The Honourable Schoolboy, or seemingly irrelevant anecdote that ties everything together
Does anyone remember showbags? Maybe it’s an Aussie thing.
They were sold at annual shows, bags packed with themed crap designed to appeal to the pre-pubescent: lollies, cheap licensed merchandise and pranks. When I was a pre-pubescent one-paper back in the 80s, showbags were an Aladdin’s Cave of forbidden toys – the only known source of fabled loot such as the whoopee cushion, fake vomit and handshake buzzer. Every year there was a new fad, like tubs of slime or pop-balls, and I used to ask my parents for the showbag that had this one hot item in it, even though the rest of the contents of the showbag were lame, like a ring-n-spring or a card trick with only 5 cards. Seriously, no one is impressed when you pick a card out of 5 cards, even if you are only 7 years old.
My point is, Alpha Protocol is like the showbags of yore were to Young Felix. The quality of its contents may vary, but there’s one standout ingredient that makes the whole package worth it: its system of choice and consequences.
Before I get into that, I want to give you some background and shit.
Absolute Friends, or behind the scenes at Alpha Protocol
If you like RPGs that don’t have characters who say ” … “, you should be interested in Alpha Protocol based on who made it. It was developed by Obsidian Entertainment, which has the following venerable RPG masters working there:
- Chris Avellone – lead designer on Fallout 2, also worked on Planescape: Torment, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2
- Feargus Urquhart – worked on Fallout, Fallout 2 and Baldur’s Gate series, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2
- Chris Parker – worked on Baldur’s Gate series, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2
These guys have runs on the board in developing RPGs with interesting settings, memorable characters and good stories.
A Most Wanted Man, or now I talk about the actual elements of the game
As for the setting, Alpha Protocol says right there on the box that it’s “The Espionage RPG”. It’s set in present day Earth. Strangely, this is a unique setting for RPGs. What’s more interesting is that none of the locations are New York City – instead we get Saudi Arabia, Rome, Moscow and Taipei. All this is a plus in my book. Nary an insectoid alien or elf to be seen.
As for your character, you play as spy Mike Thorton. You are given some options to customise Mike’s head, which boils down to a choice between preppy douche, sleazy douche or Travis Johnstone. It’s strangely appropriate because Mike’s voice actor, Josh Gilman, sounds smug yet world-weary, as if he’s just stepped off the set of The O.C: Valium Edition.
The story begins with Mike being recruited by the eponymous Alpha Protocol, an ultra-secret US Intelligence Agency set up to give the US government plausible deniability about black-ops. That’s why you haven’t heard of them before. After the obligatory tutorial, Mike’s first real mission is to go assassinate a terrorist in Saudi Arabia. The story goes for some real-world commentary through the presence of sinister corporate arms manufacturer, Halliburtonbech.
I could tell you more about the story, but that would only be the story that I played – it might be different for you. During the first mission, Mike will be required to make various choices which will affect the rest of the story. You will have to make these choices frequently throughout the game.
Smiley’s People, or the cool choice/conversation system
Most choices are presented when Mike is talking to other characters. The game’s conversation system is one of its strong points. Rather than choosing lines from a menu, you choose Mike’s attitude. Being a douche, Mike only has 3 possible attitudes: suave, aggressive or professional. You can change up Mike’s attitude at different points of the conversation. Every now and again you will get a fourth option, which is usually to interrupt what the other person is saying with some ultraviolence. There is also a time limit within which to make your choice – no running off to the Webs to find the “best” option!!
Your dialogue choices will result in a person liking or disliking you more, which can happen many times in one conversation. It’s like the persuasion system in Oblivion except you don’t get a sneak preview of a person’s reaction to your attitude. What’s more interesting is the consequences of this like/dislike status. People belong to any one of 14 factions. Your status with a person can determine whether that faction becomes a valuable ally or dangerous foe. In turn, it may affect your status with another faction; you can’t be friends with everyone. It also affects missions in terms of who turns up, and whether they help or hinder you.
It’s an elaborate system – the 3-way choice in dialogue is not just better because it’s one more than the simplistic Good/Evil choices in other RPGs. You get the sense that the game is taking notice of your choices and readjusting itself, rather than trying to funnel you into one of two outcomes. This makes you feel that your decisions matter. By contrast, the dialogue choices in the Mass Effect games were often no-brainers – I always chose Paragon dialogue options because I wanted to grind up my Paragon Bar to unlock more Paragon dialogue options. Mass Effect games might have you make one or two important decisions at the final mission, but Alpha Protocol has you making these kinds of decisions all the way through.
Some people may try to roleplay Mike in conversation to suit their own fantasies and for example always choose “suave”. This isn’t wrong per se but it misses the point. Mike sounds like a tool no matter what he says, so you may as well mix it up.
In case it’s not clear, I’m a big rap for this choice/consequence system. It shows up most other RPGs that tout “choice” on the box. It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure book except there’s no single right way, just different ways. Heavy Rain tried this but there was really only one good ending.
I only played through the game once before trekking up to the Cave of Assessment, but I felt that the story and missions would have been a lot different had I made different choices. Most people are put off a repeat playthrough of RPGs because they’ve already seen the story or they don’t want to grind levels again. Alpha Protocol will get a second look from me because I feel that the story and playing experience will be sufficiently different to keep me interested. Not many games provide that appeal.
