Xbox 360
The sins of Alpha Protocol

Posted by Tom Chick (January 12, 2011)

Why didn't Alpha Protocol, last year's best RPG/shooter hybrid, find its place on more "best of the year" lists? The easy answer is that a) people liked other games better, and b) who cares? But as a bona fide, card-carrying, state-certified, legally designated Alpha Protocol apologist, I'd like to consider a few reasons it didn't find a wider audience among the dudes who adored Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and other highly glossy, middling fare that earned big bucks and stratospheric Metacritic scores.

Alpha Protocol is not immersive. In this post-Matrix World of Warcraft era, that's a big no-no. A lot of gamers expect they will sink into almost fully realized worlds instead of mere games. But Alpha Protocol can't be bothered. It has no day/night cycle. Pedestrians or bystanders or shop vendor NPCs do not mill about. There are no side quests or minigames or man dates or radio stations. You are never just out and about in the city.

Mafia II made you drive everywhere so you'd feel like a real gangster and the horse in Red Dead Redemption ensured your share of sunsets. But Alpha Protocol cuts to the chase and leaves it to your imagination to fill in the blanks. You don't get to walk up to people to talk to them. Conversations just happen. And when they happen, the scripts are rigid and easy to parse. You always know the exact flavor of any response, which is always neatly divided into one of three categories. There is no fuzziness or ambiguity. The conversations are so clear cut they're literally color-coded.

Similarly, the gameplay takes place in discrete standalone boxes, each a challenge that you've had a hand in setting up. These challenges jump from place to place without any connective tissue. There is no overworld. You don't fly a jet around a map. There is no sense of distance or passing time. Russia is as close as Rome which is as close as Taiwan, and they're all a loading screen from Saudi Arabia. One minute you're storming a yacht in Russia, the next you're exchanging three or four lines with some slob at a gelato shop in Italy, and then it's off to Taiwan if you want. Do the next mission locally or on the other side of the globe. There is no attempt at world building in terms of how the episodes are arranged. There is no meaningful geography. This is a place without space or time.

In short, Alpha Protocol feels more like a game than a world. And it will put its gameness right up in your face. It is not ashamed of being an RPG, as is the case with RPGs that hide their numbers under the hood, along with the repercussions of your actions. You might get a vague indicator of your faction allegiance or a marker on a scale from red to blue for how someone feels about you. Alpha Protocol gives you a hard number and it's not even a very big number. Parker? He's +4. Westbridge? +6. Mina? -14 because of all those guards you killed, each its own -1.

After every mission, you're told the implications of everything you did, divided into separate entries, like a list of charges levied or commendations awarded. This is a game that brazenly wears its numbers and repercussions on its sleeve. It adores data and feedback and clearly indicated cause and effect. Alpha Protocol will not keep you in the dark for dramatic effect. If a butterfly flaps its wings in Taiwan, you know that a gangster's cocaine has been poisoned in Russia.

It's not a shooter, at least in the sense that most people play a shooter, where a headshot is a headshot because you moused over a dude's head. Your skill is almost beside the point because even during its shooter bits, Alpha Protocol remembers that it's an RPG and the stats are in charge. Everything you have done in the game will tie into your stats, so during these parts of the game, the character you've built drives the gameplay more than your thumbs. This also means that you don't have to blaze through like you are playing Doom. You can fold in elements of stealth, hacking, or gadgetry as you move through these broad but linear levels.

The result is the first true follow up to the promise of Deus Ex. Ten years ago, that game wowed everyone with a series of doors you could get through by 1) finding the air duct that bypassed them, 2) hacking the security system that kept them locked, or 3) killing the guard who carried the four-digit code to the door's keypad. It created the perception of choice even though it would always and only shove you through that same door.

Alpha Protocol takes the same approach with the various options, compounded by letting you skip the door, or maybe save it for later, or maybe get someone else to open it for you based on the choices you've made. This is the latticework of choice and consequence that Deus Ex was supposed to be, and the simultaneous beauty and mystery of it is that you probably won't even realize this until you play through Alpha Protocol a second time.

So why didn't more people play through Alpha Protocol as many times as they played through their Mass Effects? Perhaps because Alpha Protocol is often ugly and rough hewn. The levels are hardcore mundane (not to be confused with the level design, which is often brilliant in understated ways). You don't go anywhere particularly glamorous. Without a fantasy world’s flights of fancy or a movie-inspired sci-fi dystopia, you're left to the sorts of places you see lovingly rendered in a Call of Duty game: warehouses, embassies, military bases in the desert, and other locations that tend to enjoy the bloated budgets of a successful shooter series. Alpha Protocol suffers tremendously in comparison. On the human front, the animation is horrible and the lead character ranges from boor to idiot, with a Kansas flat performance from the voice actor. Unmoored in the broad expanse among Jason Borne, Jack Bauer, and James Bond, Mike Thornton too often ends up being none of the above.

To its credit, the story isn't driven by cliffhanging, or fan service, or continuing character development tucked behind DLC, or supposedly dramatic reveals about nefarious plots. In fact, the story is almost secondary to the game unfolding as a series of sandbox challenges. The narrative exists between and among these challenges, but tangled and in flux, like a shuffled deck of cards that will be reshuffled once you've been dealt a hand. This is an entirely different approach from games that script clumps of unfolding story between their missions, trundling forward to one of three endings.

Alpha Protocol's plot is revealed pretty quickly, positioning you as one of many players on a Clancyfied world stage. Where will you stand? With whom will you agree? On whom will you take revenge? Or do you even care? Wait, what? What's that you're asking? Saving the world? Oh, how quaint. No, no, that's not what you're here for. If that's your thing, I'm sure there's some alien threat in some other game or a race of demons overrunning some fantasy kingdom. You're not saving this world. You're simply finding your place in it, and Alpha Protocol won't tell you what's right and what's wrong. This is a realpolitik RPG.

Of course, another important reason that Alpha Protocol didn't get more traction is that, frankly, Sega sucks. How does a publisher manage to release two of 2010's boldest and most brilliant games -- Alpha Protocol and Bayonetta -- without mounting more of a challenge to their competitors? Also, developer Obsidian isn't exactly known for their polish, and the PC version of Alpha Protocol was apparently in bad shape (I hear you have to play a minigame called "hacking an .ini file" before getting to the game proper). And this is even with a last minute delay before its ship date. This game shows every sign of being left on a shelf during the several months it was delayed. And where's the DLC? EA and Bethesda are milking me dry of money that I would gladly spend on more Alpha Protocol. Throw together some B-side material, make Sis or SIE or even Darcy the lead character, and by golly, I'll be there with bells on and a handful of Microsoft space bucks, to boot.

But no such luck. Instead of being the contender it deserved to be, Alpha Protocol will be one of those cult classics that guys like me write about long after it's making money for anyone. Which means you're in luck for how you'll be able to find a cheap used copy of one of the best games of 2010 that no one played.

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