Alpha Protocol is a third-person shooter RPG from Obsidian Entertainment. It saw a cross-platform release to Windows, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Genre: Third-person shooter
, tactical espionage
, role-playing game
Alpha Protocol is a third-person shooter built on Unreal Engine 3 by Obsidian Entertainment, and is notable because it was Obsidian's first title to feature original intellectual property. Obsidian is more broadly known for making sequels to role-playing and action-adventure titles in franchises that were previously produced by other development studios.
The game is set in modern-day Earth, and follows black-ops field agent Michael Thorton through a series of infiltration missions. Alpha Protocol refers to the name of the black-ops organization that has recruited Thorton from the CIA at the outset of the game. The missions are punctuated by interlude segments where Thorton is being debriefed (or possibly interrogated) in Alpha Protocol headquarters. The plot contains many traditional spy thriller elements: false-flag operations, the War on Terror as backdrop for corporate power plays, and so on.
The combat elements of the game use third-person shooter dynamics, and Alpha Protocol has been compared to the Mass Effect series for its combination of a cover system with activation-and-recharge based special abilities. Thorton can attack hand-to-hand, throw grenades, and use several different kinds of small arms: pistols, shotguns, sub-machine guns, assault rifles, with occasional access to RPGs, sniper rifles, and fixed turrets. There are also a handful of other gadgets available to Thorton including proximity mines and enemy radios. The sneaking/espionage elements of the game include stealth, lockpicking, and hacking options. Level design during the missions usually supports multiple routes through a given area, chosen depending on the player's desired approach and skill-set. It's possible to navigate through most levels with very little use of force except for certain scripted boss fights. Thorton must also decide whether to use silenced weapons or unsuppressed weapons in his advance through the levels; avoiding detection can give additional awards and even alter the course of the story in some cases. As with Metal Gear Solid and Deus Ex titles, it's also possible to choose between the use of lethal force and non-lethal force.
The role-playing elements of the game are primarily conversation-driven. Conversations do not pause waiting for the player to select a response. Instead, the player is given the option of choosing one of several stances leading up to Thorton's next response. The stances are typically Professional, Suave, or Aggressive, but there are occasionally fourth options unlocked by previous in-game choices. This feature, called the Dynamic Dialogue System, is a heavy focus in marketing and pre-release discussion of the game. There's quite a lot of dialogue recorded using this system, and numerous playthroughs would be necessary to hear all of it.
There's plenty of role-playing character progression, too: Thorton can win bonuses to a variety of skills, called perks, through various in-game decisions--both good and bad. There's also a level-up system with abilities to unlock and improve through a skill tree. There's an in-game economy with a fairly broad selection of weapons, armor, and upgrades for both. There are also specialized ammunition types for some of the weapons.
The mission-oriented structure of the game allows the player to choose different paths through the storyline. Depending on which order missions are completed and what decisions Thorton makes during the conversation sections, his path through the story can lead to significantly different mission outcomes and game endings. Agents he encounters in the field can either become enemies or allies depending on the choices Thorton makes. There are opportunities for romance with several of the characters he encounters as the story progresses.
One of the major digs against Obsidian has been the relatively low quality of the released titles. KOTOR 2 in particular was damned by critics for bugs and inconsistencies. Alpha Protocol was criticized for many of these same problems. There are graphics glitches and performance problems; the Xbox 360's 'install to hard drive' feature mitigates some of these but does not resolve the issues completely. Certain aspects of the storyline seem to go nowhere, enemy AI is occasionally totally broken, and the rich system of stats and upgrades for equipment seems pointless because the numbers affect so little in practice. The commercial failure of the game meant that even though there were some roughed in capabilities for downloadable content, nothing substantial was ever released.
However, in spite of the problems I found this to be a rewarding title. I felt the game had a high degree of replay value between the ability to play missions in any order, the chances to ally with or betray many different characters in the story, and the option to kill or spare many of the bosses you fight throughout the game. I found the level design to be quite good. I thought that the story was compelling, and the ability to control Thorton's tone in the conversation without stopping the pace of it made those role-playing cut scenes more dynamic and believable.
