Friday, June 11, 2010

Alpha Protocol Review

Alpha Protocol, developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by SEGA.
The Good: Robust character customization, conversation choices affect future missions, choice of mission order increases replay value
The Not So Good: Bland linear missions, stealth not a viable option, hacking mini-games are tedious, wildly inconsistent AI, checkpoint-only saves, no multiplayer
What say you? Repetitive missions and uninspired combat hurt this espionage role-playing game despite a nice roster of ancillary features: 5/8

Spies are cool. That’s why there are so many movies about them: James Bond drinking heavily while not wearing a shirt, Jason Bourne (who I always thought was like a Streisand) killing some guy with a pen, and whatever Jack Bauer does because I never watched 24. Yes, being a cool, calculated killer is a dream of many and a job of few. Luckily computer gaming lets us step into the shoes of these silent assassins and shoot people in a legal manner: virtually. Alpha Protocol takes the action and stealth of spy games and injects a healthy dose of role-playing game elements. Thankfully, the game is not a traditional RPG as it uses actual skill to dispose of enemies instead of random dice rolls and magical magic. Lets shoot some people in the face, shall we?

Alpha Protocol uses Unreal Engine 3 for its graphical prowess and the results are good. Each of the environments you play in a quite detailed, from the various objects that populate the levels to the textures on the ground and buildings. You will encounter some rooms that are used more than once, though, but this repetition is minimal (though noticeable, obviously). The settings are also diverse and distinctive, almost feeling like actual cities except for the linear corridors and frequently blocked doorways you’ll encounter. Characters look nice as well, with realistic animations and pleasing ragdoll death sequences. Weapons and explosions are nothing special, but are effective. I didn’t even notice the game is in third person, which is a compliment. Overall, I was pleased with the graphics Alpha Protocol brings. On the sound front, Alpha Protocol offers good voice acting, intense combat effects, and appropriate background music. Alpha Protocol delivers very solid graphics and sound for a mainstream action title.

In Alpha Protocol, you are Michael “Michael ‘Mike’” Thorton, an ex-CIA agent who blah blah conspiracy blah blah black ops et cetera. Running through the starting tutorial, you can choose one of the pre-set classes: a combat-focused soldier, the stealthy field agent, or the tech savvy specialist. Or you can opt for a completely customized assortment of initial skills to tailor your specific strategy. Advanced players can choose “recruit” with no starting stats for an increased challenge. And, of course, you can change your haircut and wear snazzy sunglasses all the celebrities are talking about. While the first locale presents missions in an orderly fashion, things open up, allowing you to tackle missions in a sequence of your choosing. Doing so actually determines the characters you will encounter along the way (a single playthrough does not show off all the game’s content), encouraging multiple cracks at the world of Alpha Protocol. Missions that advance the plot are highlighted, and missions usually involve shooting but sometimes focus on gathering intelligence. The replay value is higher than what we would typically see in a single player game: Alpha Protocol does make you wonder what would happen if you chose a different mission or conversation response. Sadly, the missions themselves are quite linear, funneling you down restricted paths towards clear objectives. Since Alpha Protocol is a solo-only affair, each mission becomes quite repetitive: enter a room, shoot the guys, hack an object. More freedom in mission completion options would mix well with the freedom granted in selecting specific assignments. The missions are also very combat-focused, which negates the use of more stealthy techniques when dealing with the enemy. Alpha Protocol does allow you to fast forward through boring dialogue, but restricts you to saving the game only at (admittedly frequent) checkpoints. Alpha Protocol also lacks multiplayer of any kind for those who like to play with others.

As with any role-playing game, Alpha Protocol lets you upgrade Michael “Michael ‘Mike’” Thorton with improved competency and additional skills. There are nine areas in which you can spend points earned when you level up from experience earned from in-game actions (namely completing missions). You can start by increasing your aptitude with any of the weapon classes (pistols, submachine guns, shotguns, and assault rifles). Additionally, you can increase your health (toughness), speed up hacking and offensive gadgets (sabotage), augment first aid and weapon bonuses (technical aptitude), improve stealth, or find more efficient ways of manually kicking ass (martial arts). As you increase your abilities in a certain area, extra abilities called perks are unlocked. These range from simple stat bonuses (like increased accuracy, for example) to new abilities (like sensing nearby enemies or slowing down time). Perks can also be earned from in-game choices and relationships with superiors. Alpha Protocol definitely features robust character customization options.

What’s a spy without some cool weapons and gadgets to kill people with? Alpha Protocol features several grades of weapons of each type that can be purchased online using money earned during missions. You can also outfit individual weapons with barrels, sights, expanded magazines, and other neat accessories either purchased or found scattered around the missions. Stats are clearly displayed (including relationships to your current weapon), so making the right decision is easy. Alpha Protocol is not just about shooting people, as you can also equip a number of grenades, first aid kits, traps, and distractions for your enemies. Finally, you can pick up or purchase alternative ammunition for your weapons, like incendiary rounds for a fiery good time. It seems the best combination is an assault rifle paired with a short-range weapon (either the shotgun or pistol). The submachine gun, at least until you have upgraded your stats, was way too inaccurate for use against anything except for massed enemies. Still, the options are there to find your own personal favorite pairing.

