Review #3: Alpha Protocol (Video Game - PC)

Posted: 10.2.11

Loyalty carries a price and no one knows this more than agent Michael Thorton. A talented young agent cast out by his government, Thorton is the only one with the information needed to stop an impending international catastrophe. To do so means he must cut himself off from the very people he is sworn to protect. As players determine how to accomplish different objectives, the decisions made and actions taken in each mission will ultimately transform the type of secret agent Michael Thorton will become. Every choice the player makes as Michael Thorton will carry consequences for his future and the fate of the world.

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: SEGA
Released: June 1, 2010 (NA)

 Alpha Protocol. I bought this on Steam during a sale for $2. It's been on my wishlist for ages. I had never played it, but it looked interesting enough. Finally, I was able to purchase it and spend some time playing through it. And I have to say, this is, so far, one of the best games I have played this year.

While it only got a 72/100 on Metacritic scoring, ratings never mean that much to me. A lot of the better games I've enjoyed have scored in the 70s. This game is straight up under-appreciated and overlooked in the cesspool of other games out there.

The game's main draw is the conversation choices and the reputation system. Throughout the game you're faced with choices on how to respond to situations during cutscenes, and you don't get infinite time to decide like you do in other games where you get conversation choices. It usually gives you around 5 seconds to make a choice, and that choice will usually permanently affect the rest of the story by altering your reputation with whoever you're speaking with, or even letting you decide to kill or not to kill a character. If you pick something, and you don't like the result, too bad, you're fucked, cause the game just auto-saved when you made that choice. This, of course, is a good thing, because it means that your choices have very real consequences and you have to live with them (just like in real life, imagine that). With this feature being noted, it goes without saying that there are potentially dozens of ways that the main story can play out. Characters will live or die based on your choices. Characters you care about will die if you make the wrong (or right, depending on your point of view) decisions. The game is amazing in this regard and it also gives it replayability.

Gameplay-wise, there are playstyles to suit everyone. If you're the sneak around and silently incapacitate all the guards without alerting anyone type, you'll be wholly satisfied with the silenced pistol and stealth perks. If you're the rambo type, grab a shotgun and a some SMGs and go rip the place apart with the extra health and martial arts perks. If you want to do a little of both (and trust me, you'll have to), then a pistol and rifle combo is great depending on the mission. When I did my first playthrough, I did it stealth-style. The gameplay heavily brought up memories of Metal Gear Solid. I even customized Thorton to look like a MGS2-era Solid Snake. Awww yeah. The stealth gameplay is the most fun I've had in a game this year, hiding behind a wall and watching the guards path around, trying to figure out their pattern and how to deal with them without alerting them. Just plain awesome.

As for character development, each time you level up, you gain Ability Points to spend in the character development screen. It works much like it does in Mass Effect. The categories range from Stealth, to Health boosts, or extra melee combat moves, or increased proficiency with hacking/lockpicking, or any of the four weapon categories. You'll only reach Level 18 or so by the end of the game, so you can realistically only max out perhaps 2 or 3 of the categories, so you definitely need to choose where your points go wisely. I chose to go with Stealth first, then increase my pistol and health, then finally to develop my hacking ability. It's fairly basic, yet leaves you room for customization to play it how you want.

The weapons combat is the trickiest part. The aiming is hard to get used to, if you run around spraying bullets you aren't going to hit a damn thing. The game has an odd aiming system where the longer you stay aimed/zoomed in on a target, the more accurate your shot will be. The reticule begins to close in as you hold still on a target (focusing your aim, basically) and if you let it zoom all the way in, your shots will land exactly where you aim them. But if you just pop out and fire, you might hit your target, but that's very unlikely. You can specialize in the weapon categories to eventually unlock the ability to steady your aim on an enemy from cover, without them being able to see you. This is especially useful for the silenced pistol, you can focus on a guard and drop him with a quick shot without ever popping out of cover.

As far as the enemies go, they have a varying range of sight, seemingly dependent on the level. Some seem blind as a bat, while others may spot you from across the area. You can also place AP into the Stealth category to reduce their chances of seeing you. Noise factor also plays a part. If you stand up and run around, they'll hear you for sure, but sneaking around crouched, you can often run up right beside them and perform a melee takedown or knife kill without them ever knowing what happened. If you do alert them, they're not very bright if you find cover and get away to hide, and will eventually return to normal (like Metal Gear guards), but occasionally one guard will just refuse to go off of alert status and will seemingly become omnipotent. As soon as you emerge from cover, even if you're behind him and being stealthy, he will immediately turn and start blasting on you. It's probably a bug, but it happens and isn't really that big of an issue.

