Alpha Protocol Xbox 360 Review

Mark Botwright

Distinguished Member
Reviewed by Paul Haigh

AlphaProtocolbox.jpg


Publisher: SEGA
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox 360 (also available on PlayStation 3 and PC)
Certificate: 15 (BBFC)​

Synopsis​

Alpha protocol, the ‘espionage RPG’, enters a crowded market of ‘role playing games’ (RPG), most of which are more interested in making you perform the same actions hundreds of times to level up your characters, than giving you meaningful and interesting roles or choices. Obsidian Entertainment, the developers of Alpha Protocol (whose previous work includes Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), have taken a long hard look at what it means to be a role playing game, and decided that choice, not grind, is important.

Can their vision for a RPG (espionage or not) break the mould and succeed at doing something so differently, or will it choose to hide in the background?

20459AlphaProtocolSARPG.jpg

Whoops!​

Presentation​

Given the visual flair of the other games in the RPG arena now, such as Mass Effect and Final Fantasy (even on the 360), visual excellence can also be delivered alongside a clear story and interesting choices. The graphics in Alpha Protocol remind of those in Dragon Age Origins, looking decidedly ugly in places, with low-resolution textures and some quite distracting and noticeable screen tearing.

It might be churlish to complain about the graphics of a less than AAA title, and they are not often bad enough to jar you out of the experience, but nevertheless other recent RPGs have shown that they can be both interesting, and beautiful, definitely a claim that no-one would make of Alpha Protocol.
There is an obvious attempt to make each hub area, for which you will perform a small handful of missions, look and feel very different. Largely the variety is a success, with none of the clichéd ‘snow level’, ‘train level’ standards that lazy developers fall back on.

The different bases, whilst functional, have lots of touches that make them feel believable, even if they all follow a similar pattern (bed, computer and so on). A good example is the safe house in Rome has a lovely outdoor hot tub overlooking the rooftops of Rome, an un-necessary, but pleasing, touch.

With the camera being entirely manually controlled, it is seldom noticeable, but occasionally, especially when you are caught in confined areas, the camera can suddenly become extremely awkward and can lead to frustrating, and entirely unfair, deaths.

20454AlphaProtocolMoscowNeckchop-1.jpg

Murder on the dancefloor?​

Game Mechanics​

The main character is a clear symbiosis of Bourne and Bond, with the macho ‘I can execute you if I want’ attitude of Bourne and the lady pleasing charm of Bond. Sadly, the mix never quite comes off as well as it might have seemed at the design phase, but whilst it’s often a bit grating, the overall effect is generally positive with some interesting character dynamics. Game stories are often derided for being too clichéd and uninteresting and this isn’t the game to break that stereotype. It’s a pleasant enough romp through a variety of locations and characters, with the predictable corruption and conspiracy angles, and hugely signposted ‘shocks’ and twists in the story. In short, nothing that’s going to set the world on fire, but interesting enough to pull you along between mission hubs.

Choice is what Alpha Protocol does really very well indeed. Each dialogue is accompanied by up to four choices, which fall into the ‘suave’, ‘aggressive’, ‘professional’ and ‘direct’ stances. This brings a nice amount of variety to the choices, with nothing as binary as being an asshole, or being incredibly nice (Yes, I’m looking at you Bioware). There are definitely many shades of grey to the options available and the game is significantly better for it. As a result, you need to be paying attention to the dialogue, as no one decision will see you through every conversation with the same style of ending. Different characters appreciate different ‘stances’ and these stances change during the flow of a conversation. Each judgement also has to be completed quickly, in the normal flow of the cut-scene, so there’s no opportunity to procrastinate for hours about the outcome and this leads to much more natural flow, and more honest consequences, to the dialogue.

The game also has an active auto-save; after every conversation you’ll find that it will save your progress, reducing your ability to re-load the last position, and try the conversation again. Along with the (often very short) time to make a decision, you’ll often find yourself cursing at the direction the dialogue has taken without an easy way to undo it. Learning to live with this is a core element of the experience, and the game is much better for it.

