Sunday, February 20, 2011

Review: Alpha Protocol (PC)

Alpha Protocol is a RPG/stealth/shooter mix developed by Obsidian Entertainment and released in 2010. The game takes a lot of inspiration from Biowares Mass Effect, using a similar mix of third person shooter elements along with a dialog driven story. Unlike Mass Effect the game doesn't take place in a Sci-Fi universe, but instead in contemporary times, putting you into the role of the special agent Michael Thorton, who went rogue after an incident on his first mission and is now fighting against his organization Alpha Protocol.

The game starts of with the regular character creation screen, but unlike other RPGs, you are restricted to just a single character, whose hair, facial hair and accessories you can however customize. One neat thing is that the game allows you to customize your character even after the initial creation, a feature that many other RPGs still miss. The character stats are separated into stealth, sabotage, technical aptitude, toughness, martial arts along with specialization in one of the four weapons. Dumping points into a category improves your abilities as well as gives you additional special powers that you can activate in combat, such as the ability to fire multiple shots in a row or become invisible for a short time.

The main game world is separated into three main locations, Rome, Taipei and Moscow, along with separate sections for the start and endgame. Each of these locations contains numerous sub missions, which once unlocked, you can be played in any order or sometimes even skipped completely. The three main locations also don't have a fixed order and thus also allow to be played in an arbitary order. The base of operations in each of those locations is a safe house that allows you to watch news (which however repeat frequently), read email, buy weapon upgrades or change your inventory. An overworld that can be freely navigated is not provided, instead all the mission selections is handled via a simple menu. Unlike Mass Effect you never actually walk up to an NPC and hit a talk button, instead dialog is either triggered events in the missions itself or by missions that consist of nothing else but meeting with another character. The safehouse is thus devoid of any other characters and chat with other members of your team is limited to what happens before or while on a mission. And speaking about what happens before the missions, one weird part of Alpha Protocol is that you can reach the menu to select your next mission by exiting the safehouse, but starting a mission will catapult you back in front of your TV in your safehouse, as that is where you will communicate with your handler about the next mission. Its a small detail, but it kind of disrupts the pacing a bit, it would have made more sense to have a direct connection to the handler or a radio and use that instead of the door to reach the menu.

The core gameplay of Alpha Protocol follows mostly conventional modern cover based third person shooter design, with some light elements from Splinter Cell mixed in for the stealth aspects of the game. Special abilities, ammunition or items are activated via a Mass Effect like power-wheel, but Alpha Protocols version happens to be a bit more cumbersome to use, as it requires to assign an action to a button and doesn't allow direct activation from the menu. In addition to that the game only has a single button for special abilities, thus activated multiple at once requires entering and exiting the menu multiple times. Control for the party is not provided, as in Alpha Protocol you act mostly alone and your handler is only available in the form of voice via radio. Just like Mass Effect the game uses three short mini-games when it comes to unlocking safes, doors or hacking into computers.

The shooting in Alpha Protocol is based on your character stats, thus when a weapon ability hasn't been leveled up it will be substantially weaker then when fully leveled up. The game also makes heavy use of delayed aiming, thus the longer you aim at something, the more precise your shoot will become. Both of these have earned heavy critism in the gaming press, which I have however a hard time to follow, as the mechanics are really simple to understand and Alpha Protocol isn't exactly the first game that allows you to increase your precision by holding an aim longer.

The special abilities of your character are in Alpha Protocol not so much based on reality, but more on what works for the game, thus it might feel a bit gamey at times, but works very well in the context of the game. A special stealth ability for example allows you to become completely invisible for enemies, a special pistol ability allows you to fire multiple shoots instantly at different targets (the game goes in slow motion to allow you to select the targets) and a special assault rifle ability gives you basically an aimbot that instantly locks your aim to the nearest enemy.

One of the most outstanding parts of Alpha Protocol is its dialog system and its dynamic story. While the dialog system is similar to Mass Effect, it is really much closer to that of Fahrenheit, as it requires you to select one of usually four dialog options under a time constraint. Dialogs don't follow the "pick every option till the dialog tree has been exhausted", but instead basically require a decision at every turn. Unlike Mass Effect however those decision are however not split into simplistic black/white or good/evil categories, but instead follow mostly adjectives such as "suave", "professional" or "aggressive", depending on the context. The choices can have rather small effects such as increasing the trust an NPC has into your character, but also can have drastic consequences, such as completely killing of one of the main character or severing the connection you have to one of the factions. Unlike most other games which offer those moral choices, Alpha Protocol never feels cheap, as there is never a clear good or bad path to follow, it is always very grayish and mostly about which factions you want to work together with. While the overall missions you will have to play can't really be changed by the dialog choices, the fate of characters and who will help you can change dramatically, something few, if any, games have managed before. My only gripe with the dialog system would be that it gives a default choice, which unless select another, will be auto selected when the time runs out. It helps to keep the cutscene from stopping, but I would have preferred a completely default-less dialog system.

