In My Hands

Because someone has to take a bullet for the team.

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.

Argh! My ears!

As much as an Iron Fanboy that I am, the voice acting in the Iron Man 2 Videogame trailer is so horrendous that I barely made it through. I’m am the least snobbish person I know about voice acting, but Tony Stark sounds like a high school nerd attempting a Robert Downey Jr. impersonation. As a bonus, the dialogue was obnoxious.

Games as art

I’ve always liked the quote, “I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it!” One of the biggest issues I have with the whole “Games as Art” debate is that in 10 years no one will even care.

Alright, I know that is a helluva statement to make, but let me clarify it. How many children do you know don’t play videogames? Let’s take that a step up, how many teenagers? How many twenty-somethings? Depending on who your general social crowd is, I’ll bet you don’t hit a significant group of non-videogame participants that you know until the 30’s or maybe even 40’s. Even then, they may not be in the majority.

Ta da! Videogames are mainstream. Notice the almost overnight irrelevance of Jack Thompson. Sure, we have the occasional obnoxious legislator trying to pass some bill or another, but it almost always passes in and out of the news. Some random news commentator desperate for attention may ride out the tired trope of evil videogames and protecting children, but it’s about as original as writing an article on Rock ‘N Roll and the decadent influence it has on youth.

The entire concept of what is and what isn’t “art” is fairly nebulous, but if you care about a videogame being “art” you have little to worry about. Anything that is mainstream eventually produces dedicated artistic endeavors. There are numerous games (Which I am intentionally not going to name. Can you guess why?) that are already considered “art” by the videogame community. Outside of the videogame community why would anyone care? The rantings of Ebert on the art-worthiness of videogames are about as relevant as a dog’s opinion of a squirrel. A passing distraction that causes a lot of commotion and barking but will never get.

As for me, I could care less. I don’t worry about how artistic a game is before I play. I am here to be entertained. This is not a different standard. Movies, books, and music are all things I enjoy but I feel no need to support anything for reasons beyond my personal interest. My personal opinion is that videogames are entirely better off without adding some artificial layer of snobbish elitism to them somewhere. Do we not already bemoan innovative games that don’t sell to big budget titles? Doesn’t that sound like the stereotypical struggle of the artistic endeavor already?

How to avoid the next game industry crash

Bill Harris thinks the videogame industry is heading for a crash. I’m not sure if I like Bill, but I do respect him. His general antisocial ways probably appeal to my misanthropic nature and so I try not to have too much positive personal bias, but I can rarely argue with his analysis. He makes some good points about a potential looming crash, though I don’t think he goes far enough.

I don’t like to rehash other people’s blog posts, so I don’t want to talk about why we’re heading for a crash, just that I do think we’re heading for one. Right now the four big players are playing a four-way game of chicken except the only way to win is to not veer off course, crash into your opponents as hard as you can, and hope you’re the one who can still walk away. While there is the possibility that one or more participants could survive such a contest, a far more likely scenario is that all four wind up on life support.

Then it occurred to me this week that while the crash is almost certainly inevitable, there is a way for at least one company to win.

Instead of playing this four way game of chicken, one company needs to reverse course and completely change their whole approach. Almost every strategy being proposed by EA, Activision, Ubisoft, and Take Two focuses on nickel and diming consumers if not outright treating them like garbage. If one company starts to focus on making consumers happy, they win. That’s not a minor proposition though because it flies in the face of everything the movers and shakers in the market are working in.

Quit spending money on day one DLC. Either it’s in the game or not. Drop your prices for 360 and PS3 games to $50. Stop development on every game we all know is not going to sell. Do we really need a Kane and Lynch 2? Quit worrying about the secondary market. I’m not saying embrace it, just quit drawing attention to it and quit making it look like your trying to screw consumers. In general, start looking at ways to make gamers feel good about spending money on your products. Also, let’s face it, the current release model is unsustainable and the current economy will only make it worse. I don’t have the answer to how, but these companies are supposed to be full of smart people. Figure out how to make the “long tail” work for you and quit this ridiculous death march of trying to sell a million copies in the first two weeks of release just to break even.

Also, I know I didn’t spend much time on the above points but I’m sure the price point thing is going to stick with some people. Look, $30, $50, or $60, the actual price doesn’t matter so long as a game recoups it’s development costs. Once a game gets past the cost of development it is essentially printing money. Valve has proved time and again that lowering the price of games increases sales exponentially. $60 is an off-putting price. There are many more games I’d be willing to buy on day one for $50 instead of $60. There are many games I do buy when they hit $10 off. The difference to consumers between $40 to $50 is not the same as $50 to $60. It is not “just $10 more” in the minds of consumers. I’ve worked in software development for over a decade now and I promise you that a piece of software is only worth as much as someone will pay for it. Trying to sell $20 games for $60 is part of the reason the videogame industry is struggling so much in today’s economy. Trying to market $20 games as though they are worth $60 is just throwing money down the toilet.

The overall strategy needs to be a shift towards doing something good for the consumer.