I mentioned a few days ago that I’d started playing Alpha Protocol, one of a number of low-cost acquisitions from the recent Steam Sale, now sadly (or perhaps not so sadly — everyone’s credit cards likely want a bit of a rest) over. I’ve spent a bit more time with it now, so I’d like to share some further thoughts on it.
Roundly panned on its release for its dodgy AI, “crap” combat, bugs and gameplay flaws, Alpha Protocol is a game that many people passed by — and unfortunately, due to its mediocre review scores and poor sales that resulted from said review scores, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a sequel. And that’s a real shame, as look past the few flaws there are and there’s actually a very good game.
Things start well, with a sequence that introduces you to the main game mechanics, including shooting, sneaking, gadgets and conversation. It’s pretty early on that you’re faced with the game’s distinctive conversation system, somewhere between Mass Effect and Fahrenheit in its execution. Possible approaches or “moods” of conversation fill a Mass Effect-style wheel in the middle of the screen, so you’re not quite sure exactly what protagonist Michael Thorton is going to say, but you have an idea of the general gist. The twist is that there’s a pretty tight time limit to decide what to say next, cutting out any of the usual agonising over decision-making in morality-driven RPGs — here you have to think on your feet, take what you feel is the most appropriate approach and then deal with the consequences, which could range from someone liking you a bit more to subsequent missions being markedly different.
There’s a pleasing variety of ways through missions, too, with experimentation being rewarded with Achievement-like Perks which bestow specific bonuses on Thorton throughout the game. In some cases it’s possible to talk your way around a firefight, even getting potential enemies on your side as allies at times. In others, it’s possible to create noisy distractions and then use the ensuing chaos to sneak round. And it’s also possible to go in guns blazing if that’s your approach too.
The combat may not be the best in the world — the sticky cover system is a bit cumbersome when enemies move into close-quarters range, for example — but it’s certainly not as bad as some reviews I’ve seen have made out. The problem, I think, is in people assuming it’s a third-person shooter when in fact it’s executed like an action RPG. In many ways, as it happens, it reminds me of titles such as Deus Ex and even older late-90s titles such as Mission: Impossible on the N64.
In fact, the whole game has the feeling of a late-90s stealth-action-adventure game, albeit one with Unreal Engine 3-powered graphimications. This isn’t a bad thing, as I’m of the firm belief that gaming — particularly PC gaming — in the late 90s and very early 20th century — was my favourite era of games. And to play something that seems to capture the feel of those games while bringing the visuals and cinematic presentation up to date? Well, that’s pretty much all I can ask for from a game.
I realise, of course, that the reasons I like Alpha Protocol may, in fact, be the same reasons why some hate it. Some may say gameplay mechanics should move on and learn from games that do the whole shooter-RPG combo “correctly”, like Mass Effect 2. And they’re probably right — Mass Effect 2 is, after all, excellent. But I’ve beaten Mass Effect 2 before, and I’ve never beaten Alpha Protocol — never played it before this last week, in fact. And while it lasts, I’m enjoying it a great deal.