It should be fun to be a spy, right? It should all be about sneaking through military bases, hiding behind grassy knolls and talking the pants off any woman with a heartbeat. It should be about thrilling combat sequences and femme fatales.
It definitely should not be about boring, stiff characters delivering overlong dialogue in flat monotone, or clunky game mechanics which pretend to give you a choice about how you want to play, but really don’t. Unfortunately, Obsidian Games hasn’t realised that, because Alpha Protocol is all about the latter examples.
The game casts you as Mike Thorton, the latest recruit to the super-secret, super-bland spy organisation, Alpha Protocol. You’re supposedly a graduate of numerous intelligence programs, but you bizarrely start your adventure with almost no skills in any areas, so the tutorials focus on things like bouncing grenades off of walls when they really should be teaching you about the deeper game mechanics.
There are plenty of interesting ideas that have resulted from Alpha Protocol‘s fusion of the RPG and shooter genres, such as the ability to collect dossiers on your colleagues by asking the right questions, but most of them aren’t ever properly introduced.
Anyway, the initial goal of the game is for you to bring some airplane-bombing terrorists from Saudi Arabia to justice and to track down some missing missiles, but as soon as you start making headway you end up getting betrayed by a mole in your own organisation.
Uncovering this mole and averting a new world war is what really forms the bulk of the story, which is a fairly simple tale of evil corporations and secret organisations. Or, it would be simple if it weren’t muddied up by the universally unlikeable characters and the way the script fumbles around with flash-forwards.
Ostensibly, the gameplay is a shooter/RPG hybrid that harks back to classics like Deus Ex and System Shock, allowing you to choose from a number of different approaches that let you tackle missions in your own way. Through some brief, but sometimes crazily difficult minigames you can hack security systems, harvest info and lockpick your way into hidden areas. Supposedly, anyway.
In reality, though, most of the levels are both small and linear, with extra paths limited to fairly basic and obvious choices that don’t really make a huge difference to gameplay in the long run. The only reason it’s worthwhile to bother suffering some of these minigames is because the enemy AI is so basic that it reverts to normal behaviour as soon as the sirens stop.
In combat sections Alpha Protocol is marred by poor handling and a shoddy cover mechanic, but more pressing is the woeful balancing. Pistols are nearly always useless, while assault rifles and SMGs are ludicrously powerful. Enemies wax between being overly alert and ignoring you when you zip-line past them in broad daylight.
There are a few places where Alpha Protocol claws back ground, such as a cool perks system that gives you small bonuses for optional tasks. Impress your weapons instructor to get a small boost to cool down times, for example.
Between missions you’re dumped in your agency safehouse too, which affords you time to prepare for the next mission by buying or upgrading weapons and armour, discussing theories with your allies and collecting intel on your next target.
The option to approach missions in the order you want and the way you’re slowly forced into choosing who you want to trust are pretty good too.
Unfortunately for Alpha Protocol, though, it’s just not enough and the stark reality is that it takes far longer to prepare for most missions than to actually complete them, and it’s more enjoyable too.
There are a few good features and flashes of brilliance, but the RPG stuff isn’t very extensive and the action isn’t well presented, the characters are dull and lifeless and the script relies far too heavily on stereotypes and clichés to be interesting. Shame, really.
Alpha Protocol will be released on 28 May for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.