I can’t help liking Alpha Protocol. It has its flaws which come largely as a result of being a poor console conversion, but if you can get past them there’s a really interesting mix of action/RPG gaming hidden inside it. The main reason it hasn’t sold well is not so much because of those problems, but because its marketing calls it, ‘the espionage RPG’ , while any serious RPG fans will enter a desperate rage at the non-RPG elements contained in it. So really its biggest problem is that it’s an action game with some RPG elements, not an RPG with action elements.
The RPG side of my brain has a love for alpha protocol. It’s a RPG that isn’t set in a magic/fantasy/d&d setting which is rare enough to be worth a look on it’s own. And there are some interesting elements – you can get a positive or negative reputation with any of the main characters in the game via your actions, and your choice in conversations. Crucially, both sides of the scale have effects. This means that it can actually be beneficial to you if you roleplay it as a complete bastard, or to choose the ‘taunt’ or ‘provoke’ options in conversations.
The action side of my brain enjoys the missions; while in principle they’re all mostly the same, there are a lot of sub-objectives, cash to be found or computers, safes, locked doors and so on to break into, and they help break up the pace and keep the missions interesting. On the other hand, the action side of my brain realises that is is definitely console gaming converted to PC – it feels so limited in what you can do and where you can go. No PC developer would ever put some limitations into their game as they are allowed to get away with on consoles and it can sometimes jar that you can only really interact with things with the great big PUSH ME sign floating above it. Why are sniper rifles a thing you get to use maybe 3 times? They should be a core piece of equipment for a secret agent, surely. And zip lines, bloody zip lines! Every console game since 1990 seems to have had them. Is it some console gaming in-joke that I’m not aware of?
On the plus side, I really like the conversation system. It’s mostly based around 3 main attitudes with some other options every now and then – and the game gives you hints, either via researching people (including your colleagues) or by reading their emails, paying attention to their attitudes and so on. There’s also a fairly short (about 10 seconds) time for you to choose which attitude you take, which forces you to think fast, and encourages you to know what they’ll like before starting the conversation. Overall, it works very well, and it fits into the game nicely, especially since it has much bigger effects in other areas of the game.
When not in conversations, the game contains a lot of action – the missions, aside from a few very small ones, are entirely action or stealth based – though the major plot points, and the ending of the game are greatly affected by what you choose to do and by your reputation with people. There’s also some downtime where you sit back in your safehouse/lair and research targets, buy intelligence, or flirt via email with some of the female characters. Even emails have an affect on reputations – some characters can, if you discover enough information about them, be convinced to change their motivations completely and this means you can swing them to your side, varying the plot considerably should you choose to.
Another side to these conversations is that the missions change slightly according to your reputation with people. Piss them off, and they might make missions harder by sending their own teams in, but stay on their good side and you get to purchase assistance, intelligence or item drops in the missions for you. Missions can also be made easier by, for example, paying some mercenaries to distract the guards. Of course, you’d better be careful with your money, as the game also has a wide range of weapons, weapon upgrades, armour, armour mods, grenades and much more – perhaps you should spend your cash on those instead!
Aha, not so easy though – although you can get cash by finding it in missions, extorting people or from selling things you find, your cashflow is never exactly plentiful, which means that buying that really cool combat armour might mean being unable to acquire better weapons until you can save up, or being unable to purchase intelligence or assistance. It’s a nice balance, and I like that it allows for a lot of play styles. You can stealth through the game and only ever kill 2 people or just go all out – though of course, once you massacre everyone in a mission, you make things much harder for yourself in later missions, as word gets out. So however you choose to play, it will have consequences.
Speaking of stealth again, quite a few of the missions have different outcomes if you managed to complete them without being detected, as well as providing different intelligence or other rewards. I also really like the system of perks, where for example defeating 50 enemies in close combat gives you a small bonus to your close combat skills, and it ranges from killing people with grenades to sleeping with the major female characters. I’ve yet to get the one where you bed them all, but there’s still time ;)
Alpha protocol is not without its flaws – its console origins means that the camera moves way too fast (it can be adjusted by editing the games’s config files, but not in the options!), the action portions are a bit too easy for mouse and keyboard, and there’s the sense of only being able to do things that the makers want you to (you can’t just jump off any roof for example, only marked areas). Technically it’s also a little strange – it takes over 3 minutes for the game to load up after I press the play button, while my PC just sits there doing God knows what. And turning anti-aliasing on makes all the text in game disappear. What?
All this leaves me torn a little inside. I want to be able to recommend Alpha Protocol to people, it’s an interesting take on the action/rpg genre, it’s got a nice mix of skills, perks, special abilities, conversations, hacking, rewiring alarms, cracking into safes, picking locks, inventory management – all the things that make up a good spy RPG, but then it’s also got technical flaws, a bit too much action focus, needed some PC quality assurance that it’s clearly never received – and so I’m left wondering, which of my friends should I tell to play this?
On the other hand, at release it was around 2/3 the cost of a major title, and is currently £11.99 at Amazon, a price which surely encourages you to give it some patience and see what happens?
I mean sure, the RPG fans among you will be irritated by the action side, and the general console conversion feel. The action fans will have better PC action games to play. And this is why it hasn’t sold well.
But despite all that, I’m looking at my Steam counter and it’s saying 48 hours of Alpha Protocol played . That’s around 2-3 complete playthroughs (longer if you don’t skip cutscenes and conversations, and read all of the dossiers/intel in game, or try to get all the perks), so it’s doing something right to keep me playing that long.
Those of you looking for something different in the RPG genre and who don’t mind sneaking around or shooting people in the face (or strangling them from behind, or using stun grenades, or tranq. pistols, or … well you get the idea, there’s a lot of different playstyles you can use) you are the people who should try Alpha Protocol, because inside the flawed exterior, you can see that the developers had a good vision for what their game should be, and it mostly works pretty well – with the odd rough edge – as long as you are prepared to give it a chance to shine.
So my challenge to you is this. This isn’t the best game you ever played, but it is fun, it’s got some interesting ideas, and for the price, you might just find that its actually pretty fun to be international secret agent, whichever way you choose to play him.