The dialogue was great in some places, but terrible in others. It felt to me like there was one "golden" route through the story that had good writing, believable alliances, and ideal mission outcomes, but that for a lot of the branching paths, Obsidian just kind of phoned it in.
When the enemy AI was working as designed instead of being incredibly stupid or improbably cagey, I found the action to be intense and challenging. In three full play-throughs of the game, I probably had that positive experience about two thirds of the time. The rest of the time was unbelievably frustrating. The AI problems were a big part of the reason why I didn't make more use of gadgets during any of my runs through the game. The gadgets themselves seemed like an underdeveloped feature, but the nature of enemy AI meant that too often the gadgets either did more harm than good or simply felt like a form of cheating.
I liked the path of RPG development for Thorton, both through selection of specialized skills and decisions about which equipment to buy and upgrade. I thought it allowed you to make big trade-offs between different styles of gameplay: combat or stealth, stopping power or precision, specialization or versatility. The slow and binding progression produced by this economy results in a different feel compared to traditional shooters where your loadout decisions are more closely focused on the particulars of a single mission. Thorton is an agent on his own in a large world. He has few allies, and faces several different enemy organizations, all well-funded and dangerous. You make a lot of decisions about Thorton's growth and capabilities over the course of the game, and these decisions feel strategic rather than tactical. I thought of this as a big positive for the title.
Overall, I thought that the game was stylish and inventive. I love the sheer ambition of a title like this, trying to write an interactive spy story that hangs together regardless of what decisions the spy makes. It's hard for me to tell anyone else to buy the game, though. You can find new copies at retail for less than $20 and even then it might be a waste of your time and money. It's ambitious, yes, but it's ultimately an ambitious failure. That works for me, but it might not work for you.
This is a game that did a few things very well, but probably set back Obsidian Entertainment by half a decade or more strategically. Their next release was Fallout: New Vegas which was extremely well-received, but unfortunately that intellectual property belongs to Bethesda Softworks. Obsidian is a studio that I root for because it makes my kind of games but they need a breakout title with setting and characters that belong to them before they can grow significantly. They followed up New Vegas with Dungeon Siege III, which was lukewarm in many of the same ways as Alpha Protocol, and for many of the same reasons.
Obsidian has shown that they are able to refine and build on the ideas and IP of another development studio. With Alpha Protocol, they had an opportunity to show that they had an idea to nurture strong new gameplay ideas of their own. I think they succeeded on vision and failed on implementation. The balance between stability and feature set is a difficult one for any development studio, and I believe that if Obsidian is able to overcome those issues they could quickly become a leadership force in this industry.
As for Alpha Protocol itself, this is an Obsidian flop that feels like a cross between a spy thriller and a BioWare RPG. I guess I would say that it's the first serious attempt to reinvent the spy thriller since Splinter Cell, and it almost succeeded. The Dynamic Dialogue System showed that RPG conversations in that style can adapt to the needs of the genre, allowing a branching storyline without defusing essential narrative tension. The game hinted that RPG character progression can also adapt to that genre, particularly in situations where the protagonist is confronted by a variety of different enemies and challenges instead of engaging in a long series of skirmishes with a single enemy. The game started to fail with its introduction of RPG-style equipment growth into the spy thriller genre: even in his first missions, Thorton is asking his handlers why he has to save up money for his own equipment rather than getting stocked directly out of their primary budget. The question and its answer are an apology fro the game designers for having introduced a contrived mechanic into the game world, and ultimately it's not a very important mechanic: a head-shot is a head-shot is a head-shot. This is the sort of thing that would probably have been fixed in a sequel, the same way Mass Effect 2 fixed a similar problem that had been introduced in the original Mass Effect. I suspect that if Obsidian had been able to churn out a couple more of these we would have seen those same kinds of incremental improvement, and I'm sad that they didn't do enough to earn the chance.
Some of these ideas are already being adopted in other games. Deus Ex: Human Revolution in particular was reminiscent of this title in important ways. That's not enough for me to say that anyone should go out and buy Alpha Protocol itself, but I do find myself really hungry for an opportunity to play more games like it in the future. That's something of a junk food legacy, but at least it's a legacy.