As our favorite videogame spies creep ever closer to AARP memberships and search for geriatric specialists, I'm intrigued to see who will take up the mantle of the “Next Espionage Hero.” Names like Solid Snake, Sam Fisher and, to a lesser extent, Gabriel Logan have made their mark on the gaming landscape with sneak-to-kill action. Their missions have saved the Free World from devious terrorist masterminds time and again, usually with some sort of long-range communication help and advanced gadgetry. Undoubtedly it's their games which exist as the benchmark for any competition in the same vein.
With such legacies before him, Agent Michael “Mike” Thorton surely had much to prove long before his game's stalled release. Unfortunately Mikey is neither as interesting nor exciting in Obsidian Entertainment's latest, Alpha Protocol: The Espionage RPG, as his forerunners. Like explaining the punchline of a bad joke, Alpha Protocol's subtitle foible sets up the expectations for the duration of its playtime.
Obsidian obviously endeavored to release a game that could have brought an exciting dynamic to the way we play espionage games, but—in the spirit of similes—it's like a timed essay test you were ill-prepared for in your academic years: it might have had the core ideas situated, but it lacks in-depth support and refinement. Effectively, everything in AP seems to have missed quality assurance testing. With a feeling that Alpha Protocol went directly from production to consumer, the game is likely to cause aneurisms from poorly designed bottleneck moments and ridiculously uneven artificial un-intelligence.
As a newly indoctrinated agent to Alpha Protocol—an uber-secret organization with deniability to its operations and existence—you're supposed to mold Thorton into the kind of spy you want with experience points and character levels gained role-playing game-style, in a story of capitalism taken to the extreme. Playing sabotage mini-games, each with their own contextual controls, killing enemies and engaging in dialogue sequences nets you points to tailor Thorton into a sneaky bastard or an all-out, guns-blazing badass. Moreover, decisions made in dialogue sequences weave together a somewhat different experience with each playthrough, giving you factions to ally with, partners to better weaponize you, and ladies to 'encounter.'
Yet, well-and-good ideas these might be, but their implementation is nowhere near accomplished. It's not like the combination of action-adventure and RPG styles of gameplay can't be done, Mass Effect is proof of that; it's just Alpha Protocol doesn't do it well. No matter how you choose to specialize Thorton, you're bound to feel like you made the wrong choice more than once throughout the game. If too much attention is paid to a sneaking style of gameplay, completing missions will be a breeze thanks to oblivious enemies, but you'll learn pathfinding patterns in boss battles too well as you're forced to “Load Checkpoint” from your inability to fire a gun effectively. On the other hand, max out offensive specialties not only does the game looses all challenge but the whole 'espionage' dynamic becomes moot as you clunk around in loud body armor.
Unfortunately, a harder difficulty only makes Alpha Protocol's shortcomings that much more evident. Deciding to 'challenge' yourself should be accompanied by an on-screen pop-up, warning you to make sure all of your product warranties are up to date, since fits of rage are assuredly soon to follow. In such contexts, enemies are inexplicably able to spot you wherever you are when alarms are triggered, no matter how deftly you maneuver around them, and NPCs in need of protection will run towards open spaces when being attacked. Worst yet, the roll-of-chance, RPG-style gunplay doesn't apply to your enemies. Thus, while you struggle to land hits against bad guys, they'll easily mow you down when they charge directly towards you.
There's just no winning with the action element in Alpha Protocol.
Other irritating visual bugs like watching characters, including Thorton, skate and hover around a dull and non-interactive environment, clipping through objects and taking damage while not fully pressed up against barriers in cover compound issues of linear levels where either approach above becomes overtly repetitious.
Characters themselves equally lack vitality, not just because of missing textures or off animations, but apathetic acting and forced drama. Perhaps monotones were a creative direction due to the branching nature of dialogue decisions, but without emotion, the create-your-own-story selling point is uninteresting, and tension is nonexistent. At least the vapid voice acting is overshadowed by a short-measure, looping soundtrack that often tweaks out, resulting in two tracks playing simultaneously in a disorganized cacophony.
From a critical standpoint, I find myself returning to the aforementioned essay test allusion in so much as Alpha Protocol gets points from having its name on the box and some sort of data on the disc. The dialogue sequences may shift seamlessly as you make your choices, leading to somewhat different outcomes (one faction may ally with you while another becomes your adversary, and vice versa), but any skillful design qualities are muddled beneath a slog of shortcomings too many to list and too exasperating to warrant a suggestion of try-it-for-yourself.
Clearly, the Great Ones of the videogame espionage genre can't sit back on Social Security just yet.
What do like to see in espionage style games? Are you one for kills from behind, or do you favor the say-hello-to-my-little-friend approach? Tweet us a communique @Gamers_Hell