Alpha Protocol Review

By Gus Mastrapa - Posted May 28, 2010

Obsidian's espionage-driven Alpha Protocol aims for the sky and misses its target, delivering a half-baked action RPG that doesn't satisfy in a single department.

The Pros
  • Decisions affect how the game plays out
  • Ambitious espionage plot
  • Choice diversity encourages replay
The Cons
  • Largely unlikeable lead character
  • Gameplay is bland at best, broken and buggy at worst
  • Plot dullness outweighs ambitions

If you’re going to crib from another game’s playbook, you could do a lot worse than tapping Mass Effect as an influence. Alpha Protocol, the new action RPG from Obsidian Entertainment, tries valiantly to replicate Bioware’s formula for melding in-depth story-telling and gunplay with a firm role-playing foundation, but thanks to shoddy third-person action and a flimsy spy story, the game winds up shooting itself in the foot.

In Alpha Protocol, You play as secret agent Mike Thorton, a spook who finds himself wrapped up in a global conspiracy after a passenger plane is taken down by a terrorist attack. It’s your job to travel the globe, track down the people who responsible and bring them to justice.  How you accomplish your mission is up to you. And, really, that’s pretty much all Alpha Protocol has going for it.

Cloak and Dagger

Like most action-oriented role-playing games, Alpha Protocol lets you chose the way you want to fight. You can chose between a handful of character classes (“tech” is Bond-like, “soldier” is Bauer-like, “stealth” is Bourne-like), then upgrade your skill tree as you level up. New powers, mapped to the shoulder buttons, unlock as you go. During combat, you can squeeze the bumper to gain the benefits of extra armor, increased martial arts damage or awareness of enemy locations.  Points can be sunk into proficiencies on different weapons, hand-to-hand combat, stealth and useful spy skills like hacking and lock-picking. The mini-games for opening barred doors, cracking into computers and circumventing security are simplistic, but really ramp up as the game progresses -- if you don't sink at least a handful of skill points into the right categories, some of them feel downright impossible.

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All of this customization would be fine if the action were up to par. But the mechanics of shooting from cover, stealth take-downs and close-quarter combat feel uneven and undercooked. Sometimes the Gears of War-style cover system works. Other times Thorton clumsily fumbles into waist-high barriers, taking assault rifle fire in the face while you struggle to make him crouch. Plus, the stealth action -- always a difficult tactic to pull off -- never feels very good. More often than not, guards will round a corner and spot you before you get a chance to put them in a headlock.  And the camera and action is far too sluggish and unresponsive to support a proper CQC system.

And because the action feels so unrefined, much of the game feels like a slog -- you’re faced with a ceaseless maze of enemies that must be fought using mechanics you must wrestle against to take them out. Videogame fights should be fun, but there’s little joy to be had in Alpha Protocol.

Choose Your Own Intrigue

To make matters worse, Alpha Protocol’s protagonist is profoundly unlikable. Thorton comes off as a creep. Part of the problem is that during conversations, you’re not really shaping Thorton’s personality in so much as you’re telling people what they want to hear.  There’s no sense of character ownership over Thorton’s choices and dialogue that you see in the likes of Commander Shepard. Instead of being some sort of super-agent in the vein of Jack Bauer, Mike Thorton is a social chameleon skilled in morphing into the person people want him to be. And if you chat up enemies and allies the right way, you’ll earn benefits -- your allies will give you perks that give you stat bonuses and enemies who warm to you will become more cooperative. But that’s not the only reason Thorton feels like a weasel. Glib writing and Josh Gilman’s nasal voice acting undermine his secret agent persona and image. This guy is definitely no James Bond.

Still, there’s some satisfaction to be found in playing Secret Agent Man. Befriending (and eventually bedding) female contacts and handlers can be fun, up to a point. The sex scenes in Alpha Protocol make the inter-species couplings in Mass Effect look tasteful and austere.  Despite the obvious influences of that blockbuster space opera, this game is a far cry from the spectacularly streamlined melding of action, story-telling and cinematics achieved in Bioware’s sci-fi series. It’s an ambitious effort from a studio capable of knocking the ball out of the park at times -- though a tad rushed, Obsidian’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II was an excellent game -- making the failures of Alpha Protocol all the more disappointing.


Stricken From The Record

It’s tempting to give Alpha Protocol a caveat-loaded recommendation to hardcore RPG fans for merely missing the mark. But outright glitches, bugs and quirks make that impossible. During one sequence, enemies respawned at the feet of their downed allies, making one of the game’s already annoying action set pieces all the more frustrating.  Limp boss battles against dopey, yet bullet-absorbent enemies are far more frustrating than thrilling. The good news is that the game is reasonably short -- the entire plot can be endured over a long weekend. Achievement hunters and other masochists will need to engage the game more than a couple times to explore all the different ways the game’s plot pans out. But given what the game -- in all of its half-baked mechanics -- offers, those people are crazy.

Anemic gameplay and sub-par story and acting aside, there's an underlying problem with Alpha Protocol that's almost impossible to shake. The game's espionage setting isn't quite as fertile as the space opera or sword and sorcery epic. Or, at the very least, Obsidian wasn't able to find anything remotely compelling to hang its game upon.  The characters and settings feel so far removed from what’s at stake that there's little reason to get emotionally invested in the proceedings. When Alpha Protocol tries to get serious and forces you to make a massive life-or-death decision, the impact is blunted because you don’t really care about the one-dimensional character whose life hangs in the balance.

Obsidian has the talent. We've seen the studio make great games that merge action and role-playing before. But in this instance their intel was bad and the mission a failure. From a squandered setting to dysfunctional gameplay to numerous bugs, it’s very difficult to recommend Alpha Protocol to nearly anyone beyond the most masochistically hardcore RPG fan. But even to those still considering, I’d lend this piece of advice: Treat Alpha Protocol like a covert government operation.  Pretend like it never existed. 

Still want to play it? Why not rent it at Gamefly?