When Obsidian Entertainment first announced Alpha Protocol in 2008, it piqued a lot of interest. Not because Obsidian were making a new RPG, but because it would be an RPG based around stealth and espionage. It seemed like an incredibly daring concoction of genres, and it certainly went away from the more traditional realm of RPGs. The title was originally meant to come out late 2009, but it was blighted by a series of delays which gamers were assured happened because the studio wanted the game to be 'very polished' upon its release. Well, it's finally here and it looks like it probably could have done with some more polish.
The plot in Alpha Protocol probably won't surprise most people. Players take control of an agent named Michael Thornton, who has been assigned to a government agency called Alpha Protocol. However, as expected, the agency doesn't officially exist, which gives the government full deniability if something goes absolutely pear shaped. And go pear shaped it does, as Michael's first mission, which he's assigned after spending about 5 minutes in the programme, goes bad and Michael becomes a rogue agent that's being hunted by his old agency and his country.
From here, the game becomes a lot less linear. Players are given three locations to choose from (Rome, Moscow and Taipei) and they can undertake missions in their regions as and when they please. They can also switch between the various locations if they wish, and the dialogue with characters throughout missions will reflect exactly what Michael's been doing. The problem with the story, is that it offers something ironically unexpected - almost no plot twist. Surely that's an absolute must for a game based around espionage, but the plot twist that does happen seems so insignificant that it could almost not even happen.
Fortunately, the story is salvaged by some fantastic dialogue between the characters. Each conversation has numerous points throughout where Michael can answer in different ways, but there's a timer present which means players don't have too long to think about their answers. Unlike in other RPGs, where players can take as long as they want to answer, the system in Alpha Protocol actually makes it so everything flows - it feels like a proper conversation. Conversations can also be stopped instantly, and taking different routes will unlook more or less information. Chosing the correct way to speak with certain characters will also change their disposition rather quickly and their demeanour becomes quite apparent as conversations progress with these characters throughout the story. The relationships Michael forms also impact the gameplay, as perks are granted based on the strength, or weakness of a relationship.
The gameplay, unfortunately, isn't very strong. Players can either choose to play through as a stealthy operative or one who goes in all-guns blazing - neither is overly effective though. This is mainly because the gameplay is so unpolished. Sneaking up on guards wouldn't be so bad if the game felt like it was actually built with this in mind, but it really doesn't seem that way. Going in firing dozens of rounds equally wouldn't be so bad if the gun combat were half decent - it's not. It makes this aspect of the game incredibly frustrating, and the best option is to simply make a walking battle tank who is a supreme martial artist. That way, the poor gameplay mechanics can simply be ignored, and the game can be progressed relatively easily.If players really want to use weaponry though, there are four types to choose from. Michael can either use a pistol, SMG, shotgun or assault rifle. Each, as expected, is useful for a certain situation and fortunately it's possible to carry two at a time. They can also be customised, with the barrel, hilt, magazine type and scope-area interchangeable as players look to create the weapons of their dreams. All of the parts can be purchased through the black market, although supply depends on who Michael knows at the time.
As players upgrade through the RPG system, they will also gain access to special moves, which can really help Michael out of a tricky situation. Each skill-type has a few moves, which can be enhanced through further skill-point spending. Examples are, Iron Will, which allow Michael to gain some health and become heavily resistant to damage for a short period, or Hard to Kill, which averts the game over screen to give Michael a second wind. Skills can also be used to upgrade proficiency with espionage activities, which really are a must as some of them get rather hard - not in terms of difficulty, but in terms of the time allowed to perform the task. There are three main forms throughout the game, lock picking, hacking and deactivating electronic devices. They actually work rather well, although the lock-picking can be a bit frustrating at times due to its incredible sensitivity. It relies on pressing down the trigger buttons and holding them at a certain point while the pin can be set.
Graphics also feel underwhelming in Alpha Protocol. Nothing particularly stands out and the animations of both Michael and guards are less than convincing. It's a shame, because the voice acting is actually rather good - aside from the corny accents present in each of the regions. It's really quite interesting to hear how different dialogue options really alter the tone of a conversation and how when there are multiple characters taking part in conversations, they play off each other seamlessly.
Alpha Protocol is arguably on the short-side, as there aren't really any side-quests to do and the game clocks in at around 11-12 hours. However, there is incentive to replay the game again, purely to see how different characters behave to Michael when faced with a different line of questioning. It's also possible to simply kill off characters that were previously allies, and to see how the story unfolds given these key changes.
For all its faults Alpha Protocol features one of the best dialogue systems seen in an RPG for a long time. It helps to keep things extremely fresh and certainly makes the whole story-aspect of the game feel much more engaging. However, for all the good this brings, Alpha Protocol is severely let down by the game's other major aspect, the gameplay. It really is one of those games where you're left thinking, what if? Alpha Protocol surely didn't necessarily plan out how Obsidian wanted it to, but there were some amazing ideas present amongst all the bad ones. Hopefully they'll be able to make a sequel and really sort out those areas, because the concept has some serious potential if done correctly.