Normally I write a few posts as I go through a game. That way there’s a better sense of the progression of my opinion on a game. Unfortunately, while I did get my initial reactions down, I didn’t write any additional posts on Alpha Protocol while playing — and now I’ve finished the game. Alas, I will do my best to re-create some of the thoughts I had while playing.
But before I do that, I’ll start with the verdict: good, solid game. I had fun with it.
I went into the experience a bit cautiously. I knew it was to be a buggy, unpolished affair. But buggy enough to override my enjoyment? Some reviews I read said “I love Obsidian’s games, warts and all, but Alpha Protocol is a bust.” Others went more in the “this game is great, and could have been brilliant with some more QA time” direction. My opinion falls in the middle.
I didn’t feel there was anything uniquely “Obsidian” about the game. KotOR II, to name a few examples, had a new system for the henchman dynamic, added a crafting system, took the story in a new direction, added realistic depth to many of the characters, and hinted at an ending that, if only in the scripting notes, reached quite high. NWN 2, Mask of the Betrayer, and Storm of Zehir each added fun or compelling gameplay elements — such as the suppression of the inner demon in MotB or the overland map/trading of SoZ. Alpha Protocol? It really doesn’t bring anything new to the table. But again, it does bring a fun spy romp in a much neglected (in RPGs) setting (modern day).
Let’s dig into some of the finer points. I’ll start with a few comments on combat.
- Konstantin Brayko. If you’ve played the game, then you know he is the showcase for awful, awful game balancing. This is a guy you can sneak up behind, part his hair, press your SMG firmly against his scalp, and unload two or three clips into his brain — only to sigh in frustration as he snorts some coke, spins around, and knifes you to death. Much of the game was balanced toward “not too difficult, you’ll probably need to re-load a few times here or there”, but there were definitely problem areas that were either incredibly easy or incredibly difficult. Brayko is the one thing in this game that makes me second-guess my desire to play the game a second time.
- As a side note, the Brayko encounter really makes you re-think the concept of stat-based gameplay in a realistic world. Most people, in the real world, get shot once or twice and are dead; it warps your brain a little in Alpha Protocol when you routinely empty a clip, or two, into a guy’s chest before he dies — thanks to endurance (hit points), damage reduction, and damage rates for weapons. I think, were I the designer, I’d have spent a lot of time debating this and leaned toward different ways to balance the game, i.e. more weak opponents instead of fewer opponents with lots of health.
- Last point about this: I think I also would have been happier if damage reduction were less powerful. When you unload a few head shots on a guy and he’s blasted to the ground, it’s disconcerting to see him get back up completely unscathed.
Which skills to choose?
- In my first post, I mentioned that I hate making a character in an RPG only to later find out that the build I created is useless for the adventure. Shortly after making that post, I came to a point in the game (I suppose it was in the vicinity of the conclusion-of-the-prologue or the first mission) where I was allowed to completely re-make my character. Awesome! More games should do this. The bad news is that I was not anticipating this moment, and so I never experimented with skills in the prior area. As a result, my option was “play the same generally-feeble character you’ve used so far” or “try something random and new”. It would have been a total success had the game tipped me off that I’d have this option later on.
- I went for a random, new approach and hit the jackpot on one of my three skill masteries. Stealth is almost literally a “win game” option. There are very few instances where stealth doesn’t work, and many, many instances where stealth allows you to clear a room of enemies with no risk. My other two skills were a minor hit — sabotage wasn’t an awful choice — and a miss — I did worse with my nearly maxed-out SMG than I did using an untrained shotgun or assault rifle. Even untrained martial arts were more effective. I’d like to have seen the weapons get a bit more balancing, and either make stealth a little less awesome or place more electronic devices that see through stealth.
- Speaking of stealth, I think I had 24 seconds per use where I could travel unfettered and instantly kill as many people as I could reach before the timer ran out. The only downside was the 90-second cool down before you could use the ability again. Cool downs like these aren’t balancing factors, though, and I wish designers would realize this. All the cool down does is encourage you to put the controller down for 90 seconds and wait for the ability to recharge. If you want to use the cool down mechanic, you have to pair it with a hard limitation — i.e. there is a 90-second cool down and the ability can only be used once per encounter. But really, anything that encourages people to put the controller down is bad.
- I plan to re-play the game and would like to try a completely new character, but there aren’t alternatives. Most games of this type have at least three or four routes through an encounter, if not more: fighting, hacking, stealth, or talking. In Alpha Protocol, there is stealth (fast, no risk) and fighting (slow, risky). True, there is a hacking route, but everyone has access to that — same with conversation. In other words, re-play does not come from how you craft your character (to be fair, there does appear to be a decent amount of re-play based on how you handle people and some situations).