The hallmark of any good role-playing game, Alpha Protocol offers conversation with friends and foes along the way. The difference here is that you are not supplied with canned responses that bear no real impact on the game. You are given three or four stances that summarize the stereotypical approaches of a world-class spy: aggressive, professional, or suave. The choice you make can affect your relationship with the target, both positively and negatively, which will grant different perks during gameplay or affect subsequent missions. There is a time limit (around five seconds) to make your choice to increase the pressure. The same approach does not work on all characters, so you have to get a “read” on what they respond to the best (gathered intelligence can help with this). Also, you want to avoid an overwhelming positive relationship with your advisors, as emotions might undermine their ability to lead effectively. I like the system Alpha Protocol has employed and it works well, providing more varied (and sometimes unpredictable) dialogue and impacting the game’s overall story.

Alpha Protocol is not all about shooting. Frequently, you’ll be tasked to enter one of three mini-games to complete various tasks. The most difficult/annoying is computer hacking: you have to move two codes (using the WASD keys, spacebar, and the mouse) onto the appropriate non-moving characters on a rectangular display of flashing letters. The controls are really odd and not intuitive, which adds to the difficulty. I do not like it. Better is the electronic bypass, where you must select tabs connected to a maze of circuits with digits on them in numerical order. That one is more fun but does get old after a while. Most trivial is the lock picking: just line up the pins with the mouse and it’s ready to be opened; I seem to remember the same mechanic being used in other games. While the hacking elements do offer a break from shooting, they get old quickly and they are mandatory to advance in the story. They also occur quite frequently (usually five or six times per mission), more so if you want to access secret moves where cash is stored. In any event, all of the mini-games are annoying enough to despise the next time you have to complete them.

OK, Alpha Protocol is mostly about shooting. The game has no shortage of action, as most missions involve coming into a new room populated with bad guys and taking care of them with hot lead. Luckily, Alpha Protocol uses actual aiming to determine if an enemy is incapacitated, although there is some randomness as to where the bullets will land in the aiming reticule. Because you will always be outnumbered, cover is a must: use the spacebar to enter cover and move between conveniently placed boxes and crates. You can blind fire from behind cover or peek out to engage the enemy. Problem is, the game requires you to aim for a considerable amount of time before accuracy is at an acceptable level, all the while having the enemy freely shooting at you. The level design discourages stealthy tactics due to the lack of alternative paths to objectives. In addition, alarms can be quickly disabled, or even left enabled with no real repercussions. At least the crouch toggle is useful, and I do prefer a more action-oriented approach to combat. Your character (Michael “Michael ‘Mike’” Thorton) has both health and endurance. Endurance (kind of like armor or shields) regenerates slowly over time, while health can only be replenished using health packs or medicine cabinets. Ammunition pertinent to your current weapons are also dropped by defeated adversaries. You’ll need these assists as the AI is no slouch: they use cover and engage at appropriate distances for their weapons. In fact, they might be too effective, singling you out at long distances and being super-accurate with their weapons. And then the next minute, they completely ignore you walk in front of them. They do not like to work in groups (where one enemy engages you while another sneaks around the side to flank), and the boss battles (boo!) border on the impossible: good luck if you've equipped yourself with the inappropriate character upgrades and abilities. While the shooting can be nice, the level design is not interesting: Alpha Protocol needs more than one path to an objective, and the linear level layouts ruin the immersion and other better qualities the game offers.

The list of features Alpha Protocol brings is certainly comprehensive. The game has complete role-playing attributes: character customization is certainly all-inclusive, offering upgrades in nine areas and unlocking new perks as you level up. The use of these attributes really changes your overall tactics, from ammo-spraying man of action to stealthy assassin to anything in between. Like your character, each of the game’s weapons can be upgraded to improve performance. The levels are designed to emphasize medium (assault rifle) and close (shotgun or pistol) ranged items, so it is important to equip Michael “Michael ‘Mike’” Thorton with a variety of items for every situation. Combat emphasizes the use of cover and careful targeting of foes, which can be difficult when you are being shot at. Unfortunately, Alpha Protocol really doesn't let you be a stealthy spy (despite having the option to customize that way), as the levels thrust you into constant combat. The AI is good (certainly good enough for this type of game), using cover and generally moving in a smart manner, but not too smart where the game is impossible to beat. The campaign has higher-than-usual replay value for this kind of game, thanks to the mission choices that affect which characters you meet and the conversations you have with those characters. The stance conversation system works well, and choosing the “correct” responses improve relationships while at the same time “incorrect” choices don’t break the game. Even with all of these good to great features, Alpha Protocol’s actual level design leaves a lot to be desired: it’s far too repetitive. Look! Another room with two guys and something that needs to be hacked! The hacking is a break from the usual, but the sequences are very monotonous and become boring and annoying quite quickly (which is unfortunate, since you’ll need to do them quite often). The levels also rarely offer a choice of paths, so despite the fact that the game has multiple endings and is affected by the conversations you hold, the same levels will need to be played. If you can deal with the repetitive and restricted nature of the linear missions and the AI shortcomings, Alpha Protocol does have some nice surrounding features.