Hindsight : Alpha Protocol
Cart: Alpha Protocol
Cab: Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC
Coin: Obsidian Entertainment
Choice and consequence; such a simple idea.
And yet most games don’t even give you any real choice with even less offering any meaningful consequence. Usually it’s just ‘go here’ or ‘kill these guys’. If you’re lucky, you might get the odd decision now and then to be ‘good’ or ‘evil’. Or something.
Alpha Protocol is most definitely a game based around the idea of choice and consequence. Every action you take impacts heavily upon how the plot develops and how people react to you. If that alone isn’t enough to make you want to play this overlooked gem, read on. Be warned, however: there are a few warts on this game, so bear that in mind when you play it.
Before you start, you get to pick the difficulty and the kind of character that you want to be. I pick ‘hard’ and ‘recruit’ because I wanted a challenge and I like deciding exactly where I spend my skill points. There is no wrong choice here and what you choose to do is up to you. Just remember: whatever you pick is going to make certain missions harder and others easier so think about how you want to play through the game. The only thing that I would suggest is to pick three trees to spend most of your points in early-on because the top-level skills are much better than multiple low-level ones. As you play through the game you’ll earn experience which can be spent on the skill trees. Some are passive, such as health boost; others require you to press a button to activate. All of them have a description of what they do and it’s up to you where you spend your points. The skill trees don’t branch and the next skill on any one line requires the previous one, so you can’t cherry-pick the best skills in each section.
The game opens up with a nice tutorial that teaches you all the skills you’re going to need to succeed in the game. It teaches you the game concepts well and there’s some nice banter between the people you meet; which banter you want is up to you. Some of the training you can repeat to improve your score, which makes the characters you meet respond to you better as a result and some of them offer another mission for additional XP.
There are some mini-games in there as well for hacking, lock picking and bypassing alarms. They are all good, intuitive, clearly explained and over in usually less than fifteen seconds, well at least until you get to the harder ones later on. Obsidian must be commended for developing truly original mechanics for these mini-games. A blessing compared to most developers.
Whatever you pick though, things are going to be quite hard for you at the beginning because you’re rubbish at most things. You need to be a little patient and pick your battles. Don’t get in prolonged fire-fights because you won’t win them for the moment as your accuracy and health are rubbish. Within a few hours, you’ll find yourself with some nice skills that will let you disable enemies without killing yourself in the process.
Your safehouse allows you to apply weapon mods, customise your look, pick your loadout, change armour, respond to emails, check and buy intel, weapons and ammo. On the subject of money: you’re never going to have enough to buy everything so pick what you spend it on wisely. Yes, buying some intel that reduces enemy strength on a level is nice but that money could’ve gone on something else or have been saved for a better gun later on.
Environments are varied and there’s almost never a sense of deja-vu where somewhere looks the same as something you passed earlier. Each area also gets is own map and objectives are clearly marked. Objective way-points are always marked on the screen anyway but the map is a nice touch. Most of the environments have multiple routes and the game very rarely forces you to attack head-on. Exploring every nook and cranny is rewarded with extra ammo, mods, money and intel – all of which are valuable and in some cases can be sold and traded for something you want.
Levels are designed in such a way that planning your route through is the most effective course for the most part. You can fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and just blast through the front door but stealth is just as effective. This is mainly thanks to the excellent level design, which makes both options perfectly possible and, more crucially, enjoyable to have a go at.
Enemies can’t see where you are behind cover until you pop out so flanking is very beneficial as it takes them time to get their sights on you even on hard. Stealth is also well-done and it is perfectly possible to go through the entire game not killing anyone. It should be mentioned that if you go the stealth route there are bugs which let enemies see you behind cover so it is essential to get the ability that auto cloaks you for a few seconds. It has a long cooldown but it makes stealth much less annoying as a result.
