After several years of development and a seven month delay, Obsidian Entertainment's ambitious spy-themed action/role-playing game, Alpha Protocol, is finally infiltrating consoles and PCs.
The studio behind Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and the upcoming Fallout: New Vegas have crafted this "Espionage RPG" with the goal of engaging gamers' minds as well as their trigger fingers. While the end result isn't nearly as successful as the similarly genre-mixing Mass Effect 2, those who can look past Alpha Protocol's many flaws will discover a satisfying better-than-the-sum-of-its-parts experience.
The set-up revolves around a Bond/Bourne/Bauer mash-up character named Michael Thorton, who is recruited by the titular shadow organisation to uncover the conspiracy behind a missile attack on a passenger jet. Players start their skill-building right away by choosing between Soldier, Field Agent, Tech Specialist, Freelancer, or Recruit disciplines (you're prompted to define your profession even further a few hours into the game.)
From here you're able to specialise in nine specific areas by distributing experience points (AP) to them as you level-up. The game gives you lots of freedom in this regard, and shaping your agent throughout the adventure is addictive and rewarding. I poured most of my points into the shotgun, martial arts, and sabotage specialisations to match my favoured play styles. This allowed me to easily by-pass the repetitive hacking mini-games, get the most out of my 12 gauge hand cannon, and break bones like peanut brittle.
While this let me spend much of my time in the field giving the finger to encrypted computers, and filling baddies full of buckshot before kicking them in the throat, I also could have focused on the other skills - pistols, assault rifles, submachine guns, stealth, technical aptitude, toughness - for a totally different terrorist-thwarting play-through. The RPG options don't stop there; you can also equip specialized skills, such as temporary invulnerability or silent footsteps, utilise a Sam Fisher-size suitcase of gadgets, and tweak your firearms with a variety of scopes, barrels, magazines, and stocks. Everything can be upgraded and everything affects your skills. You can also play most missions in any order you like.
Alpha Protocol's defining RPG feature, though, is its story-steering conversations. From shady informants to underground arms dealers, Thorton talks to lots of folks, and how you act during these exchanges can dramatically change the story's outcome as well as its mid-game paths. Players can choose three types of responses - suave, aggressive, professional - and occasionally a more dramatic action like "execute" or "spare". You only have a short amount of time to reply, and what you say may increase or decrease your favor with the NPC your chatting up. And, unless you reload a previous save point, there's no taking back your response.
The system works well enough, but to really appreciate its far-reaching goals you'd need to play through the game multiple times. I only completed the campaign once, but I did cheat time a bit to experiment with the mechanic. In one instance, I spared the life of a dual-pistol packing psycho who came at me like a freight train; turns out she was the bodyguard of a very powerful ally who eventually helped me because I didn't whack his hench-woman.
When I tried a second time, I let my itchy trigger finger do the talking, and the baddy's boss, needless to say, chose not to befriend me. While these outcomes were decided by gunfire, I experienced a similar two-sided encounter when I used my words rather than my bullets. My cocky response to a Gatling gun-toting mercenary quickly escalated to a bullet-whizzing boss battle; played a second time with a more silver-tongued response, I gained a friend rather than a metal slug in the brain pan.
While I dug this aspect, it also yielded my most significant frustration; the majority of people will only play through the game once, so the developers may have put all their resources into an admirable, but somewhat misguided goal. But the real kicker is that those resources could have been applied to Alpha Protocol's other areas that desperately needed additional attention.
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