An espionage RPG is enticing in concept, and given how the genre has shaken out during the past few years, it's easy to imagine one being really cool. So here comes Alpha Protocol, a game that certainly looks the part, and whose developer boasts a solid RPG pedigree. Is it a mission worth completing, or should you have a cyanide pill handy?
You are agent Michael Thorton, a new recruit at Alpha Protocol, a super-secret government agency. Immediately, you're called on to get your hands dirty: you're to travel to Saudi Arabia and deal with a terrorist organization suspected of downing an airliner in the Middle East. Of course, things don't go smoothly. By the end of your Saudi sortie, you're a full-fledged rogue agent, scouring the globe to unravel a conspiracy whose tendrils extent to the loftiest halls of power.
If Alpha Protocol is good at anything, it's telling a story that feels legitimately variable depending on where you go, when you go there, and how you talk to the contacts you meet there once you arrive. Whether you'd want to do so is one thing, but after you play through the story, you get the feeling that things could have turned out quite differently if you'd taken different approaches. You can ally yourself with pretty much every major player in the story, and one wrong decision can alienate a formerly stalwart supporter. Few games can match this level of narrative consequence.
The story, replete with over-the-top conspiracies and peopled with numerous double and triple agents, is delivered well, with voice acting that's generally believable, and a solid script. Taken on its own, it's variable enough to sustain multiple play-throughs. Whether you'd want to actually do so depends on how readily you can overlook the game's numerous flaws.
After a brief (and easy to inadvertently skip) training sequence at Alpha Protocol HQ, you're off to Saudi Arabia. The operation results in a botch regardless of what you do, but even this early on, you're allowed to make pretty far-reaching decisions regarding whom you ally with. This continues throughout the length of the game. Once you're done in Saudi Arabia, the game blossoms. Missions open up in Taipei, Rome, and Moscow, and you can tackle them in any order you choose. As you knock missions off your list, more become available, and before long, a complex web of characters, locations, and organizations comes into view.
Alpha Protocol is great fun when you're doing the extracurricular stuff. There's a lot of to do in between the nitty-gritty missions: e-mailing with contacts, shopping for gear and intel on the black market, or conducting meet-and-greets with various persons of interest. Most importantly, it all feels like it matters. If you're thorough about purchasing intel, you'll get a leg up on the opposition during a mission, with, say, a map detailing an ideal stealth route. Staying on top of your e-mail, among other things, allows you to nurture relationships with your contacts, the results of which are often quite tangible when it comes to in-game benefits. Not to mention there's lots of money to be made from blackmailing corporate officers when you find incriminating e-mails out in the field.
The process of conversation is a tense game unto itself, one that rewards gut instinct. Rather than pick a line of dialogue from a list of choices, you typically choose the tone of your reply--either suave, aggressive, or professional, and there's a limited amount of time to make your choice. Different characters will respond favorably to different approaches at different times, and they're not always easy to predict. Given the real consequences to your relationships, the conversation system is responsible for some of the game's tensest moments.
The actual missions themselves are the game's weakest link. The best ones minimize the action in favor of dialogue sequences and mini-games, but these are few and far between. Most of the time, it's all about fumbling through a labored facsimile of an action game while fighting against the game's weak mechanics and numerous technical shortcomings.
As interesting as the talking and snooping portions may be, Alpha Protocol doesn't do too well when it comes to shooting and sneaking. It falls into the classic shooter-RPG trap wherein a perfectly-lined headshot can "miss" because the imaginary dice say so. Sure, the underlying RPG mechanics may justify these odd behaviors, but when a game looks enough like a shooter (and Alpha Protocol certainly does), it should probably act like one, at least on these fundamental levels. If you're dead-set on playing the game and want to minimize this sort of dissonance, specialize in assault rifles and don't look back. Avoid pistols like the plague.
Depending on how you build your character, you can specialize in any number of things, but attempting to play the game without engaging in combat is a stretch. Some of the special powers that accompany deep specialization feel quite RPG-ish--a fully decked-out stealth skill will enable absurd sequences of face-stabs that can clear entire rooms. Others are more toned down, offering, for example, auxiliary boosts on the super-pervasive hacking and lock-picking mini-games.
At best, you'll merely become accustomed to Alpha Protocol's shortcomings, and they are numerous. The AI is bad, the boss fights are worse, and puzzling omissions--like the lack of an onscreen mini-map--make an already struggling gameplay experience that much worse.
Some of the faces are well-sculpted enough as to be believable, but that's as far as it goes for Alpha Protocol. Most everything about the game is roughshod and ugly. Textures have a habit of taking a while to load, and all manner of bugs and oddities occur with jarring regularity. The animation is also funky, notably Thorton's sneaking, which you'll see a lot of. Perhaps not surprisingly, the voice work stands out as somewhat of a saving grace. There are some good performances here, which help prevent the presentation from being a total wash.
The days when you could forgive RPGs of being deficient when it comes to gameplay are long past. Alpha Protocol's minute-to-minute action should have been on par with the traditional RPG stuff, but it's nowhere near close. It's hard to recommend it to any but the most patient. If you've got a high threshold of tolerance for busted gameplay, the extracurricular stuff can redeem the experience. But that's a big if.
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.