As far as other features, the game has computer hacking, which involves aligning two sets of stationary code amidst a huge scrolling plethora of non-stationary code. Learning this takes a few attempts to get good at, but by the third or fourth time I had pretty much nailed it. Not sure if it's any harder on the upper difficulty levels; I imagine it is. There's also lockpicking, which involves aligning tumblers and locking them into place. It's pretty easy. And finally there's breaking into safes/shutting off alarms, which is pretty much tracing a line from a number on a circuit panel to the appropriate clip and breaking the circuit, in numbered order. All of these events are timed, and if you fail, an alarm goes off.

The game also sports a large number of gadgets, ranging from remote mines (think GoldenEye 007) to a sound generator which distracts guards to EMP grenades (which are a good way to bypass computer hacks/locked safes/alarms/etc).

There's also a black market you can access from the between-mission safehouse to buy new weapons, armor, gadgets, or intel. Intel helps you in missions, by providing things like secondary objectives (for more cash or reputation), sniper rifle drops at certain points in the map, or a map of the area, among other things. These aren't necessary to completing the missions, but they can be helpful, if you have the money to spare. You can also sell things and check your e-mail (and even reply to it in some cases, and yes, you even get a choice on how to reply to those which affect your reputation as well).

The story was good as well, very involving, especially with the conversation choices. There were a few "the girl or the mission" choices in my game, cause my Thorton is a pimp and got three girls over the course of the story (but two of them died. I imagine you can save all three or all three can die, depending on how you play it out). SPOILER ALERT (sort of) It's basically a "you're the rogue agent trying to stop your bosses who are secretly working for a megacorporation that is going to start a war for profit". If you succeed in this or not, however, is totally up to your decisions in the story scenes. Who you kill, who you save... all of this plays a part in if you end up stopping them or not. END SPOILER

The game took me about 17 hours to get through, doing it slow and stealthy. Your mileage may vary depending on your playstyle and how many times you die. For the most part, it's not a difficult game (unless you play it on Hard, and then Holy Shit, this is ridiculous), except for a certain cocaine-snorting boss fight (let's just say that I found a strategy for beating him by googling "alpha protocol impossible boss"). I also highly recommend the use of an Xbox 360 controller, it plays incredibly well with it (and the pressure-sensitive triggers are amazing for picking locks). Or play the 360 version. Either way, you'll be satisfied when it's all said and done. The game is, quite simply, amazing, from start to finish. There aren't any levels that I'm not looking forward to redoing on my next playthrough (y'know how some games have those levels where you're like "God, fuck this level" the next time you play through the campaign? Yeah, not here.).

The ending, however, sucks. It's one of "those" endings. In my case, the entire ending cutscene consisted of me getting on a boat with the only girl I managed to save and we said a few lines and drove off into the sunset. Now, the boss scenes and fights leading up to that ending were fucking amazing, and the entire overall final level is badass as fuck. I can't go into much detail without spoiling anything.

The credits sequence also changes based on how you played the game, who was left alive and who wasn't, and so on, so it's a bit of an extended ending in itself.

I can't think of anything negative to say about it. The story was good, the length was good, the autosave system is dreamy (you're never fucked if you lose power or it crashes or whatever cause it autosaves very frequently), the gameplay and controls were great, graphics are nice, etc. People say the game is loaded with bugs and unplayable glitches, but I found zero instances of such things. It ran like a dream for me with max everything, zero crashes in the entire game. The only things slightly glitchy I noticed was a guard got stuck on some sandbags in an early level, but I was still able to kill him through any means I felt like, and the occasional omnipotent guard thing I mentioned earlier. Nothing game-breaking. A friend of mine who is currently playing through it said he had a problem once where, after dying, the checkpoint he loaded at had no enemies and he seemingly couldn't progress, but going backward a few feet seemed to reset everything and the boss encounter he was on happened as normal. Definitely not game-breaking there either.

The bottom line is: If you enjoyed Metal Gear Solid or Mass Effect, then you need this game right now. It's been compared to Splinter Cell or Deus Ex, though I've played neither of those games so I can't confirm or deny that myself. There aren't any lightbulbs to assassinate, though. Even if you didn't like those games, you still need this game right now. At least go rent it for a weekend. That's enough time to get through it once. It's that good.



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