Alpha Protocol

A wonderful action-RPG, offering the player tons of choice and real-life consequences!  Where have I heard that before?  This is not a simple Mass Effect game cloned in the James Bond environment, it does have it’s bugs and it also has elements that set it apart from the Mass Effect series.  Elements, that this writer hopes, influence continued innovation in Bioware’s epic franchise, but can Alpha Protocol stand on it’s own two feet, or did SEGA make the right call by cutting it off at the knees?

The MyTouch Slide! It's what all the hip spies are using!

The Story

Alpha Protocol puts you in the shoes of Michael Thornton, newest recruit for Third Echeleon, er, I mean Alpha Protocol—a super-secret government black ops organization.  The game’s opening finds you somewhat unwillingly recruited, and tasked with seeking out terrorist operations and possible Broken Arrows in the Middle East.  You know, something light to get your feet wet.  Throton’s appearance can be varied with some limited options, and the game offers a few tutorials at the base, if you require a brush up on the controls and gadgets.  Shortly into the story, the game starts taking twists and turns as crosses and double crosses abound, and your choices determine the way the story plays out.  I have to give credit to Obsidian, where Mass Effect offered some great choices on what was still a linear story, Alpha Protocol not only illustrates the consequences of your actions, but shows you more varied paths along that linear highway.  Speaking of the choices, Thorton is given a 5 second opportunity, in conversations, to drop a suave Bond quip, an aggressive Jack Bauer approach, or a more balanced Jason Bourne opinion—including 3 of the four famous J.B.’s of the spy world(c’mon, Jim Beam is an important spy accessory….).  You also are given the same timeframe to choose whether the NPC’s you cross paths with live or die, or which option in a mission to take.  Where Mass Effect’s games give you the ever popular “Save the puppy or throw the puppy in the furnace”, Alpha Protocol blurs the lines with options like “Mame the puppy to save the kittens or nuke the kittens and emerge with an unscathed puppy”.  An interesting note, to the story, is that most of the story progresses through interactive flashbacks, shown at key points of the game, which reflect any choices the player has made up to that point.  So, for example, if you are a reckless agent executing key characters and killing friendlies, it will be mentioned, as will alternate pathways available with the game’s allies and enemies.  The flashbacks do a great job of linking the story elements and illustrating a “big picture” setting for what your missions have entailed and how they have affected the overall plot.  That said, the story is not a epic Homer-ian tale, but it is the backdrop of what could easily be a lost Ian Flaming Bond tale riding on a roller coaster of spy twists and turns.

Henchmen be darned, I have time for a quick game of Tempest!

The Gameplay

Alpha Protocol plays like a straight third-person shooter…..if your tv or monitor is mounted on a vibrating bed.  To say the camera is wonky is a gross understatement, and the fact that a patch has not seen the light of day is a disappointment, but the game is very playable.  I have noted some easy user hacks to the game’s ‘ini’ files, online, but as of this writing I have not been able to test those out–an option, sadly, not available to the console gamers.  Sadly, without either of these, the camera can frequently be shaken AND stirred.  As you progress, Thorton levels up, allowing you to tailor his strengths and attributes to your style of gameplay.  A stealth player may work towards high pistol, melee and stealth skills, while a more aggressive player may work on Toughness and Rifles.  Each skill set also offers Skills that Thorton can activate during the game, a brief invisibility in the Stealth skill set or a Focused Aim in the rifle set–more tools at your disposal for carrying out missions.  In addition, Thornton gets a variety of passively active perks that are based on how you approach the game and it’s characters.  Each mission you have an “eye-in-the-sky”, called a Handler, feeding you Intel and information via CommLink.  Simply choosing different Handlers, or keeping the same Handlers can reward you with perks, as does favoring certain weapons or gadgets offers more variety in playthroughs.  In addition to the conversation/decision making system and character customization, you also have some mini-games for when computer hacking, lock-picking and security hacking are needed, and there are some good and bad features here.  Security hacking has you matching wires numbered from 1 to up to 7, in order to hack and turn off a security alarm.  A nice feature here is that hacking any terminal once allows you to shut off that terminal again without playing through the mini-game.  Lockpicking is a ridiculously easy game of lining up tumblers, but computer hacking has caused the most frustration.  Hacking was not explained well in the the game’s first mission, and that is it’s biggest downfall.  The player sees a grid of numbers, roughly 12×20, and the player must match two lines of code in the scrolling numbers.  What is left out of the explanation is that your sequences are the only numbers in the grid that are NOT scrolling—knowledge that makes the mini-game infinitely easier.  All of these elements play out over the initial Middle East mission, and three more areas the player can tackle in any order, before progressing to the game’s endgame.

Ya gotta admire a villain who picks his accessories to match his henchmen's tatoos!

The beauty of the game is that you can attack a mission like a Sam Fisher, stealth agent, and, if and when that approach goes awry, run and gun your way out of trouble.  I love the versatility this offers, and the character customization options and story choices lift this game above many entries in that franchise, in my opinion.  Another great element to note is the ability to interact via email, with characters in the game.  Yes, Mass Effect 2 gave Sheppard an intergalactic email account, but sadly Bioware only created a way for Sheppard to get an “atta-boy” or “how dare you” from the game’s many characters.  Alpha Protocol elevates this element to an option for you to get more intelligence, download codes or useful information for your mission, interact and reply to characters in the game, or sell information on the black market to fund your missions.  The “Choice Is Your Weapon” tagline, that the game carries does happen to be a good illustration of how your actions and choices can impact the game.  Avoiding executing or simply saving NPC’s can pave the way for good alliances and relief in tough situations.  I will not give out any spoilers, but much like amassing your team and gaining it’s loyalty has it’s advantages in Mass Effect 2, making friends rather than enemies does have a certain payoff in a few of the missions I encountered.

Forget laundering money, I'm gonna clean yer clock!

The Verdict

Yes Alpha Protocol has it’s faults, but I believe we have the foundation for what could have been a great franchise, had SEGA not hastily decided to pull the plug.  This is not a bad game patched together from the innovations of other franchises, melded with the cheap glue of lackluster elements.  The story is interesting, the blatantly advertised choice system is a welcome and interesting change from a crowd of bland third person games, and the customization is a slam dunk.  Had the game not been so glitchy, I would have been inclined to score Alpha Protocol a full five stars, but I am completely happy with what it had to offer-especially if we see a patch in the near future.  I completely understand the crowd of gamers who will wait and pick up a single-player only game from a bargain shelf, long after it’s release, but for me, Alpha Protocol was well worth the gaming money spent, and then some.  As I begin another playthrough of the game, I raise my shaken Martini glass to Obsidian, on a job well done.

[starreview tpl=46 size=’30’]

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