With pedigree comes a level of expectation. When the people behind Fallout, Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights 2 decide to produce a RPG based on a completely new IP, people sit up and pay attention. Such titles are written into the very fabric of videogames and Obsidian have proven themselves more than adept at creating huge worlds filled with deep history, and more importantly filling them with tales to captivate their audience. Alpha Protocol, however, is somewhat of a departure from the post-apocalyptic and fantasy landscape the studio is usually associated with.
Deep in the bowels of an unspecified location, Agent Michael Thornton awakes in a medical bay. He is the fresh young recruit in contemporary America’s latest ultra-secret service known as Alpha Protocol, and he’s being put through the final stages of his induction. From this high tech, subterranean lair, Mike and his colleagues handle covert operations that are deemed too shadowy to be associated with the US government. Should their exploits ever come to light, their association is denied and the agent in question classed as rogue and cast aside. It’s a brutal world, but Mike is hoping to make a difference.
There are no character customisation screens to hand as you take charge of Mike. Rising disorientated from the bed in the medical bay, he has but one face, although you can perch a hat upon his head and shades over his eyes later on, should you so wish. What can be chosen is his background, allowing you to paint him in a manner that befits you’re approach to life as a secret agent. Claiming to be a Solider will give a grounding in fire arms, Field Agents will excel in stealth and close combat, whilst Tech Specialists have a penchant for gadgets. No matter which you choose, each operative operates from the same skill tree. This tree is how you will shape your agent and endow Mike with talents in different guns, convert manoeuvres, data hacking, resilience and many other facets found handy in the world of espionage. It is also extremely open, too, meaning that your initial choice as to your background won’t harm or lock out alternates paths. If you do choose Soldier but later fancy on changing into a stealthy assassin then its easy to drop some points into those disciplines and alter your style.
To begin with, however, you are but a lowly grunt with very little talent to speak of. Dropped in the Middle East and tasked with intercepting a purported stolen missile, you’ll not only have to battle against a small army of militants but your own ineptness: weapons prove inaccurate in your hands; your ability to lurk undetected ala Sam Fisher is only possible if the enemy is the other side of concrete wall; and the effective blast-radius of your gadgets is all but embarrassing. It’s an incredibly slow start and I kept having to remind myself that things would get better as I levelled up.
You’ll soon come to terms with just how stealthy Mike is, but he’ll often draw unwelcome attention as he bumbles around. In such situations you’ll need to protect yourself using a combination of pistols, SMGs, shotguns and assault rifles. Each can be a chosen specialisation and each has certain benefits, such as pistols being able to carry tranquiliser darts or flaming shotgun shells, though once you’ve found a favourite and invested in its branch of skills, it’s doubtful that you’ll switch to anything else. Sadly, gunplay itself is decidedly average, lacking the crisp feel to the controls that other third-person shooters have achieved. Certain skills can aid the lack of precision, or rather the length of time it takes to achieve it, but shooting is not Alpha Protocol’s strong point.
Thankfully, skills like lock picking and computer hacking are not adversely affected by your novice status. Creeping around the dusty levels and sneaking in through the back door is almost encouraged by default as opposed to direct confrontation. Each is represented by a mini-game against the clock where you must either correctly weight the barrels to pop a lock, match the correct override paths on a maze-like circuit board, or scan a scrolling screen of text for the appropriate password. Each are unique enough and require their own skill set, be it steady hand or eagle eye, and are still surprisingly engaging even late on in Alpha Protocol.
For quite some time each mission felt like a sub-par Splinter Cell or Rainbow Six. Attempts to use stealth were all but foolish thanks to guards apparently blessed with ESP and every room turned into a rather predictable, mundane shoot out as you sat waiting for the AI to stick their heads above the parapet. An array of gadgets, including explosive grenades, flashbangs and incendiary bombs do aid you, but as you generally have to expose yourself to utilise them they were not an ideal solution. On the rare occasion that sneaking did succeed it caused genuine surprise, partly because many of the levels don’t seem structured to allow such an approach. There are sections scattered with conveniently placed boxes, alternate paths or screens that allow one to sneak unseen, but for each of those there is a gantry or balcony you’ll be asked to cross where cover is scant and it’s nigh on impossible to stay out of sight.
Eventually, a corner was turned. From the XP gained by dispatching the enemies of the US Government, completing missions and generally being a suave super spy, enough stealth upgrades can be banked to unlock two key skills. These were an automated respite from detection if enemies or cameras were to spot me, allowing a chance to scuttle to cover, and the ability to turn nigh on invisible to the naked eye. Together they literally turned the game on its head; where once you opened a door only to be faced with a sinking feeling that another shoot out was only moments away, now there was a way to truly be covert. Rather than skulk in the shadows, using this invisibility you can literally creep up in front of a guard and incapacitate him without him even blinking.
What it also highlights is the incredibly dim AI. Not only do they have a merry tendency to run down your gun sights, but place two guards next to each other and whilst you’re applying an invisible choke hold, causing him to flail and cry out for help, his colleague will stand around oblivious. Only when the body hits the floor will the other become interested, wandering over only to receive the exact same treatment. When this occurs with a gaggle of four foreign mercenaries standing just feet apart from each other, each falling like house of cards in turn, you can only sit back and chuckle.
Not all of Alpha Protocol is focused on combat, though. Conversation plays a vital part in your skillset as it’s a way of winning over the sceptical, gaining the trust of the those around you, and even worming your way out of – or in to – tricky situations. It’s handled in a manner that could be considered a cross between Heavy Rain and Mass Effect; when engaged in conversation you’ll only have a short amount of time to respond before a default is selected for you. You can be suave, aggressive or business-like most of the time, and the intelligence you collect on each character you meet will prove key in deciding just how you should approach the situation. Rather than just being padding to an action game however, there is an awful lot that can be achieved through the choices that face Mike, as played right they can open up contacts or reveal key details pertinent to the next mission. He might even find the love of a good woman.
Quite refreshingly for what is on the most part an action-RPG, there are even entire missions dedicated just to the art of conversation. This change of pace is a welcome departure and although it could be considered a brave move it does symbolise the importance of contacts and informants in this shadowy world.
The characters that you meet as you fly from the Middle East to Rome, the Far East to Moscow, are all incredibly well fleshed out, with complete bios and many distinctive personalities. There’s the very sombre Eastern intelligent agent to the rather deranged American jock who likes to pour detergent down people’s throats; the flirtatious flame-red haired photojournalist, to the security officer who you instantly want to punch in the face. All together those that you meet and chat to pull this spy adventure together and make the world feel cohesive, especially when they refer back to what you’ve said or done in prior missions and conversations. It feels as though everything you’re achieving is being noticed and realised by those around you, which in itself has its own consequences as your reputation spreads before you.
Overall, Alpha Protocol shouldn’t work. The shooting sections are decidedly average, stealth yo-yos from barely registering to being all powerful, and Mike himself looks as though he was dragged from the generic concept art of any one of a thousand games. Somehow, though, it becomes more than the sum of its parts with a story that spans the globe and drags in many, many characters along the way. There’s a good game fighting to be seen underneath the rough edges, something that becomes more evident the further into it I delved.
The choice to base their latest adventure in the modern world was a brave one, and it is verging on ironic that the genre has slipped almost unnoticed into such a setting. There will be times when Alpha Protocol will cause you to demand the tightness seen in Ubisoft’s own spy games but then conversely they too could learn from some of what Obsidian have achieved here.