If you go all-out action then cover shooting is in there. You can blind-fire as well as aim from cover. Some abilities even allow you to line up shots perfectly from behind cover then just press shoot and, boom: you’ll get a perfect headshot and only reveal yourself for less than a second.
It should also be noted that hard difficulty isn’t a clusterf**k of grenade spam and one-hit-kills. Hard mode is a challenge but it mainly punishes you for making mistakes more rather than making it so the enemies always know exactly where you are with perfect aim.
Gun selection is your standard pistol, SMG, shotgun and assault rifle and you can only have two with you for any mission. There are three different types of ammo and all weapons can be modded. There’s also a sniper rifle but you only get that by paying for one to be dropped in the map – and even then the ammo is very limited.
Leaping from cover-to-cover has benefits in both stealth and combat and is very well done and intuitive. You’ll rarely take cover when you didn’t intend to. It can be a little picky sometimes but for the most part it works.
Animations? Well they are pretty limited if we’re honest. There’s only a few different takedown moves, for example, and you’ll see them all within the first few hours of playing. Fisticuffs are in there and you can get skills to increase the range of attacks and moves you can do. It’s also possible to take down enemies in one hit when you’re undetected or from behind, either lethally or non-lethally depending on your personal preference.
Grenades can either be thrown, placed as mines or be used to open locked doors. You hold down a button and the grenade arc is shown on the screen. It makes it a bit easy but grenades are fairly limited, cost money to buy so it’s fair.
The AI is pretty basic but they do try to work as a team and are happy to throw the odd grenade at you to flush you out. They won’t know exactly where you are if you’re behind cover so they throw it at your last known position. No ‘all seeing eye’ for the AI is in this game, which is a big plus. They are a bit dim when you use silenced weapons but if you use a gun with a silencer the damage it does is significantly reduced so go for headshots unless you want to be there a long time.
Be it bullets, fists, tranq darts or grenades there’s plenty of ways of getting through an area and it’s all wrapped up in a very good cover system that doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re battling the controls to stay alive.
The best bit of the game is talking to people, which seems like an odd thing to praise in an action game but the effect it has on how the game plays out is profound and ensures the game you experience will be different each time.
In every conversation you have a choice of several things you can do whenever it’s your turn to speak. Each response is well-voiced and it changes how people respond to you later. It can make people’s opinion on you vary from liked, disliked or neutral. Like and dislike have a score attributed to them and they can go ever higher or lower depending on your responses. It’s incredibly well-done and really helps immerse you in the world chiefly because it’s a game of your own making not one that’s feels like it’s been imposed on you by it’s creators. The time limit on responding to NPCs is quite tight but that really helps keep you on the edge of your seat instead of drifting off as you do in Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls games.
Even the order you take the missions in will have impacts elsewhere because if you attack one area it will raise the alert level in other so guard numbers go up. It can even impact how people react to you when you first meet you so you even have to think about how you approach selecting missions to play.
Despite all its strengths, the game is littered with bugs – there’s a nice list of them here if you want to have a look (careful of spoilers) so make sure you save often and not over the same save. Patching has fixed it up somewhat but only to a point. A big annoyance for me when going the stealth route is sometimes enemies can see you through cover and this sets the alarm off. It’s not the end of the world but when you’re going for a zero-alarms-run, it’s heartbreaking when you know it’s not your fault. In places there’s some nasty difficulty spikes with the most significant one being a boss battle in a night club. You’re in a room where enemies spawn all around you while the person you have to take down runs around and can kill you very quickly. Pain. In. The. Ass.
Despite the annoyances, this is a game that everyone should play because it shows what storytelling in games could or more accurately should be like. This isn’t a game world where you’re along for the ride a-la Uncharted; this is a game where you decide how the things develop and it happens seamlessly before you.
Actions have consequences: so what’s your next move?
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When he's not at work, complaining about the games industry on forums or playing games that involve killing people, driving cars round tracks quickly or playing a strategy game; he's probably sleeping.