Alpha Protocol (PS3, 360, PC) — Review

“Ever hear of anger management?”

“No, because I killed all my therapists.”

Many of you probably know me as the resident Alpha Protocol cheerleader, someone who never fails to mention it when it appears in Steam sales, and someone who stares off longingly at the mere suggestion of the title. I’ve been meaning to write up a post on the Squad worthiness of this game for a while now, and that’s what we’re here to discuss. Sit back, make yourself a martini (shaken, not stirred), and get ready to hear about my favorite WRPG of the generation.

Alpha Protocol is a spy RPG, which Obsidian frequently described as combining the sensibilities of the Bond series, The Bourne films, and the television show 24. The story is standard spy fare, which if I’m being completely honest, doesn’t normally do it for me. I find the Bond movies sexist and ridiculous, and the Bourne movies, while enjoyable, don’t excite me overmuch. 24, well, 24 can best be described as the series that legitimated torture for many Americans, and the farther I can get from that shit the happier I am. That doesn’t matter though, because the game is so well crafted that the actual narrative functions largely as scaffolding for brilliant writing, conversations, and a wide breadth of choice and decision making.

But Calin, I’ve heard this game is really bad.”

I know you have. The game was originally scheduled to release in 2009, but a series of delays insured AP received almost zero publicity and fanfare when it was finally released. To further complicate things, it released only a few months after Mass Effect 2, a title that’s frequently cited in the mixed critical reviews the game received. However, Mass Effect 2 and Alpha Protocol aren’t all that analogous. It’s true that they’re both 3rd person RPGs that have a lot of conversations, but that’s where the similarities end. The breadth and depth of the conversations, and the fact that Alpha Protocol is closer to the RPG than the 3rd Person Shooter end of the spectrum make them very different experiences. I won’t argue that ME2 is the more polished of the two titles, but it’s also the less interesting.

The true brilliance of Alpha Protocol lies in the variable and malleable narrative. Here’s what I mean:

A Single Conversation

The flowchart above outlines a single conversation and the branching paths it can take. The conversation above is influenced not only by the choices made during the actual conversation, but also by actions you have taken throughout the course of the game. This is, according to the developers, not even one of the more complicated portions of the narrative. This type of depth and breadth makes Alpha Protocol one of the most malleable games I have ever seen. As I discussed it on message boards at the time, it became clear that entire sections of the game and entire characters depended on who you talked to, how you talked to them, and how you played the game. Without delving too deeply in to spoiler territory, no two playthroughs look alike.  This probably isn’t terribly surprising given that the game was penned by Chris Avellone, who is most well known for writing Planescape:  Torment, a game that many of us still speak of in hushed, reverent tones.

You also cannot be everything to all people. Getting on one person’s good side means that you’re going to get on another person’s bad side. Being nice to everyone will make certain people hate you, and acting like a psychopath (which is oh so much fun) will also make certain people hate you. (The ones that survive your psychopathy, that is.)

Let’s take this charming fellow, for instance.

As you can probably imagine, befriending him makes some people really, really not like you, but if you ignore him, you miss out on some really awesome stuff. No matter what you do, you will not be able to ingratiate yourself with everyone, because, much like the real world, there are actions and reactions. In one notable section of the game, you are forced into a dichotomous choice in which someone will die. Full stop. You cannot save everyone.

Furthermore, there are a few missions you can finish without killing anyone. Doing so makes one of your contacts incredibly happy, as you’ve spared (relatively) innocent lives. But, how do you think Steven Heck feels about the missions you complete without killing anyone?

These are the sorts of decisions you have to juggle while playing the game, and it’s one of the things that makes it ridiculously replayable and rich. Having only completed the game twice, I still haven’t seen many of the scenes that fellow AP devotees have.

Moreover, all of the conversations are timed. If you do not choose an action fast enough, you are stuck with whichever conversation choice your cursor ended up with. This adds a sense of urgency to all of the conversations, that is sadly missing from other RPGs of this sort. It is truly brilliant in its implementation, and there will be moments that time expires while you are weighing your choices. C’est la vie.

A Few Caveats

While I know I’ve painted a rosy picture of the game, it is not without its faults. Though there is a patch for the PC version that eliminates the weirder issues like doors that should open but don’t and getting stuck in level geometry, the game is rather intransigent in how it wants to be played. Unlike Mass Effect 2 or Fallout: New Vegas which have relatively straightforward shooter combat, Alpha Protocol requires you to put points into skills you intend to develop. If you don’t have points in Shotguns, you better not try to use a shotgun. You will not hit your target, and you will ragequit the game, because even though your reticle was in the right place, you missed, and your target shot you in the face.

For those of you who want to experience the brilliant conversations without any of the hassle some people seem to experience with the gameplay, you should specialize in pistols and stealth. Pistols are, for some reason, ridiculously overpowered, and at a certain point, you can literally become invisible with stealth. I like to temper this with a few points in assault rifles for when shit gets real, but the choice is yours.

I should also mention that the first set of missions, Saudi Arabia, are the worst part of the game. I have no idea why this was the first thing you do in the game, but it’s not nearly as cool as the other locations you will eventually travel to.

For anyone on the Squad who appreciates the type of game that excels in one area while not being terribly polished in other areas, Alpha Protocol is a worthy investment.  If the idea of a truly variable and expansive spy thriller is your idea of a good time, Alpha Protocol is the game for you.