Alpha Protocol (PC)
It pretty much goes without saying that the idea for Alpha Protocol was as simple, as it was undeniably genius. Imagine that it's 2008 again - March, to be precise, when the game was first announced - here you have a non-fantasy unconventional RPG about spies where choices matter most and where you get to do all the James Bond-stuff you've been waiting to (or that's just me). Not only that, it borrows heavily from Mass Effect in the areas where it was best at (dialogue system, combat) and it is done by the guys who already made two solid, if unfinished, BioWare sequels.
Here we are now, two years later, and Alpha Protocol didn't succeed. At all. Poor sales figures, mean critical reception and inner conflicts sank the promising title, stopped it from ever becoming a franchise and further cemented Obsidian's reputation as a developer that never quite gets around to finishing their games. Two questions immediately come to mind - "What went wrong?" being one and "Did AP deserve to tank?" being the other. And those are exactly the questions I'll attempt answering.
So, Alpha Protocol is a lot like Mass Effect. It's an action/RPG with heavy emphasis on action and it's also a game where the story is probably the most important part. As such, it's important for the story to be actually engaging and interesting. And, to some extent, Alpha Protocol delivers. The story of Mike Thorton is cliche as hell and has so many familiar moments that it starts getting ridiculous, but the obvious genre tropes do not stop it from being actually pretty good. While the main conflict itself is not only kind of boring, but hard as shit to follow, and the main villains are stock, Alpha Protocol fills the screen with so many characters and gives the players enough choices to keep them interested. Every city you go to has its own lineup of people who you'll have to interact with and, thankfully, those interactions are a lot of fun due to the vast imagination of writers, who constantly come up with interesting challenges.
Speaking of interaction, Alpha Protocol implements a very Mass Effect dialogue system, with one crucial exception, that being that you have a time limit on your answers. Remember how you could stand around infinitely in Mass Effect while the person you're speaking to looked at you in silence - well that's not happening here. In fact, the time given to choose your answer is usually really short, so short, that you can barely read your options, which are represented by the tone of the answer rather than the answer itself.
This is exactly what makes AP's storytelling work. You are always under pressure and always have to choose your words carefully and you always have to adjust your speaking preferences - if you succeed, you'll make the game much , much easier.
Why? Well, because of AP's other little storytelling success - your choices matter. Everything you say, everything you choose and even the way you play can and will affect your game, making it easier or harder. Often you'll have to make uninformed decisions and take wild-ass guesses, but that's alright - it adds to the realism. Depending on your choices and your relations with other people, you can have a ton of allies by the end of the game or be hated by everyone.
Romance interests play a very important part in Alpha Protocol
but are underplayed compared to Mass Effect
Yahtzee, whose opinion I duly respect, said that the tone descriptions that you have to base your dialogue choices upon are not entirely clear. Well, I found them to be extremely relevant and mostly correct, and good thing, too, because this could've been a game-breaker.
Not everything is perfect, of course, - while the characters are well-rounded and quite interesting to interact with, the overarching conflict is incredibly hard to follow, makes little sense and has the characters constantly assume pretty doubtful stuff that ends up correct in the end. I got lost multiple times in the narrative and found it confusing as hell.
Too bad about the rest of the game, then - Alpha Protocol fails to live up to the standard set by the narrative and does a lot of things wrong. First of all, I'd have to clarify that I played the PC version which I think had the best MetaCritic rating. I have no idea why, because with a keyboard AP is almost unplayable.
But first things first. Alpha Protocol is mostly about action but it does give you a great deal of character customization. Mike Thorton is upgrade-able and you can make him a specialist in many different fields. You can make him a stealth guy or you can make Rambo, you can make a techie and you can specialize in every weapon available. Added to that, upgrading your specializations gives you different abilities, some of them useful, some of them - not so much. Also, each weapon can be upgraded with sights and silencers and Mike's appearance can be modified, not too heavily though and it doesn't really matter.
The problem is the game is not particularly balanced to encompass such customization. For example, in the beginning playing a stealth guy is really hard while playing a shooter makes it all very easy. However, the game clearly expects you to be stealthy and, as such, there are plenty of missions where you best be unnoticed. Also, there are missions where you face folk that you can't kill but those are quite alright - they add variety and aren't that difficult.
The game has boss battles and those are quite fun, even though really hard. The highlight of the game is a fight against an 80s-obsessed Russian mobster who runs around with knives high on coke. The fight is complete with blinding colours and "Turn Up The Radio" and it's undoubtedly one of the most fun parts of the game. The problem is the bosses are almost unbeatable with a stealth character - and that's a pretty big fucking problem.
Alpha Protocol also suffers from multiple control hickups. For example, sticking to cover is immensely awkward and you can never do it fast enough. You will have to, though, because enemies in AP throw more grenades than in Modern Warfare and those grenades will fuck you up.
The game also has hacking and lockpicking minigames - and idea that's good on paper, but executed in a way that makes me want to cry. The lockpicking minigame is actually pretty good and so is the one for turning off the alarms and opening electric doors. But the hacking one is painful. I'll explain. Basically you have two sets of numbers and you have to find matching still numbers in a table of constantly changing numbers - a task hard in itself. The first set is moved around with WASD and the second - with a mouse. The WASD one is easy. The mouse is fucking impossible - it fidgets around and never does what it's supposed to. Add to that the fact that you have all of 25 or so seconds to complete the task and that halfway in the number board gets reset, then add that every time you fail the minigame you set off the alarm (another reason not to use a stealth guy) and you have a travesty. Also, the hacking minigame is encountered most often and many times is mandatory to complete to advance. Go figure.
Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate Hate
The rest of the game doesn't really shine as well. The graphics are fine but really nothing spectacular and sometimes look a bit cell-shaded. The A.I. is borderline retarded, unless it's throwing grenades, because that it does well. The sound and music are basically pretty good, the voice acting is fine although the horrendous accents are... well, bad. To add insult to injury, AP is buggy as hell and also has noticeable frame rate problems.
So, that's Alpha Protocol and that's why it failed. It's a mess, technically and conceptually - a badly tested game that I would have normally called rushed, except that it had been delayed and delayed. It also is the closest thing to a spy game there is (yes, even including MGS and the James Bond games) and I can not recommend it enough to people who like games like this.
It's a niche game - it is supposed to be buggy and badly-made because it is only for the fans and those are exactly the people who can endure the gameplay hardships in favour of the story and character interaction. What is more, it really pays off in the end - the game finale is as good as you'd expect and does not indulge in pointless sequel-baiting, giving the story closure whichever way you go.
It's broken and annoying but there's nothing like AP. Go buy it.