Alpha Protocol First Impressions

I pre-ordered Alpha Protocol back when it was an October 2009 release. I have a knack for that, like when I pre-ordered Halo 2 only to have that pre-order sit for over a year and then have Gamestop tell me they might not be able to honor it. I’m somewhat wiser these days, with Alpha Protocol only delayed 8 months and the pre-order from rock solid Amazon.com. However, with a new gaming PC I had switched my pre-order to PC shortly after confirming the new June release date. Lucky me to find out that the PC version is the most temperamental of all platforms for Alpha Protocol.

To answer the most obvious question, “Is it the unplayable mess everyone says it is” the answer would be “No, but kinda yes, except for when it works.” Ugh. Let me just go down the list of common complaints.

The controls, particularly the mouse, are unusable:
Honestly, this is sheer hyperbole. Everyone I’ve read who has played this game have made significant progress into it. I’ve played my share of poor control schemes and very rarely does ANY game ship with the controls in an “unusable” state. They are extremely dodgy and inaccurate, which is problematic because the game often seems to ask for more precision than it provides. If anything, I would not attempt this game on a game pad as some of the mini-games are greatly facilitated by the mouse. Except for computer hacking which is horribly broken and basically was poorly designed even if the control scheme worked.

The graphics are extremely dated:
Alpha Protocol is not one of the most high fidelity games I’ve seen, but at worst this is the kind of game you might have seen in the early XBox 360 days. Again, this is more hyperbole. For some reason people are overly harsh on graphics when they want to criticize a game. Alpha Protocol does facial expressions better than most games on the market, and the graphics are adequate to the story, which is all that is necessary. Are they terrible? No, not even close.

Texture pop-in is horrible:
Ok, the game has an obvious bug somewhere in the code. I’m well above the minimum system specs and running plenty of memory, I still see texture pop-in. I can’t even imagine how bad this must be on the XBox 360.

The AI is stupid:
The only really stupid AI’s are the ones armed with shotguns. Everyone armed with a shotgun is trying too hard to get too close. All I can figure is that every weapon seems to have an optimal range and the AI is trying to get to where the pellet spread can potentially hit 100%, which would be point blank range. The rest of the AI’s are pretty dumb as well, but the “everyone charges to hand-to-hand range and shoots me” claims are overblown. However, only a handful of opponents ever bother to duck into cover. Great AI this is not.

There's also a smart aleck comment somewhere about checking out her guns, but she won't appreciate it.

Combat is bad:
I think the designers saw Fallout 3 and thought “We can make our game based on math as well”. Two problems with this assumption. The first, Fallout 3 would give me a percentage so that I could understand why I missed 2 out of 3 shots. Even then, a 33% in small guns did not mean only a 33% chance to hit. I would likely still hit the target but could not do pinpoint aiming as easily. The second is that Fallout 3 has the VATS system which let me essentially do turn-based combat. Alpha Protocol has neither of these things. The skill system and how it affects your combat abilities are not clearly linked. This is especially painful in the early stages when you’re bad with every weapon and yet rely heavily on combat.

Stealth is impossible:
Yep, sometimes you just seem to be randomly detected, and that’s very annoying. I do everything right. Avoid cameras, silent takedowns, using a silenced weapon, and yet I swear it’s like someone sees me through a wall. The worst part is that once your discovered, that’s it. No more stealth. I get the idea that guards are on alert, but they can all find my exact location even if I eliminate everyone nearby and disable the alarm system. Actively looking for me and knowing my exact location are not the same thing.

The cover system is broken:
The cover system is no worse than the original Mass Effect and better in many ways. I have never found myself “stuck” like many claim, and actually had more problems with the original Gears of War. What is difficult is that it is not always clear what you can take cover behind, and sometimes you can’t maintain cover if you’re crossing under a window. You have to “unstick” yourself, duck, and then go into cover again. Not the most refined cover system, but if they didn’t do anything to this it wouldn’t be a deal breaker.

I think a lot of what is going on is high expectations being dashed by a development team that failed to make the most out of the extra 8 months of development. This game was hyped up bigtime and it seems like all the rumored problems from last year weren’t even touched. This is an extremely rough game and the comments about it being in a “beta” state are not entirely unfair.

The game does have some strengths. The dialogue system is actually pretty good, although Thorton can spout some non sequiters you wouldn’t expect. The reputation effects can be wonky. On one reply I had my reputation go both up and down at the same time. That seemed kinda dumb. If the net effect is zero why even bother showing a reputation change? One thing I really did not like is that the dialogue timer is too strict. You often have to make your choice before the other side finishes talking, and much of the critical information is at the end of their monologues.

I really like the safehouses and how you interact with them, I just wish there was more to do. In particular though, I wish more games allowed me to do pre-mission preparation. Although its a different style of game, I’m irked that Call of Duty preselects all of my weapons and equipment for me. I think an elite government agent should be able to figure out what they need for a mission.

What I really hope for is that despite its flaws, Alpha Protocol will at least spark some interest in RPG’s set in a contemporary setting. I like the espionage aspect as well, but mostly it was the ability to play an RPG that was not fantasy or science fiction. The game has tons of potential and plenty of good ideas, but was executed poorly. Hopefully someone else will see what the game could have been and we’ll see other developers follow Obsidian’s lead. Either that or Alpha Protocol just single-handedly killed the contemporary RPG concept, which would not make me an Obsidian fan at all.

Comments

  1. So…did you like it?

  2. This is a very odd game. On the one hand, it seems to be an unplayable mess. That said, the people I’ve seen chatting about it who have managed to figure out the quirks (and that’s being generous) seem to absolutely love the depth of the dialogue and plot systems and how variable it is depending on what you say and do.

    It’s one that I’ve had my eyes on for a while and I’ll probably grab it when it is put on sale on Steam.

    • Jason O says:

      I can honestly say it is the best contemporary espionage RPG on the market.

      All joking aside, it’s not an unplayable mess but it definitely was not a complete game when shipped. I’m still playing it, which should be a testament of the strength of the dialogue system and narrative, but the game could be so much better.

      • I’ve read more of your response here about this game than any other. People are tolerating it because it’s decision tree is great.

  3. Anticipation and expectations are often a volatile mix.

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