Lost in this Masquerade
HIGH Steven "Don't call me Steve" Heck.
LOW The '80s-themed boss fight against a knife-wielding cokehead who somehow is still talking after taking ten bullets in the face.
WTF Let me get this straight: a brilliant intelligence analyst lost track of his own daughter because she took her mother's maiden name?
The allure of role-playing a spy is almost undeniable. Suave and sharply dressed no matter the occasion, James Bond has been a hero to generations, aided by memorable villains with absurd plots for world domination. More recently, new-age spies like the relentless Jack Bauer or hyper-competent Jason Bourne have stolen the show, replacing wit and verve with martial arts and gunplay. It would be a thrill to imagine yourself as any one of these men. It is, however, somewhat less intriguing to contemplate the possibility of being all three at once. Yet, this seems to be Obsidian's aim in their espionage role-playing game Alpha Protocol, and they pursue this wrong-headed goal with a singular lack of competence.
In principle, the idea of a game where you can play as any kind of spy has a certain kind of attraction. The problem is that no story can be made by just one character: the plot, as well as his antagonists and allies, must support the main character. A Bond villain like Oddjob (or even a more grounded one like Le Chiffre) cannot be transplanted into an episode of 24; the result would be by turns laughable and disastrous. The internecine conflict between dour and abusive CIA agents, characteristic of the Bourne movies, would similarly feel completely inappropriate with James Bond in the starring role.
Alpha Protocol attempts to resolve this problem by throwing a little of everything into the plot, creating a grand wreck of a cast and story that manages to feel appropriate to the character being played less than a third of the time. What is the "professional" spy to make of '80s obsessed Konstantin Brayko? How does a "suave" spy fit into a world that holds the startlingly incompetent Omen Deng? The game's threadbare plot is pedestrian in its ideas and sloppy in its execution, but with enough effort these problems can be fixed. There is no level of effort that can address the more fundamental issue, however. No matter what sort of person the player chooses to make the main character Mike Thorton be, he will spend most of the game as an alien, a character who simply does not belong in the world he inhabits.
Even the process of constructing this persona has nothing to recommend it. Thorton's dialogue is eternally charmless, even when he is attempting to be suave. If his conversational ineptitude offends his interlocutors, there's no way to know it: their faces barely move. The dialogue sections of the game play out like a world where everyone is wearing a rubber mask. If the game didn't constantly indicate how my choices had affected other characters' opinions, there's no way I could assess them.
Of course, you spend comparatively little time actually talking. Most of the game's duration is bound up in action missions, where Thorton is even more plodding and useless than he is in conversation. I don't expect every videogame spy to rival Sam Fisher in acrobatic ability, but Thorton makes me look like an Olympic gymnast. At least I can climb through scaffolding or step over a k-rail. Thorton can only jump up or drop down at special action points; naturally these are always located at places that are convenient for the developers, even if they look no different from other spots. If a container is sitting on a flat surface I should be able to jump down from it anywhere, not just on the side that's facing a patrol.
Once Thorton is seen by that patrol, the combat system creaks into action. Gunplay is entirely unsatisfying; the perfectly steady reticule seemingly has no relationship with the destination of your bullets. Nor do the opposing AIs give the impression of solid work. Alpha Protocol's grunts have two tricks: lay back and hurl endless grenades (with pinpoint accuracy) or run up and try to punch Thorton. Yes, even if he's got a gun. Yes, even if they've got guns.
Lest you think that the poor construction of the AI is isolated in some way, allow me to assure you that this terrible execution infects every single level of the game, from the useless map and archaic save system right down to the constant pop-in (and pop-out!) of textures. Palm fronds clip through walls, and shadows on one floor bleed through to the ceiling of the floor below. Sometimes the game fails to realize you've reached an objective. Other times it won't let you interact with an action point. Even the plot leaves half a dozen threads dangling, as if nobody could be bothered to finish it. Perhaps they got distracted by shoehorning in all the double- and triple- crosses. When Thorton starts walking in some random direction under his own initiative, I understand why: he's trying to get out of this game.
I could go on like this for quite a while, if I thought it necessary. Alpha Protocol fails on multiple levels, from its completely inappropriate boss fights down to its absurd Looney Toons-style stealth creep. Nothing about this game suggests its makers have any acquaintance with sound design principles or even quality control. Flawed in its conception, impoverished in its design, and thoroughly inept in its execution, Alpha Protocol is an unmitigated disaster.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 30 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time).
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, drug references, intense violence, sexual content, and strong language. The sex is very much PG fade-to-black stuff that shouldn't offend anyone who is generally aware that men and women sometimes sleep together. The violence is standard shooter stuff.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The conversations are subtitled and most of this text is clear and easy to read. All audio cues are supplemented by visual ones. With the occasional exception of trying to find an alarm box, deaf players should not be at a serious disadvantage.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.