Role-playing games are easily my favorite genre, and I am not alone. There are thousands of RPG video games out there and that’s because demand for them is so high. Unfortunately, of those thousands, many are so bad as to be unplayable, and a lot of the rest you just wouldn’t want to play. The good news is that there are a lot of great RPGs out there. Even when you ignore all the crappy games, we’re still spoiled for choice. And, as time goes on, the choices just keep piling up.
The bad news is that most of the major releases that all the conventions, gaming blogs, and YouTube channels get you riled up over tend to cost upwards of $60. This isn’t bad for a single game, but if you’re a major gamer, there’s a good chance you’re buying more than one game every few months, and if you’re a casual gamer, $60 is a lot to spend on a minor hobby. There’s also the fact that so many options can mean it’s tough to know what’s worth buying.
This week, I’m here to tell you that a game you probably haven’t played, but definitely should, is Alpha Protocol. Its developer, Obsidian Entertainment has made some excellent games in the past – South Park: The Stick of Truth, Neverwinter Nights 2, and Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. However, Obsidian is well-known for making great games with massive flaws – South Park’s combat system was excessively boring, for example, and both NWN 2 and SWKotOR II were riddled with bugs.
I won’t lie to you – Alpha Protocol is no different. It has numerous flaws, which will be discussed here. The simple fact of the matter, though, is that I wouldn’t be wasting your time with a game that wasn’t worth playing. Let’s just dive into it, shall we?
Alpha Protocol was billed as an “espionage RPG.” The simplest reasoning for this is that it’s a spy game. A much better reason is that it’s a spy game that actively encourages you to play like a spy. Can you go full commando, get all the guns, and mow through every map by making it rain lead? Sure. It’s a third-person shooter, after all. But if that’s what you really want to do, this probably isn’t your game – 2016’s Doom might be a better option for you. Alpha Protocol is for players who want that classic spy experience of trying to play people without letting them play you, getting all the facts necessary to make informed decisions, and having to live with the consequences of those decisions once they’re made.
Which leads me to my first point. If you’ve ever played any major titles with dialogue options, such as Mass Effect, Fallout, or Dragon Age, you know how it works. A radial menu or list pops up and you carefully read all of them before making your choice, or you just get lazy and pick the blue one, because you’re going for a perfect Paragon run (looking at you, Mass Effect). You could make a sandwich while listening to the bulk of the conversation and come back to find that radial waiting for you.
Not so with Alpha Protocol. Not only do your dialogue choices matter, you’re forced to make them on the fly, and if time runs out, you’re stuck with whichever one is highlighted. This gives conversations a bit more realism, and adds a level of tension not found in other games. Dialogue also holds a lot of subtleties you might miss on your first playthrough. Several characters will mention the background you chose at character creation (soldier, techie, etc.) without drawing too much attention to it, and that makes your decisions feel important from the start.
Your decisions matter for the entire game. After the first location, you’re given the option of where to go next. The order in which you complete the missions determines which allies and information you have moving into the next part of the game, making every playthrough a little different. Each decision you make in the field has the potential to make or break allegiances, which ultimately affects gameplay to a large degree.
One of the things that makes it feel like a spy game, instead of a shooter with a spy plot, is the fact that stealth is constantly pushed on you. The “Stealth” skill is at the top of the list, not the bottom, and it’s also the most expensive of the skills (6 points versus 3-5), which makes it automatically seem more important. While guns take up half the skills and store, they’re honestly not necessary. If you pump points into Stealth, Sabotage, and maybe some Martial Arts for a quieter take-down of any guards you can’t sneak past, there’s a chance you’ll almost never have to fire a shot.
Now it’s time for some of those flaws I mentioned, earlier. To start, the interface is clunky; menus aren’t intuitive and require far more clicks and button presses than they should. During character creation, the “Facial Appearance” options are a few different skin tones with identical faces, and the beards are just awful across the board. Combat, when you can’t/don’t use stealth tactics, has a lot of rough edges.
The plot? Standard “spy who got burned by his agency and is fighting to gain back his reputation” stuff. There’s even a redhead named Scarlet. Because, of course there is. The AI is dumb enough that guards consistently find corners, walls, and their own shoes more interesting than watching for an intruder. Sniper rifles are stationery within levels and are borderline uncontrollable, meaning being a proper stealthy sniper isn’t really a thing. Oh, and you can’t move bodies or close doors, which are two of the most important tactics in a stealth combat game.
So, an unoriginal plot, mediocre combat, and lack of significant character creation. Why am I recommending this game, again?
The short answer – because you won’t want to put it down. For every annoyance, a flash of brilliance shines through. The underlying humor never skips a beat – in your character stats, there’s the standard accuracy with each gun, number of non-lethal takedowns, and “orphans created” and “total medical bills.” You’ll meet a guy named Steve Heck who may or may not work with the CIA, but definitely threatens to make people drink bleach. The story is told through a surprisingly effective series of flashbacks, while you’re being interrogated by one of the baddies. Eventually, gameplay catches up and you’re playing in the “present,” but it never feels disjointed.
What is G22? Why is there a gun-toting woman with her name spelled in all-caps? Why do I care what a guy named Albatross thinks? When do I get to shoot Darcy in the face? These are questions that will keep you playing through the hacking/lockpicking mini-games, the annoying smirks characters constantly wear, and the rudimentary checkpoint save system. And did I mention there are romance options available?
There are romance options available.
Everyone I’ve ever had a conversation about Alpha Protocol with complains almost as much as they praise, yet the opinion is always high. It’s a beautiful contradiction of a game, and for $15 (Steam), there aren’t many games I could recommend more.
Have you played Alpha Protocol? Give us your thoughts in the comments!