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Review: Alpha Protocol (PC)

review-alpha-protocol-pc

Review: Alpha Protocol

System: PC (also available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3)

Release Date: June 1st, 2010 on all systems

Format: 2-Disc DVD, Steam Digital Download, Blu-ray

I tend to be a fan of the secret agent genre, more the Bourne side portrayal of the story rather than the Bond side (although Casino Royale was a fantastic reboot and earns its place in my undying love for great movies). CIA open literature on the subject is fantastically entertaining if but for the dickery that goes on in the trade. I watch Burn Notice whenever it’s available. So I have to say, I was looking forward to Alpha Protocol for a while since its announcement in 2008.

Was it worth waiting? Not entirely.

A Little History to the Studio

Alpha Protocol is the newest title out of development studio Obsidian Entertainment, whose previous works include Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Neverwinter Nights 2 and its subsequent expansion packs. As indicated by that history, Obsidian is known mostly for sequels to high-profile gaming successes. Alpha Protocol is really the first original title the studio has done since its inception. However, those same titles have been marked by bugs and subpar narratives compared to the titles which preceded them.

That said, I’m fairly sure the latter problem is purely due to the fact that it’s very, very difficult to follow an original act, especially when that original act is by BioWare. I think Alpha Protocol’s narrative will support that fact, since the narrative in the game is taut and well-written for the most part. Going through the game you’ll encounter a cast of characters of which many aren’t totally out of place in a story of espionage (and a few that are but they kind of  give the cast color) and uncover a vast globe-spanning conspiracy that goes through three world locations. A few minor niggling issues like rare inconsistencies in character portrayals among the supporting actors are present, but overall these can ignored. You’re not going to be combing the game for irritating errors and inconsistencies because quite frankly, in the story and dialogue, they’re not really there.

Then again, you’re not really going to be remembering the story for much, either. It’s a spy story, and one of the strengths of spy stories is that they’re intentionally vague and ill-defined given that’s the nature of the trade in itself. As such, while there are no glaring errors in the story presentation, it doesn’t do much to distinguish itself either. Anything Bourne, Bond, or Burn Notice you’ve seen will be more or less faithfully reflected here in some analogue or another. If you’re a genuine fan of the spy genre or you haven’t seen much of what the genre has to offer, then you’ll be quite happy with this story. Otherwise, it’s a little bit of been-there-done-that going on here.

Bugs and Grunting Men

Where you unfortunately WILL find them is in the game code itself. Obsidian hasn’t been known for the most bug-free software products and the track record follows it here too. Upon installing Alpha Protocol, a rather pervasive bug (as of this writing) kept players from starting a new game, dumping players back to the menu after playing an opening cinematic, not to mention making the menu sounds an odd mix of male grunts and groans.

Yeah.

The instructions for the fix have been available on online forums for a while, but the fact is that to fix this issue, gamers have to make some registry deletes. This is a bug that can’t be blamed on pirates either, it’s one that pervades the Steam downloadable versions as well. I haven’t seen any reports about the retail versions yet, but it’s safe to assume it’ll be present in those as well. Having to go to these lengths for error-correction is beyond the norm for any PC hit title, and still reflects badly on Obsidian’s programmers.

It would be great if I could say that this was the end of the bugs, that this was just an embarrassing, almost-catastrophic screw up that otherwise doesn’t mar the gameplay experience. It isn’t the end though. The bugs persist throughout Alpha Protocol, mostly taking place in the form of ugly pop-in textures even on indoor environments where they’re most obvious, and a framerate that stutters and makes the game nigh-unplayable given that it’s coupled with a mouse issue where as the framerate skips, so too does the command input, acting on the last mouse input command issued and thus often turning your character around 180-degrees to face the other way. Compounding the issue is the fact that the framerate will stutter more frequently during high-action scenes, when you’re shooting at or hitting enemies, you may find yourself suddenly presenting your backside to your enemy instead of the business end of a silenced pistol. Various fixes have been proposed on forums to fix the problem; some working, for others, not.

It’s really a shame that these bugs persist, because when the game isn’t suffering from almost game-breaking bugs, it really plays well. Environments are well-rendered and sharp, the textures reflect some fairly modern graphics tech. The animations can be a bit wooden in some cases, particularly the sneaking animations for the player. You’ll find that the animation will slowly irritate you a little more with the more you see it, so it’s probably best to play a character build that doesn’t do much sneaking. Models are well-constructed and lip-flap is pretty well synced. Sound is largely spot-on; the weapons have a nice range of sounds, though it’s all pistols, shotguns, rifles, etc etc. So there’s nothing really special about the sounds or the way they’re presented here, but fact of the matter is, they’re presented WELL.

Conversation and Consequence

Gameplay-wise Alpha Protocol does better in the less dynamic parts of the game. Conversations in the game follow a Mass Effect approach, with three choices of conversation following three general conversational styles: suave, aggressive, or professional. The key difference here is that unlike conversations in Mass Effect, you’re on a time leash in Alpha Protocol, so you have to make your decision quickly or the conversation could take a direction you might not like by defaulting to the last style choice you made. The upside here is that the conversations flow in a much more convincing pace, and that the system encourages you to think about how you want to approach someone beforehand before you engage them in conversation.

