Alpha Protocol (PS3, Xbox 360, PC; Obsidian; Sega; 2010)
Alpha Protocol is a game that I think most people probably know about but they just haven’t really had a good play of. Which is fair. I know I waited a solid while before I even gave the game its first go, and that first time, I did what I always do when games ask me what kind of gameplay I want to have and picked wrong. And so I got pissed with the game very quickly for my own failings. But last year, when I was first starting out as a streamer (feels a lot longer back than that), I decided to give Alpha Protocol another go because it was there in my Steam library and hey, its not a game you see much of. And I fell in love with the game during that time. Absolutely fell in love with it.
Y’see, the whole reason Alpha Protocol sits with me so well is that it fills the gap that Bioware have left with their new-found approach to the Western RPG. With Dragon Age, they have ye olde fantasy setting, and with Mass Effect, they have yonder futuristic sci-fi setting; what that leaves out is the modern realist setting, and that’s where Alpha Protocol comes in. Here you have a globe-trotting Western RPG set in the world of modern espionage and political trickery, with a fantastic conversational system, but also taking from cover shooters and stealth games when you have to pull out your gun. A game that is to James Bond and Jason Bourne, as Dragon Age is to Conan and Mass Effect is to Star Trek; your gaming interpretation of what you’ve loved in the media. And trust me, as a kid who loved espionage fiction who grew up into a teenager and an adult who still loves espionage fiction, the game fits like a glove.
A big boon to the game is how well the conversation system fits being a spy. Unlike Mass Effect, with the good and evil bits on the circle being the leading split, Alpha Protocol works on a very different system where you simply choose the tone of what you’re going to say between 4 different choices. The choices are suave a la James Bond, professional a la James Bourne, aggressive a la Jack Bauer, and sometimes a fourth option in the situation; what this means is that you get a more ‘shades of grey’ system as opposed to the garish and obtuse ‘good and evil’ system most modern dialogue mechanics use, so its a far more optimal system for letting someone choose how to behave. It also means that your status in the world is far more defined by your interactions and relationships with all the characters and how they respond to everything you say, rather than just a few tickboxes every conversation. You have to be able to read what people will and will not respond well to, and you’re not even always trying to get someone to be your friend. Sometimes the point is that you want to infuriate someone so they slip up or something. Sometimes the point is you’re going for a romance and play it up as such. To me, its far better than “I’m the good guy, here is what a good guy would say” or “I’m the anti-hero, here is what the anti-hero would say”.
The story also does a pretty good job of fitting the game into the espionage world, and not really being all that bad. Its fairly tropey in that its a fairly normal story of your organisation being betrayed and double-crossed and you’re forced into being a rogue agent, but it does a nice job fitting into modern geopolitics, which is a lot more than can be said for a lot of games set in ‘modern times’. The game also does a nice job of avoiding falling onto the defaults of Russian or middle Eastern antagonists, unlike other games like that one with the 4 in its title that is about warfare in modern times. And the characters fill their roles quite neatly, and are all a varied bunch of individuals, wich is quite nice. My personal highlight is probably the security chief guy in Italy, as I like his gruff professional attitude as an old man, and the way that he don’t take no shit even as a boss.
Final bit to talk about the majesty of is the combat, I guess. Generally, the combat is pretty on point throughout and is quite satisfying; stealth is no Splinter Cell but its still pretty fun, third person cover-to-cover shooting isn’t exactly Gears of War but it still feels damn good. The combat holds up generally though no matter the approach you take, which is good though; the issue with a lot of these first entries into the world of combat-heavy Western RPGs normally is that combat balancing can be a bit poorly done. Mass Effect 1 certainly had issues in that certain skill sets were useless compared to others, and there’s always the infamous case of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the bosses being undefeatable if you picked a certain set of skills. Now I’m not going to say that Alpha Protocol gets away from all of that, because it certainly doesn’t; the boss fights are often these very bizarre difficulty spikes for no apparent reason and I probably actually spend far more of my time with that game than I should have on those damn things. But, probably by virtue of the fact that its not a game based around lots of personal skills as well as weapon skills, you generally are fine in the boss fights, its just ensuring you have enough ammo and get used to their crazy difficulty. Unless you’re a melee / stealth scrub, then you’re just leaving yourself open to a coke-snorting Russian mobster obsessed with the 80s stabbing you to death. And its your own fault.
So yeah, here you have this game, taking a wonderful diversion from the Bioware model and creating a really cool espionage game (which you don’t get nearly often enough nowadays) in a solid believable world. Yet, there are some bugs with it and people had some issues with the launch, so it came out the gates with not fantastic review scores in a busy holiday season and everyone forgot about it. But take this as your notice to stop forgetting about it, get your hands on it if you haven’t already, and enjoy the hell out of that game, you dirty son of a guns.
Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.