- I know Obsidian didn’t want to implement a conversation skill because then you stop thinking during conversations and always pick the one “right” option. But they could have at least required you to pop a few points into hacking before you could do any hacking. Then there would have been at least one other route.
Seeing the sights.
- The game features a fairly standard BioWare-style layout. You progress in a linear fashion through a few checkpoints, you come to an open hub where you have three locations you can do in any order, and then you have a linear finale. I like that well enough, though I was particularly excited by the hub options: Moscow, Rome, and Taipei. Very diverse locations. Unfortunately, in the game, the only real difference is how the safe house for each area looks. Aside from that, I had no realization of which city I was in and all the missions bled into an indistinguishable mess. I’m not saying the missions were poor. I’m saying Rome may as well have been Moscow, which may as well have been Taipei, which may as well have been the finale location. But that’s how it plays out when you spend every mission running through warehouses and offices. I’m not going to complain about this too much, though. I know Obsidian struggles with scope and they definitely made the right, safe choice.
Talking to people is hard.
- I struggled with the dialogue system. There are moments when the time passes too quickly to make a decision. For example, you’re speaking with someone when you see the options “yes” and “no” appear. Which to choose? The timer is ticking away, but the person is making statements and hasn’t even hinted at a question yet. Then, as the ticker is expiring, they ask you if you want to go for a drink. Oops, too late. You said “no”.
- Or (to make up an example) the person asks if you’d like to go for a drink and your options are “sex”, “drunk”, and “hotel room”. Without any context, you have no idea what is going to happen by picking one of these options. You pick “drunk” because the character to whom you are speaking hates aggressive flirtation and “drunk” sounds the least perverted. But that makes your character say “I want to get you drunk and take advantage of you” and now that person is looking at you with disgust. Meanwhile, the other two options led to “I’m always up for a drink with the fairer sex” and “Maybe some other time, I think I’m going to relax in my hotel room.”
- Maybe this speaks poorly of me, but near the end of the game I had two options during one dialogue: “Heck” and “wait”. I kept wondering to what line “Heck” would lead. Would I start cussing up a gosh-golly storm? It was only after the conversation when I realized it would have been a signal to a guy named Heck standing nearby. In another encounter the word “Dossier” popped up in the actions section, but I had no clue how information from the dossier would impact the scene. This is the perfect example of why the ME2 triggers-during-dialogue system is such an improvement.
- The game provides a lot of information about characters. The idea is that the information is there to help you manipulate people to either like you or dislike you. I read it all but found most of the information unnecessary. Characters were somewhat simplistic and you learned to go with the flow. If a guy was excitedly rambling about torturing someone, then go along with it and you’ll be buddies before long.
- On the other hand, I had trouble with some people and picking the right responses. I’d gain a too-hard-to-come by point (representing how well they liked me), and then another, but then quickly lose it right back. (And don’t get me started about the time where I was pinned down by guards and I shot one to save my life — only to be notified that one of my trusted friends was losing respect for me as quickly as I was losing health.)
- I will say this: now that I know how the game plays, managing a second play-through will be much easier. I plan to deliberately make people hate me to see how that affects thing.
- There are several instances in the game where you’re forced to make a decision: save the girl you like or save a bunch of random people you don’t know. But make sure you pay extra close attention to which direction you need to go for each option, because that information is not repeated. I missed it the first time, then stood there trying to figure it out as the VO kept telling me to make my choice and the journal only said that I could save one or the other but not both.
- Most missions are largely the same. Fun, yes. But uninspired. Start in location. Proceed to location. Shoot everyone who pops up along the way. Or sneak up on them and choke them out. Before ME2, I would not have thought twice about that. Now I think twice about it but because I enjoy the game, ultimately, I don’t really care.
- Was it a buggy game? Yes. Was it badly buggy? No. Not at all. I had no serious issues. Yes, there were balance issues. Yes, not everything was intuitive. Yes, there were graphical glitches, awkward animations, and the save-game checkpoint system was less than ideal.
- But when I think buggy game — buggy to the point that I don’t want to play the game — I think crashing, slow downs, sluggish controls, consistently broken AI, missions that can’t be completed, etc. And Alpha Protocol is not that kind of buggy.
Overall, I’d love to see patches and DLC and sequels for Alpha Protocol. I think it could work its way into a top-quality franchise with time. But will it ever make it? I think I remember hearing that DLC and patches were already out of the question. I’m not going to hold my breath for a sequel — but I will happily play it if it ever arrives.