I actually rate the writing in this game too. Usually I see video game writing as a poor cousin to ingredients lists on cereal boxes. In my view, one of the pinnacles of writing in games this generation is the fake personal ad that Brucie writes for Niko Bellic in GTA4. With that in mind, Alpha Protocol’s writing is at least on a par with GTA4 and some is genuinely funny to boot. A large part of mission preparation consists of compiling dossiers on people and sending and receiving emails and these have some hidden gems in them.
Alpha Protocol has a colourful cast. It’s like they lumped together characters from different subgenres of the spy oeuvre, so you have a mix of gritty realistic types and outlandish Bond villain types. A personal favourite, landing on the outlandish side, is agent Steven Heck. He’s voiced by Nolan North, who demonstrates how versatile he can be when he’s not being asked to rehash Nathan Drake. Heck is basically comic relief and some of his wacky interventions in missions were highlights of the game.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, or so many upgrades, so little time
The character-building side of this RPG is a more conventional. It’s done through a skill system which is very similar to those used in Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect. Naturally, the skills are all espionage related: there’s one for each of the four weapon types, stealth, martial arts, spy gadgets and others. At various points along an upgrade path for a skill you will unlock a special ability, or augment that ability. These abilities get quite powerful when maxed out, such as the pistol skill that lets you pause and line up shots, like Bullet Time or VATS.
You can put points into any skill, rather than choosing a character type at the start of the game which determines your skill set. However, you won’t get enough points to upgrade everything and experienced RPGers know that it is better to max out a few skills than to be OK in all of them. In terms of how you play through missions, the most important choices will be what weapons you want to specialise in and whether you want to be stealthy.
You can also upgrade weapons by buying or finding mods for them. Weapons have their own stats, like damage, accuracy, stability and recoil. The game doesn’t really explain what stability or recoil does. Still, you need something to spend in-game money on, so you’ll probably get into mods.
Weapon stats and skill level will determine your effectiveness with that weapon more than your twitch reflexes. Use a weapon that you haven’t skilled up on and you’ll run out of fingers and toes to count the bullets an enemy’s head absorbs before he goes down. At the start of the game, when you haven’t levelled up much, this will happen a lot.
Finally, there’s Perks, which are little stat bonuses that the game awards you for conversation choices and other stuff. You never know when you’ll get them, which makes it cool when you do, and it reinforces the idea that there isn’t only one right way to do things, as the game will keep rewarding you whatever you do.
The Mission Song, or why everyone marked this game down
Now for the “action” part of this RPG – Mike’s missions. It plays like a third person shooter with cover and stealth elements. The cover shooting isn’t up to the smooth standards of the Uncharted series but it isn’t as atrocious as most critics have said. If you level up wisely, your skills and special abilities will see you prevail even if the cover mechanics are as sticky as Toxteth O’Grady’s bogey and the shooting is as rusty as a red-headed nail. However, the AI isn’t very clever and goons have a tendency to avoid cover and run right at you.
Stealth has been done better by Metal Gear Solid 4 (of course) and Batman: Arkham Asylum. The main problem here is that you are never quite sure when you will be seen. Given that a crucial element of stealth play is about waiting for the right moment to come out of hiding, it’s is a fairly big booboo. The uncertainty is largely due to the personal-space invading camera, which sticks too close behind Mike’s back, as if the camera man is following Mike into an elevator. This restricts your field of view too much when hiding. Also it seems arbitrary as to when you can and can’t be seen from cover. You can compensate for this by upgrading your stealth skill to acquire abilities that turn you invisible for a time, but it makes for some tedious waiting while the abilities recharge.
The wonky stealth can disincline you to explore levels, which is a shame because goodies are littered around if you care to look. There are safes to crack, codes to decipher and computers to hack. Each of these pursuits is given a minigame and yields XP. The lock picking minigame is particularly frustrating because it requires you to use the spongy R2 to align a tumbler at a precise spot then press L2 to set it. You have a time limit and if you fail to pick the lock it in time you set off an alarm that brings the goons a-runnin’. By the end of the game these get ridiculously hard. I suspect most people won’t bother.
I tried to be stealthy, honestly I did, but had to fall back on gunplay more often than not. I’d begin missions like the Pink Panther but often end up finishing them like Scarface after being seen by some dude lurking in my blind spot and having to whip out the AK.
In an attempt to provide some climactic points to the action, the game throws a few boss fights at you. The Alpha Protocol formula for boss design is very traditional: Boss = insane levels of health + really strong attacks. You’ll quickly discover that if you spent all your skill points on stealth and martial arts and neglected a weapon skill, you will receive your glutes in a tureen. Boss AI didn’t escape being tarred with the stupid brush either. In one boss fight the boss forgot about me and started trying to jump on a door, enabling me to shoot him calmly in the head until he died. It still took about 20 shots to kill him. Another boss just crouched behind cover with his head poking out and I was similarly able to peg away at his scone with little retaliation.
The Naive and Sentimental Lover, or never mind the score, I still think the game is worth playing
This is a tough game to grade. It’s like a Big Mac washed down with Grange Hermitage. When a game does one thing really well and others not so, how does one award the final digits? When I think about it further though, there is only one score that fits, check it below. (I am already muffling my ears in anticipation of your groans)
Alpha Protocol has flawed combat and stealth but contains some ideas about how to implement choice in games that should be the new baseline standard for RPGs. It demonstrates the potential of videogames to tell branching stories that can respond meaningfully to a player’s choices. For that, it is worth playing.