The game makes a huge play for stealth, with most missions providing ample opportunity to sneak around or behind enemies, but this mechanic feels particularly inept, especially in the wake of much more accomplished sneaking games such as Splinter Cell: Conviction. With no gadgets designed for spotting enemies you can often find yourself opening doors to be met by enemies who immediately raise the alarm. This issue wouldn’t be so serious if the gunplay wasn’t so frustrating.

Alpha Protocol defines your ability to hit opponents with your weapons by secret, invisible dice rolls performed in the background, based on your characters skills and abilities, rather than your ability to place the reticule on the enemies head.

For the first few levels this is incredibly frustrating as you waste clip after clip shooting at enemies you have no hope of hitting. The game never really makes this clear, so you spend quite a time in these early stages getting more and more frustrated with the ‘broken’ aiming and shooting mechanic.

The game really rewards being a master of a single weapon, rather than a jack of all trades, so once you build your characters abilities, the shooting gathers pace and is a lot more fun for it. Sadly, for most, this will come too late, and the damage to the players interest may already be done.

Hacking computers, opening locks and disabling alarms are all controlled by mini-games of varying types – follow the puzzle, squeeze the triggers on the controller, find matches in a grid of moving numbers. Whilst they are all interesting enough the first few times, given the huge quantity of these mini-games in the campaign, they quickly become tiring and staid. Although they are largely optional, the rewards placed in locked safes and in computer terminals, are of such value that missing them out will reduce your ability to buy upgrades for your weapons and armour, your ability to compete with the enemies in the latter missions will be extremely limited.

The difficulty curve across the entire length of the game feels extremely well crafted, with no significant spikes in difficulty or any particularly frustrating experiences, even in the end of level Boss Battles, one of which rather splendidly blinds you with his dance floor lights.

Unfortunately the careful and meticulous difficulty curve planning falls apart for the final mission, which is extremely punishing with lots of enemies which can kill you instantly, but are almost impossible to defeat. It’s clear that the final level is designed to be the bombastic action blockbuster finale with explosions, bodies and gunfire aplenty, but it comes across as a bit desperate, with a hodgepodge of enemies and environments thrown in from a grab-bag of ideas. It’s an ignominious way to end the game, and a black spot on an otherwise entertaining experience.

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Oi!

Longevity​
Games that mandate, or promote stealth gameplay tend to take longer to complete, as you spend more time studying the guard routes than with a standard ‘run and gun’ game. Expect to finish a run and gun playthrough in around 8-10 hours, with a stealthier, considered approach taking in the region of 13 hours.

The story, whilst relatively linear, takes enough twists and turns at your hand to keep it engaging for multiple playthroughs, much more so than the more binary choices of other games in the genre. If you can come to terms with the poor graphics, slightly wonky gameplay and horrible first impressions, then there is definitely a game here which will stand the test of time. There is plenty of characterisation to explore with the different characters in the story, and nuances in the plot twists which aren’t immediately evident from your first completion.

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I’m sure the next one will be along soon..

Final Thoughts
The attempt to do something different with the dialogue and story really stands out as a brave decision. It works incredibly well, and married up with a more robust engine and gameplay mechanics this game could have done extremely well.

Despite the criticisms, it’s hard not to like Alpha Protocol for what it is, rather than what it is trying to be. With less money to spend, the developers have made sensible and oft brave choices, and the frustration that people feel playing the game genuinely stems from a disappointment that the game doesn’t hit the heady heights that it could, and it’s this missed opportunity that really leaves you feeling a bit disillusioned.

A lot like a summer blockbuster, there is plenty of interesting entertainment in this package, but it’s never going to redefine the genre in any way. Turn off your brain and enjoy the game for what it is, rather than what it could have been and you’ll have a blast.

+ve
• Choices really mean something
• Levels feel different and interesting
• Explosions are plentiful
• Character interactions are interesting


-ve
• Initial impressions are terribly harsh
• Ropey graphics and camera control
• Shooting can be tough, especially at the beginning
• Stealth approach can be unfairly punishing


Try this if…
MassEffect2box.jpg

You like the choices in Mass Effect 2, but wished for more consequence.​
 

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