Based on yesterday’s flurry of bad press for Obsidian’s new Spy-PG, I’d decided to contradict myself (when I said I would buy regardless of reviews on account of Chris Avellone’s penmanship) and hold off on Alpha Protocol. After all, I still haven’t finished Final Fantasy XIII or Mass Effect 2 or Metro 2033 or Splinter Cell Conviction or Tropico 3, Dobry just loaned me Bioshock 2 and Assassin’s Creed 2 and sooner or later I’ll have to tell him what I think of them, I’ve been meaning to get Alan Wake and Blur, I never returned to the Humble Bundle’s Penumbra: Overture after getting frightened by the title screen, and Gregg recently bullied me into Frozen Synapse because he wants to destroy me and upload my humiliations to YouTube. So I decided to skip it. But you know what? Ignore the title of yesterday’s article. Steam is evil. It must be, because as soon as I realized the goddamn game was just three clicks away, suddenly it was trickling down to my hard drive.
Yes. No. Sort of. It’s complicated.
Alpha Protocol was originally supposed to ship last October, but someone at Sega leaked an internal memo that basically shredded the game, calling it too hard, too action focused, “barely an RPG,” and other meannesses. Obsidian quickly disavowed any knowledge of these complaints, but Sega nonetheless decided to let the game cook until Summer in order to address the issues. While everyone in the industry knew that it was just a smokescreen to avoid releasing a new IP into the already-crowded holiday season, the fact remains that Alpha Protocol got about eight more months in the oven.
Chris Avellone told me – in October – that “there isn’t much left to do on AP,” that the team had moved on to other projects. It sounded like they were just humoring Sega and had shelved their game, content in the knowledge that it was probably better to release in the summertime anyway. He made it sound like the game was finished and good to go.
Alpha Protocol is IN NO WAY finished. This is without question the most clumsy, buggy, unpolished, careless, sloppy, inept big-studio game I’ve seen since… since… God, probably since Troika’s Vampire Bloodlines. The PC port is dicey at best. They somehow made the Unreal 3 engine look like Unreal 2. Menu items don’t work. Options claim to do one thing then do another. You must hack .ini files to take any kind of granular control over game settings. The controls and interface, while not obnoxious, could really have done with another once-over. I simply cannot imagine that Alpha Protocol was tested or focus-grouped in any substantive way, as the issues with the game are all simple, surface items. Items that could and should have been buffed away, leaving glimmering perfection, since the game got an eight month reprieve. They had eight months to perfect the game; that they didn’t is shocking. Alpha Protocol teeters just millimeters shy of “broken.”
It’s also a hell of a lot of fun, dripping with Avellone’s trademark stellar writing, strong atmosphere, a fun new setting (how come we never see spy games?), and a world that manages to be both caricatured and serious.
The obvious comparisons are to Mass Effect 2, a game that’s very similar mechanically (but far, far more polished). But in many ways this game is a lot smarter. Avellone and the other writers are great at crafting dialogue, and the timed, attitude-based response system is both stressful and engaging. It leaves you kicking yourself often, not because it’s bad but because you spoke without thinking, without considering your audience, and it hurt you in their eyes. Unlike Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age, where you can ponder responses for hours while your conversation partner patiently waits, here you have seconds – literally seconds – to choose a tone of response, and like in a real conversation, most of the time you’ve decided what you’re going to say next before the other person has finished talking. The voice acting (so far) is great; the main character Michael Thorton is a little bit of a dickweed, but he’s far from the most irritating character I’ve ever encountered.
Like most modern western RPGs, this is an on-off-on structure, meaning you fight, then you talk, then you fight again, and so forth. While the graphics are appalling the face work is great, producing some of the most memorable-looking characters I’ve seen, complete with realistic expressions and tics. In addition to the many, many conversations you’ll have, you must spend a fair amount of time digging through emails, perusing intel dossiers, and connecting dots that aren’t always made obvious to you. The more you know, the better prepared you are for whatever’s to come.
Alpha Protocol is sorely in need of a patch. Its interface is so awful. It doesn’t even tell you how to exit a subscreen (right click, FYI). The aforementioned menu options need… well, they need to work, for a start. And the PC port has the annoying habit of stuttering – just a bit – during major action scenes, spinning you around and completely messing up your perspective. While I’ve not experienced any of the nightmares some others have related as regards playing with the mouse and keyboard, it’s very clear that Alpha Protocol was designed for console play. That’s ironic, because it actually plays much better with a mouse-keyboard combo than it would with a gamepad (360 controller support is available on the PC version, though some report that it doesn’t always work).
The only epic fail is the minigames associated with hacking, lockpicking, and… I don’t know, doing something electrifical. And actually of them only the hacking minigame is truly catastrophic. In it, you have to locate two sets of stationary characters on a grid of rapidly changing nonstationary characters.
This is considerably harder than it sounds.
I advise epileptics against playing Alpha Protocol explicitly because of the hacking minigame. Hell, I almost had a seizure the first time I tried it. I’m one of those people who can’t see those 3D paintings no matter how hard he tries, so the old “relax your eyes” adage doesn’t work, particularly since you’re racing against not one but two brutal timers and the minigame controls are both sluggish and nonsensically placed. It’s necessary to invest some skill points early on in buffs that ever-so-slightly reduce hacking difficulty, but overall a patch is really the ideal fix.
In some ways, Alpha Protocol bears similarities to STALKER, in that both are incredibly unpolished gems. If you have low tolerance for outrageously clumsy execution, this is not the game for you. And I do have to admit that my technical experience with the PC version has been way better than some of the horror stories I’ve heard. John Walker over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun described the game as “unplayable” with a mouse and keyboard, and others are echoing the sentiment. It seems that Alpha Protocol plays nice with some PCs and not so nice with others.
Me? I like it, at least so far. I’m odd, though. I drifted away from Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 but have been almost totally enraptured by Final Fantasy XIII, a game we can all agree barely qualifies as an RPG at all. Story-wise, dialogue-wise, Alpha Protocol really shines. Its technical execution is criminal, though, especially considering they were given eight months to polish and improve it. I simply can’t believe that no one at Obsidian noticed these problems. More likely, they just didn’t care – which concerns me a lot, because that’s the approach Troika took, and we all know what happened to them.
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