The save system is a bit contrived, as it doesn't allow you to save everywhere, but instead only copies your last checkpoint. While this works fine for the main game, it can lead to a few weird situation in the safehouse, as you can't for example read a few email, upgrade your weapons, save and then come back later, as your last checkpoint would be entering the safehouse and all your doing would be forgotten. The game however makes this pretty clear and handles saves otherwise quite well, by not only providing an autosave of your last checkpoint, but also an autosave for your last safehouse visit in case you might want to start a different mission instead or restart with different equipment.

Another annoyance is that the game doesn't allow you to change the difficulty mid-game, you are locked into the choice you made at the very beginning.

On the technical side, the game has full Xbox360 controller support on the PC, which I used to play the game. Graphically it looks very solid, nothing outstanding, but not much to complain about either. The only graphical issues I had where a bit of Z-fighting on my ATI HD5670 with character accessories (hats mostly) when they where standing far away from the camera and a few polishing issues such as palms clipping through near walls or shadows being visible through the roof, but both of these are hardly noticeable on a regular playthrough. In terms of bugs I expected far worse, but didn't really run into any practical problems, throughout my two playthrough I fell through the ground twice and the game seems to have issues with Alt-Tab, which either works really slow or just not at all.

Given the large amount of criticism the game has received on released I was actually surprised how good it really is. I basically had no issues with the combat at all, it worked perfectly well the way it was designed. Headshots where easy to perform, if distance was required the assault rifle did a good job and the occasional melee combat provided some variety. When playing with a solider character the stealth kills turned out not worth the effort, on the other side they become rather fundamental when playing with a stealth based character. My biggest complaint would be that it was all a little to easy, playing as a soldier character you didn't really need to bother with stealth and could shoot your way through anything and with a stealth character you could render yourself invisible for half a minute, running around and killing guards without much issue. A few situations where staying completely undetected would have been required would have been nice and a little less health couldn't have hurt either, as the game was rather forgiving when you screwed up your stealth as you can shoot your way out of most situations without to much trouble.

The stat system felt a bit limited, as you are never given enough points to level up in many different categories, so instead it is easiest to concentrate on basically just three core abilities, which in turn limits the amount you can do in the game. As soldier or stealth characters I almost never touched any of the gadgets the game provided, as there was just no point in using something my character wasn't specialized in. Grinding experience points is impossible in Alpha Protocol, as you don't really have any side missions you can work on, everything you can do connects back to the main plot. Weapon upgrades had a similar issue, as there isn't much money available and neither much stuff you can buy, thus instead of doing constant upgrades throughout the game you basically just end up doing a single big one for your weapons and another one for your armor in the whole game when enough money has allocated over quite a few hours of gameplay. However neither of these issues is much of a practical problem, as you simply work with the tools you have and can make it through the game just fine, it is just that a bit more freedom could have added more variety to the game. And speaking about weapons, it would have been nice if the game would have allow the free use of sniper rifles, but instead sniper rifles are only available in a very few selected spots and can't be carried around.

The boss design in the game certainly felt really old school, as it does have the boss characters, full with health bar and everything, run around pretty crazily while you shoot at them. But that boss design didn't really bother me, it could have been handled more intelligently, but one can have some fun with trying to exploit their behaviors.

The story in the game overall was a bit generic, following the frequently used current day scenarios of secret government organizations, terrorists and the military-industrial complex. It also was at times a bit hard to follow, as it wasn't always so clear whom you where fighting against or why, as quite a few of the contacts you make happen and missions you get come from pre-existing intelligence knowledge or information from other contacts, not actions the player himself performs. However what it lacks in general story the game makes up for with interesting characters, most of them falling straight into the cheesy category, and interesting location, as unlike your average military shooter Alpha Protocol doesn't restrict itself to some far away desert, but you have to fight in villas, museums and other interesting locations. I would have however welcomed a bit more player driven navigation through those locations, far to often one just follows the marker on the HUD, instead of navigating the virtual world by landmarks.

Overall I really don't get the heavy criticism the game has received at all. Yes, there are a few minor issues and the combat might not feel as impact full as in a modern FPS, but for a game that doesn't want to be a FPS, but a spy RPG that style of combat makes perfect sense and really doesn't feel all that different to what you would do in a Splinter Cell or similar game. I didn't encounter anything that I would consider anywhere near game breaking throughout my two playthrough, quite the opposite, I had a ton of fun with what the game had to offer and enjoyed every minute of the around 15 hours that a single playthrough takes. As far as dynamic story lines go, Alpha Protocol is easily among, if not the best out there and for people that enjoyed Deus Ex, Mass Effect or Splinter Cell Alpha Protocol really should be considered a must-play.


Humorguy said...

I agree with this review. Gamers don't understand RPG's anymore, because many games that are not RPG's are called RPG's. Games like Mass Effect, Jade Empire and even Dragon Age I and II, when compared with what we understand to be RPG's from over 30 years of gaming, like Morrowind, Oblivion, The Witcher, Gothic, Wizardry and Ultima, etc.

Joel said...

Steam weekend deal you can get the game for 2 dollars. After I read your review. I think that I might get it.