Underappreciated games: Alpha Protocol

Obsidian's espionage title has come under plenty of fire, but is it still worth a look?

Taking the premise of a very successful title and retooling it for your own needs is very common in the world of gaming. Clones of successful games are released time and time again, and these copies of other people’s winning formulae can lead to equally great games. Then again, they can also produce third-rate knock-offs, which is the pigeon hole in which many people place Obsidian’s Alpha Protocol.

Taking BioWare’s excellent Mass Effect as a starting point, Obsidian wanted to create a real world espionage RPG that put the player in the shoes of a super secret agent. The game would take in sights from around the world, mix in stealth and gunplay and feature a heavily story-driven campaign with previously unheard of levels of user interaction. This was to be a game that really did allow players to affect the world and other people with their own choices. It sounded like a guaranteed winner, but sadly, that wasn’t to be.

Spy Vs Spy

Obsidian is a developer known for taking on existing properties and adding to them. It’s worked on sequels to major franchises, including BioWare’s Knight of the Old Republic and Bethesda’s Fallout 3. The team often had hugely ambitious, lofty goals, and on paper these are always attractive. The issue that almost always arises, though, is what appears to be the team’s lack of skill to bring these ideas to fruition. Often, Obsidian’s games are great in concept, but are deeply flawed in execution. The company’s releases are often plagued with bugs and glitches, and a general lack of polish. This would be bad enough if the games were taken on their own merits, but when they follow far more polished releases from other developers, it only highlights the problems.

For example, although Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas possessed many new features technically superior to Fallout 3, and a more varied world, the bugs, glitches and rough edges meant that Bethesda’s original title is the better actual game. Likewise, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords should have been far better than the BioWare original, with more characters, skills, locations and so on, but the lack of skill in presentation and coding made for a substandard sequel.

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With Alpha Protocol, Obsidian didn’t directly follow another company’s work, but used BioWare’s Mass Effect as a template, along with influences from all things espionage, such as James Bond and Mission Impossible. The game played almost exactly like Mass Effect, split between hub-levels where you conversed with allies, selected your load-out and purchased weapons and information, and the main action levels where you could use whatever tactics you desired to achieve your goal.

In these sections you could use stealth, sneaking around subduing foes, hacking computers and picking locks, or you could go in fighting. Multiple routes could be utilised, and depending on your chosen skills, you’d have a very different experience than someone else.

The problem with all of this was Obsidian’s usual lack of polish, and the game suffered, particularly in the action sections. Controls were fluffy, enemy AI was poor and often glitchy, and actual aiming and firing was borderline broken. Animation was duff too, making for a rather comedic outcome (has Mike Thornton had an accident in his pants?).

So, if it’s this awful, why am I featuring it as an underappreciated game? Surely it’s just bad? Well, no, as it does get some important things right, and these actually make the game worth a second chance.

Decisions, decisions

Without a doubt the strongest aspects of Alpha Protocol are the character interactions and the outcomes of your decisions. Throughout the game you spend a lot of time talking with both friend and foe. These conversations utilise the Mass Effect-style dialogue system, with the addition of a timer. You have a short time to select your response, and this can shorten or lengthen depending on the situation. If you’re in a dangerous spot, then your response time may be far less, for example, so you need to make a split second decision. This can make for some great, tension-filled moments, and you’re forced to chose responses that could have unwanted repercussions.

Your choices don’t just change what you say, but also how the person will feel about you. Each character in the game responds to certain approaches better than others, and so if you use the right approach, they’ll grow to like you. If they like you enough, this may even open the option of calling on them for help later on. If they hate you, then you’ll certainly not get this option. Sometimes it’s advantageous to have someone dislike you, as it can endear you to another organisation who considers that person an enemy. It’s an interesting and impressive take on the dialogue system, and one that, whilst not perfect, works very well, and offers more open-ended relations than even BioWare’s own Mass Effect.

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These interactions, as I said, can change later events, and by this I don’t simply mean minor alterations. Instead you can end up with major reinforcements you wouldn’t have when assaulting an enemy compound, or access to better weapons and armour via the game’s black market. You can avoid entire confrontations, turning enemies into allies, or you can provoke otherwise passive factions. It’s a good balancing act too, as you’ll often have to carefully choose your allies, which may make you a target for others, and will have to live with that choice later on. This not only makes the story feel much more personal, but also promotes plenty of replay value.

Best laid plans

The planning of your missions is also a highlight. The dialogue system comes into play once more as your relationship with your handler can affect the various perks you’ll get during a mission. For example, if they like you, you may get boosts to special ability cooldowns.

In the game’s black market, you can optionally purchase intel on the upcoming sorties, such a location maps, and you can even arrange special weapons drops or distractions that will reduce the number of guards you’ll face. Previous relations with your contacts can also affect these missions.

This planning stage also allows you to converse with others via email, often giving you more info on your tasks or funds to spend on the black market. If people don’t like you, though, this info won’t be available. Some mails can also be replied to, and depending on your tone, it’ll affect the sender’s opinion of you.

All of this interaction and reputation works very well, creating a different experience each time you play, and it’s an element that really does deserve some praise, even when other, more instantly noticeable features aren’t as well implemented.

The story, although very clichéd and certainly not the most interesting, is decent enough, and complements the reputation system. As a supposed rogue agent, you need to carefully choose your allies in order to avert World War III and clear your name, and the interesting part of this is your impact, and how events change depending on your actions. This is handled arguably better than Mass Effect (Alpha Protocol came out before Mass Effect 3), and the outcomes were more involved than simply buying a part for your ship or completing a mission for a friend, as in ME2.

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Other elements of the game also impressed. The mini games for hacking and picking locks were actually challenging, requiring manual dexterity and careful observation, and each mission had a selection of pick ups and optional objectives, some of which could, again, change later missions. Kill all the guards in one mission for example, and when you return to the location later on, the enemy presence will be reduced.

The perk system also featured some great powers, such as lining up deadly shots in slo-mo with your pistol, or being able to render yourself invisible to people and/or cameras for a time. Yes, you could drastically overpower some (pistol kills especially), but they rewarded diligent players and often opened up otherwise inaccessible approaches to a mission.

Secrets and lies

Now, I’d be lying if I said that Alpha Protocol was an amazing, must own game, but that’s not what underappreciated game is about. Sure, AP has some problems, and if only the action sections and controls were improved, the game would have done far better with the critics. However, I do feel the game has been done a bit of an injustice, and some elements attempted by Obsidian are very well executed, making it worthy of your attention, especially as you can now find it very cheap.

So, if you’ve run out of triple-A titles and the summer gaming drought is leaving you with little to play, why not spend a few pounds and give it a go? You never know, you may have some espionage-filled fun.

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