Published by SEGA and developed by Obsidian Entertainment comes Alpha Protocol: The Espionage RPG. The story revolves around Mike Thorton, a new recruit to Alpha Protocol and a tool ripe for shaping. It's a story of death, destruction, intrigue, friendships and betrayal, but mostly death and destruction - it's more Jason Bourne than James Bond. Through the game, Agent Thorton will travel the world, all because someone decided it was a good idea to shoot down an airliner full of people with a missile in an attempt to start a cold war to boost arms sales - standard spy movie fare then.
Before the story properly begins, the player can choose the skill path the agent will progress on from here-on in. The choice here determines what makes up the agent's major skills, those that can be mastered a little further than the others as experience is gained through the game. The classes of Soldier, Field Agent, Tech Specialist and Freelancer are available. The first three of these set up the relevant skills (Stealth, Pistols, Sub-machine Guns, Shotguns, Assault Rifles, Sabotage, Technical Aptitude, Toughness and Martial Arts), but the final class of freelancer allows AP (experience) to be spent on the skills as desired. There are a couple of other special options possible as career path. Should you be after a tougher challenge, picking recruit will start Mike off with fewer skills – none to be exact. After completing the game for the first time using this set up, a special option of “Veteran” is unlocked, allowing the player to start the game as an expert agent off the bat. If you're determined enough to see different storyline endings then this might be for you.
The narrative is told through a series of flashbacks, initially placing Mike in the infirmary at Alpha Protocol HQ as part of his recruitment. It's a good start, trying to prepare the player for what might be encountered in the field, and it's a big field. From the grey concrete of APHQ, Mike gets to trot the globe, travelling to Saudi Arabia, Moscow, Rome, and Taipei, but ultimately the time-line crosses over back to the head-quarters, with the flashback meeting real-time for the final push and story conclusion. These locales all feel very genuine and Mike has a choice of missions after the initial trip to Saudi Arabia. During these field trips, Mike's handler will pop-up occasionally with a slice of information or advice, all adding to the appeal of an undercover agent theme; it's a nice touch.
Each location has a safe house from where Mike can buy and sell weapons and modify his equipment. These are quite grandiose and well decorated, but mostly with unusable gadgets. Here things actually look pretty decent, as the game does overall; that is until the situation starts moving and getting busy, then it can be a bit of a mess. There's more texture pop-in than a kid with a pin at a balloon factory and there’s more tearing on screen than corrupt government getting rid of the paper evidence.
Given the setting of Alpha Protocol revolves around espionage, Obsidian have done their best to make playing the game stealthily a tricky prospect, especially at the beginning before any of the special skills are available. The cover system leaves a lot to be desired; it doesn't give Mike a particularly great view and the camera can be equally problematic. Ranged combat is especially irritating as it takes forever for Mike to get his eye in for a decent shot. This simply doesn't work when he's detected and the AI rushes you; trying to shoot at this juncture becomes pointless, so switching to melee attacks is the key, and often just running at the enemy despite them unloading in to you for some martial art combat is generally the easiest way of dispatching the AI thugs once you're spotted. Hands and fists it seems are far more effective than bullets and guns.
When the stealth is working, the game is a lot of fun, going in to ghost mode and taking out a small army silently is gratifying, more-so when the stealth skill is mastered, but this isn't helped by the inconsistent AI, sometimes even being able to detect you through a solid wall but at other times not even noticing their comrade is lying dead on the floor. Like much of the game, things are lacking polish and this sadly drags the experience down considerably.
For all its faults, it will be the story that is mostly likely to have the player endure the rest of the game, which has been well penned with plenty of plot twists and timely reveals, even if it isn't the most original of plots. Mike can engage with the different characters in the game with variations on his attitude, be this aggressive, suave and professional (with a couple of others mixed in occasionally) – it's kind of similar to that presented in Mass Effect, but perhaps not with the same level of panache. Depending on how the person reacts to Mike's stance, they'll either have a positive or negative relation with him as the game moves on, making changes to how the narrative plays out.
At several points Mike will need to make some choices on who lives and who dies. Again, choices here can have an influence on the story later in the game. The trouble is the engagement with the characters never really lends itself to the point where you're emotionally attached to them, so the decisions tend to be on what sort of agent you want Mike to be, rather than with the relationships with those who could die.
Scattered about the different locations, rather unexplained, are huge duffel bags of money, weapon and armour upgrades and documents of intelligence. A big part of the Alpha Protocol RPG revolves around making modifications to the equipment Mike has, although it really doesn't seem to make a huge difference to how the game plays out, given the lacklustre ranged combat – the bags of money are actually a fudge as it’s explained at the beginning of story that the agency can’t provide funds and weapons as it doesn’t want to be traced to terrorist organisations, despite being black-ops. It's always useful upgrading what the game describes as endurance, effectively this is Mike's armour, more of which makes it easier to rush in and annihilate enemies hand-to-hand.
What really grates during the story are the mini-games encountered throughout the levels, first introduced in the tutorial part of the game. These makes for some very frustrating sufferance and you will learn to hate them. Hacking computers involves matching two random alpha-numeric sequences in a massive grid of ever changing symbols, sequences that continue to change position making spotting them all the harder. Next is the door bypass, where the correct sequence of circuit traces must be selected in the ordered sequence; up to ten paths need to be identified and short-circuited in order to succeed. Perhaps the most irritating of all is the lock-picking. Up to five barrels have to be set in place by using the PS3 pad triggers – unfortunately the accuracy needed precludes doing this with any ease.
To top this off, there is a time limit to all of these tasks – a really small time limit, which if you make a mistake, reduces further still. When it hits zero it triggers off alarms sending more men to your position to deal some death and it makes totally no sense when you're picking a padlock on a wooden door. If it seems that a big deal is being made about this it should – this is one of the most singularly exasperating gaming experiences likely to be encountered. It is the gaming equivalent of punching yourself in the face hard, whilst wearing a hefty signet ring. Whoever dreamt this up needs locking in a room with rabid Rottweilers, with rump steak sauce smothered on their wedding tackle, equally so with the boss fights. These are likely to give someone a stroke, due to the afore mentioned ranged combat and camera issues.
Alpha Protocol is a series of highs mixed in with too many lows – it’s a bit like snorting cocaine; sensational until the comedown and the septum wears away. When it's working it’s brilliant fun, making you feel like a spy, the rest of the time is an exercise in either manic depression or frustration. There are certainly hints at the end of the game for a sequel. Perhaps if there is, Obsidian Entertainment can fix the many problems with the game design; if they can achieve this, then Alpha Protocol 2 could be a killer game. As it stands, there are far too many issues with the current title that destroy much of the enjoyment on offer. There is rough diamond hiding here with lots of interesting ideas and had it been buffed a little more it could have been a corker, but it's just not enough. Ultimately this is a very infuriating game.