Alpha Protocol, Obsidian’s spy rpg was released by Sega last year to middling reviews and in my case, complete indifference. Don’t get me wrong, I was vaguely aware of its existence but said reviews combined with a general lack of buzz made Alpha Protocol a title that I was more than happy to let pass me by – it may sound harsh but as far as I was concerned, Alpha Protocol may well have never existed.
That all changed a few months ago thanks to one of those meaningless email chains that somehow got onto the subject of most underappreciated games – while the usual big hitters made the rounds, I was amazed by how many folk swore by the supposedly flawed gem that was Alpha Protocol. Despite the laundry list of flaws reeled off by even its most ardent of fans, the overriding sense was of a game that succeeded despite its numerous….let’s call them ‘nuances’. Based on the emails, I decided to check out some of the internet chat on the game and, despite a plethora of rather negative reviews and comments, there was obviously a lot of love for Sega’s modern day take on the Mass Effect action rpg template.
This, as you can imagine, piqued my interest in the game quite a bit….well, that and the £5 price tag of course. So, with game in hand and despite a host of great games sitting on my shelf, I decided to get straight on with Alpha Protocol while the ‘mostly’ positive chat was still ringing in my ears.
Well, I’ve finished the game now and what can I say? Alpha Protocol is that rare beast that somehow manages to be brilliant and terrible all at the same time. It’s one of those games in which the relatively lean development time and low budget can be seen at every turn, a game with so many technical faults and poorly implemented mechanics that it really should be a complete disaster….but it’s not, it’s really not. Despite the stuttering framerate, inaccurate combat, ropey graphics and disappointing voice work, Alpha Protocol turned out to be a game I couldn’t help but enjoy.
There are moments in Alpha Protocol in which even the most basic elements of gameplay seem nigh on broken, but once you learn to live with some of the more obtuse design choices and change your approach accordingly, Alpha Protocol begins to show its underlying quality. Having to make such gaming concessions in the first place is an initial chore, but once you do fall in line with Alpha Protocol, it’s unique flow, brilliant upgrade system and surprisingly well written story really do get a hold of you.
As good as the story might be and as intriguing as some of the characters are, it’s the games structure and its hugely addictive and extremely well implemented rpg enhancements that will really keep you playing through to the games conclusion. While your globetrotting tour will take you to some interesting, if occasionally poorly realised locations, it’s actually the return to home base at the end of a successful mission that often proves Alpha Protocol’s highpoint. With the chance to take your characters development in a number of unique directions, applying skill points based on your approach to the game becomes a hugely addictive experience. Combine that with an array of cool gadgets and the huge selection of weapon and armour upgrades available and you’re left with an extremely robust upgrade system that allows you to approach each mission as you see fit.
It of course helps that the changes made and the upgrades chosen back at the safe house make a real difference when out on the field. Be it increased stealth, upgraded armour or additional skill with the assault rifle – each upgrade made makes a tangible difference to your skill set and your potential approach to each task. The core gameplay remains largely unchanged throughout and you don’t learn any actual ‘new moves’ so to speak, but the difference between protagonist, Michael Thornton’s abilities at the start and end of the game are vast.
It’s not just the skills and items that have a major effect on gameplay either – the choices you make throughout also seem to have more lasting effect than in many games of this ilk. The conversation wheel (it’s not actually a wheel but you know what I mean) may be a touch on the clunky side but each decision made and tone taken often effects the game or your relationships in one way or another. Sure, the voice work is a bit hit and miss but thanks to the games consistently fantastic statistical feedback, you always feel invested in each and every conversation – even if what is being said isn’t all that exciting.
Some people will (and already do) hate Alpha Protocol with a passion. I can totally see where they are coming from – the game is riddled with the kind of bugs and poor design choices usually reserved for the bargain basement releases. There will be many gamers out there however, myself included, that can somehow forgive the games myriad of faults thanks to its charm, unique setting and for the fact that for every poor idea, there are two brilliant ones waiting just around the corner.
Unlike the music and film industries, games are often judged less on ones proclivities and tastes and more on technical competency, so it’s a real treat to see one of those few games that seems to illicit such wildly differing opinions. Technically, Alpha Protocol is poor, but it’s also home to far too many great ideas to be considered a disaster. Some won’t be able to look past Alpha Protocol’s faults; others will love it despite them.
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