The quickest way to describe Alpha Protocol is Mass Effect's sidekick. It mimics its friend adoringly, with similar space-boopy music, a mixture of conversations, nurturing relationships and combat missions, plus a character development system lifted pretty much wholesale from the first ME game.
However, this is also unnecessarily dismissive, as Alpha Protocol also has the dignity to try its own thing. You play as Michael Thorton, a spy working for Alpha Protocol, an organisation that gives the government plausible deniability. After your opening missions, your government deserts you, leaving you at the mercy of the people who may or may not like you.
Persuading them is done by choosing one of three conversational stances. The first is suave, which in this game means 'randy jester'. Mina and Scarlet, your two professional contacts, can both be charmed with this stance. Thankfully, they're not idiots - get sexy in the middle of a mission and they'll question your motives, and during one mission it's amusing to forget that both Mina and Scarlet are in on the conversation. The second path is aggressive. This is the no-nonsense, take no prisoners path, which'll impress the bureaucracy-haters and the psychopaths. Then, there's the professional stance, which your boss likes.
Unlike Mass Effect, this is acting. You're a spy, not an intergalactic badass, so these decisions only affect those you have them with. It's more realistic, letting you mix up your styles to suit the situation instead of doggedly playing the hero, and it's actually a much better system - even if the script does make you flinch occasionally. Reading people and manipulating their attitude is the game's strongest card, along with a story that regularly feels like it's branching off. You are able to execute key players,
and avoid boss fights with the right compliment. And that's something you'll want to do, because the boss fights are completely rubbish.
There's humour, too, both awkward and off-colour. Mina might seem innocent in your video conversations, but her emails are frequently filthy. And Stephen Heck's love of torture is oddly endearing in its cartoonishness. But it's the combat that lets the game down.
Fight or flight
Alpha Protocol doesn't have squads. It's just you, and whichever style of combat you prefer. There are three predefined skill sets, but what it basically boils down to is shoot, use gadgets or avoid. Avoiding is the least rewarding of the three choices - at least, until you've managed to progress a decent way down that skill set. You're spotted far too easily, and the alarms that put everyone on high alert are ridiculously easy to set off.
But why bother sneaking around when the game's enemies are so gobsmackingly stupid?
They frequently fail to take cover, and if you hide around a corner, they'll walk like a procession of lemmings into your waiting fists. Having said that, the tight camera makes it annoyingly easy to miss with close quarters combat - and very difficult to tell when you have. This, coupled with the complete stupidity of the enemies, led to more than one occasion when we found ourselves performing an aggressive dance in front of a security guard, who responded with an unimpressed "where's he gone?"
So, guns seem like the easiest way to play - but that doesn't mean they're the most enjoyable option. The assault rifle is overpowered to the point where you are able to out-snipe a sniper, and yet three headshots from a pistol fail to take down a regular security guard.
Alpha Protocol is a game with such potential that the negatives stand out a mile. If you play it, you'll probably have your own list of reasons why it both charmed and frustrated you. Beneath the generic spy story, the often great dialogue between the warm characters will make you care about the reputation points your conversations earn you.
Each of the three play styles - stealth, gadgets and guns - become tedious if you doggedly stick with where your skill points have been spent. But if you're able to keep changing your style, and can forgive the attention-breaking idiocy of the enemies, you'll see there's potential here for a great sequel and series. It's just a shame they didn't nail it on the first attempt.
A good story, saddled with an average game
- Three-pronged convos work well
- Good dialogue, well acted
- The best levels give you some choice
- Bosses are just guys with more HP
- Enemy AI deeply lacking