a checkpoint. No manual saves allowed here.
The game's tutorial tries to pound this whole relationship system in, but it does it with a hamfist, telling Michael that his speech can make friends or enemies. Uh, thanks Obsidian, but as adults, I think we already know that. Even inside just the context of the game, it's very odd having an adult protagonist be told that how he acts towards people can affect the result. I understand what they were trying to do, but the integration of this into the tutorial was one of the most inelegant design decisions I've seen in a while. Eventually you get through the long, sprawling, and messy tutorial and learn all of the game's different ways to take on the enemy - sabotage, stealth, guns-blazing, tech and gadgets, and martial arts can be built as you level up and gain skill points.
This game acts like an RPG in the sense that you gain experience points for picking locks, hacking computers, killing enemies, and completing objectives, while you constantly affect the people you work with by making decisions. Missions are built to be mildly non-linear, but not in the sense of an open world - more in a branching path now and then and some interesting ways of handling enemies in either a stealthy or balls-out action sense.
But this is where Alpha Protocol comes apart at the seams. Without interesting level design or solid-feeling action, any third-person shooter is going to be a disappointment, no matter how many RPG elements are at work underneath the surface. All the hallmarks are here: poor AI, slightly iffy frame rate, wonky cover system, and some very frustrating mini-games that will challenge your patience the very first time you encounter them. Even the environments you traverse seem to subscribe to all of the rules of 1999 level design, showing that way too much effort was put into systems buried too far under the surface and not enough put into the game's fundamentals to make it shine.
Oh sure, there are some very intriguing and fun elements here with the characters you meet. It's a lighthearted cast of villains and heroes, either of which can be made into enemies or even convinced to further your cause. You can play the smooth Bond-style agent, using deception and roguish good looks towards your advantage. Hell, the game excels when you get to do this, but sooner or later it always comes back to more mediocre combat-or-stealth scenarios, all with suspect AI and some rather dull-feeling mission objectives. It's unfortunate, too, because Obsidian clearly originally meant for Alpha Protocol to be replayed at least a few times (like many did with Mass Effect), allowing for multiple outcomes to so many situations. But with how clumsily the game handles the basics, I doubt players will care to do more than one playthrough - if that. All of those branching paths and varying results of players' choices will likely wind up being wasted on them.
Alpha Protocol suffers from a lack of focus and an insistence on eccentricities over basic, solid action. It's a core problem that winds up looming over almost every firefight or action situation. Even though the developers talked about Mass Effect's signature mix of third-person shooter action and RPG elements being the inspiration, the formula just wasn't applied properly here. Alpha Protocol can occasionally - even often - be lots of fun due to its unusual cast, and its innovative use of RPG systems under the surface will satisfyingly dictate the many outcomes the player can get, but ultimately it just doesn't work as a whole. Obsidian, I'm looking for you guys to redeem yourselves with Fallout: New Vegas. Make it happen so that all my kind and loving words over the years aren't for nothing.