Now, how do you decide to approach someone before even meeting them? This is where the dossier comes in. While in the field, you may come across pieces of intel in briefcases or in computers and sometimes these pieces of intel may be dossier information about a certain subject. As you complete the dossier with intel, you’ll uncover bios and important details about individuals or groups, which provide details on how you generally should interact with them. Additionally, you can access an online clearinghouse where additional pieces of intel for dossiers or helpful mission hints or even hired guns can be found. This clearinghouse, accessed from the computer inside your various safehouses, can also be used to purchase a wide range of weapons, armor, aftermarket mods and various gadgets. Just from this alone, you can surmise that Alpha Protocol makes very good use of an in-game economy. There are instances where some suspect coding rears its ugly head again in which the clearinghouse suffers from an oddly large amount of stuttering, so be prepared to know what you want to purchase ahead of time before you get mired in the stuttering menus.

Now that said, this sort of system driving the experience is just on-the-surface novelty, but its the fact that the writers of the game scenario actually made these choices have some tangible consequence. By making certain choices, you can end up alienating potential allies and thus lose access to pieces of intel or certain purchase options in the clearinghouse. Some organizations could end up being enemies instead of allies, meaning that some missions could find you having to fight double the firepower instead of being able to team up with that organization against your bigger foes.

Fortunately, Alpha Protocol also delves into the human interaction side of things with the computer as well, being able to send emails to your various contacts  and interact with them in a variety of ways. Replies to certain messages follow the same kind of conversation system above except lacking the time limit, but are no less critical to your interactions with certain people. You’ll follow message threads as they unravel new information and often times can contain money to fund your spy activities. It’s all well-tied together to produce a relatively compelling investigative experience within the game engine.

Oh, Combat.

Would that I could say the same about combat. Once again, Obsidian’s apparent lack of coding chops rears its ugly head here as well. Biggest complaint here is that AI for NPCs is rather inconsistent and at its worst can feel like AI from Goldeneye N64-era shooters. The AI does in fact make use of cover, but this isn’t all the time and sometimes it can make inexplicable decisions about when it decides to abandon cover and rush the player only to run headlong into waiting crosshairs. This problem is compounded when the AI also has visible problems with pathfinding, getting hung up on obstacles scattered around the battlefield. Add to that the fact that AI visual ranges seem very inconsistent, not to mention a number of stealth abilities that also affect visibility, and you’ll constantly be guessing about when a guy can see you or not, and not in that good rush of suspense way, either.

Closing Out this Report

Overall, I’d have to say this: Alpha Protocol is a decent first attempt at an original title, with a compelling narrative and well-executed plot elements that serve to further the story and immersion. The problem is, there are some significant bugs which hurt that immersion, kill enthusiasm for gun play or any sort of combat and thus drag the experience down rather significantly. If you’re getting this for 360 or PS3, I’d say treat this one as a rental. For PC, if you’re going to plunk down the cash for it, I’d say wait for a while until it comes down in price– it’s really not worth the full price they charge for it.

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3 Comments

  1. Comments  wuhwuhwolves   |  Friday, 11 June 2010 at 2:30 PM

    Where did you find a fix to the “grunt bug”?

  2. Comments  Ken   |  Saturday, 25 June 2011 at 11:43 AM

    Hi, I own Alpha Protocol for the XBOX 360. I bought the game when it was brand new. It was a new disk, and the game had just came out. I am pretty certain it broke my xbox. I had an bxo x360 elite at the time.

    The first time I went to play the game, I started a new character, and only progressed as far as creating the character. I never started the story. It just so happened that way, because I was tired and decided to not play the game after all. The next time I loaded my xbox 360, it no longer read gamedisks. I had tried putting different disks and stuff, to no avail. The xbox would play games that I had downloaded from xbox live, it would play music cd’s and movie dvd’s, I could play movies and music from the hard drive or external drives ;plugged in with usb, but no game disks would operate. when a game disk was put in, it would do the “reading disk” thing then say Open Tray as though there was no disk. This was almost a year ago when it happened. I had no suspicion at the time that Alpha Protocol did it. Fast forward to now. I have since bought a brand new Xbox 360 slim. Just today, for the first time I decided to try out Alpha Protocol. I placed the game in the tray and started it up. The game booted up ok, and I selected to resume my game. This is the first time I have played the game on this box, but all my game saves were transferred from the older xbox. So I start the game, and I discover that the controller input is intermittent. that is, if I hold a button, it only is working part of the time, resulting in my character walking with a limp, when I target with a firearm the reticle goes on then off on then off, when I tried to pick a lock in the intro holding the left trigger like it said, and theres hesitations in it.

    So on reflecting, I am pretty sure that this buggy fucked up game disk is what caued my other xbox to break. I had saved the game and due to its screwed up coding it damaged my xboxs ability to recognize disks. I am not sure how it could do that, but then again, I’m not sure how a game can play where its like your controller is being turned rapidly on and off while playing.

    Be very careful with this piece of shit game.

  3. Comments  Best Movie Gadgets   |  Monday, 03 October 2011 at 10:58 AM

    Coolest Movie Gadgets…

    […]Review: Alpha Protocol (PC) | Geek Montage[…]…

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