Alpha Protocol bills itself as an “espionage RPG,” but it’s missing essential elements both as an espionage game and as a roleplaying game. It’s a shame, too, because some elements of Alpha Protocol showcase how much hard work went into it–work that paid off only partially in a slick-looking, heavily promoted, but ultimately inconsistent game.
You play as Michael Thornton, a CIA agent tasked with taking down one of the Middle East’s most dangerous terrorists. To do this, he must invoke “Alpha Protocol,” both a secret organization and the designation for agents acting on their own initiative, and cut visible ties with his employers to enter deep cover. But in the world of espionage, virtually nothing is as it seems. Once he arrives, Thornton finds he’s been an unwitting tool of powerful unseen hands. With no link to his organization, Thornton must rely on his wits and skill to stay alive and defeat enemies he didn’t know he had.
After a set of tutorials to give you a grasp of lockpicking, computer hacking, combat, and stealth, your first real mission takes place in Saudi Arabia. The game opens up nicely after that and gives you the option of following the story in Moscow, Rome, or Taipei. While this may sound like an excellent sightseeing tour to show off gorgeous graphics and varied environments, most of your time will be spent maneuvering through passageways that take on a distressing uniformity after a few hours of gameplay. This doesn’t mean Alpha Protocol isn’t a pretty game, just that it’s pretty in much the same way regardless of where in the world you are.
One of the hallmarks of a good spy thriller is its intelligence. As cerebral as the plot may be, the AI in Alpha Protocol is downright dumb sometimes. If you decide to attack a mission head on, one of two equidistant guards might see you and sound an alarm as the other moseys around, apparently unaware of the sounds of nearby gunfire and blaring klaxons. (Maybe he’s just on his coffee break?) Stealth missions are even more problematic. Your partner or escort mission subject could randomly decide that your cautious approach doesn’t suit his style and go in with guns blazing. Although your opponents are supposed to be elite fighters, their tendency to stand in one spot shooting at nothing makes them seem more like raw recruits culled from the local high school. Bosses are little smarter than their henchmen in battle, which may lead you to wonder why it’s so important to complete your mission objectives when all the evil overlords seem incompetent in a fight.
Calling combat merely buggy is kind. Solid walls only randomly protect you against bullets, but the dubious good news is that sometimes you can also shoot back through that emptiness that looks suspiciously like a bulkhead. Aiming feels out of control despite an array of advanced weaponry that looks and sounds nifty, but ultimately can’t make up for a combat system that should have spent another three months in development.
Alpha Protocol fares a little better in the roleplay elements of the game. A good spy can be as persuasive with words as with a gun; a variety of dialog stances let you gain the advantage in conversations as craftily as you would in a gun fight. Dialog stances affect how other characters perceive you, allowing you to pump them for more information if they like you. But don’t think flattery will get you everywhere; some people in the game respond better if they respect or even fear you. Informants who have a high opinion of you share more information with you, while having a good reputation with your handler on a given mission gives you minor perks for the duration of that mission. It’s worth figuring out what makes people tick, and the sophisticated dialog options are one of the highlights of the game.
Roleplaying games traditionally offer a great deal of character customization and Alpha Protocol is no exception. When you choose an agent history for Thornton, you determine his initial skill set; within those broader categories, there’s a lot of flexibility to shape him into the kind of operative you want him to be. Completing the Saudi Arabia missions opens specializations as well, giving you an even broader range of choices.
The concept of allowing players flexibility in their tactics and story line choices is a good one in theory. Where problems arise is in the execution; if “stealth” missions are going to devolve into a shoot-out anyway thanks to irrational AI, then presenting stealth as a possibility is a Hobson’s choice. While you can hypothetically complete the Moscow, Rome, and Taipei missions in any order, it’s clear that the story was written with a certain order in developers’ minds.
There’s some entertainment value here, notably with dialog choices and character interactions, but Alpha Protocol needed to bake a little longer. Glitchy combat, AI dumber than a poleaxed steer, and plot holes detract from a solid story and an exciting “spy game meets RPG” concept. If you love the espionage genre or don’t mind high-flown, but flawed concept games, give Alpha Protocol a try. Otherwise you might prefer to get your spy-thriller fix from watching “Chuck” reruns and wait until it hits the bargain bin.