Alpha Protocol: Post 03

I started re-playing Alpha Protocol (apprehensively, at first, but I’m getting more hooked as I go) and it’s given me a few (honestly, just a few. It’s a short post — for me — this time around) new insights I wanted to jot down. Here are some thoughts based off of the first half (made it to the hub, completed Taipei, am now in Rome) of my second play-through.

  • In the first post, I mentioned that it sucks how you have to pick your skills before you know which skills are useful. In the second post, I wrote that Alpha Protocol lets you re-specialize your character after you finish the opening chapter — but I said without notification that I would get this opportunity, I didn’t experiment enough and could not take advantage of the moment. Now, in this third post, I’m here to admit the game does indeed inform you that you’ll get to re-spec after you finish your first mission. It’s a quick line and it’s more subtle than it needs to be, but there you go.
  • I also mentioned that stealth is a “win game” skill, and separately mentioned that I was better, untrained, with the assault rifle than with the SMG — a weapon I had a lot of training in. In my second play-through, I decided to forgo stealth and load my skill points into the assault rifle. And? I am an absolute murderer. If my spy holds steady for 1.5 seconds, his attack is automatically a critical hit. Even better, aim at the head and people are dying from a single shot. And when the room is filled with baddies, I activate the snap-to-target power that auto-aims for me. I like playing the stealth guy, but kicking the door down, smiling for the security cameras to set off the alarms, and then mowing down everyone who shows up to respond is a lot of fun, too.
  • I’ve been experimenting with making people hate me. So far, Mina Tang is the only one with whom I’ve actually pulled this off. She was easy to get to hate me. I went through a hotel and killed security guards (civilians). Each point you gain or lose in the game is like rare gold, but during this mission there are dozens of guards and each one you kill loses you one point. Insane, but effective for my purposes. No one else hates me, but a lot of people mildly dislike me or are neutral toward me. Making a few people hate me is a real challenge. Side note, my conversations with Mina Tang so far seem unaffected by her outright-hatred toward me; she still helps me on missions and acts concerned for my well being, sounds friendly, etc.
  • I mentioned that I’ve put no points into stealth on this go-around. It shows. I sneak/crouch into a warehouse and people on the far end are already shooting at me. I am assuming my spy has a boom box strapped to his back. I’ve also put no points into any of the hacking mini-games. They’re all still easy, though I did flub one — which is more than I flubbed on the first play-through.
  • A repercussion of the killing/being-hated-by play-through is that I’m killing off the good weapon providers — that is, I showed mercy in each of the boss fights the first time and was rewarded with access to their munitions; this time, it’s instant execution. For a stretch of my play-through, my store was empty (aside from ammunition). Losing out on better weapons is something, but I was hoping for differences with the game’s missions. In fact, as an example of how little has changed, in one encounter on my first play-through I opted to disable a bug to gain a friendship; my handler was disappointed at the loss of data but hoped it would all work out. This time I kept the bug in place and pissed off the new guy; my handler was disappointed at the loss of the contact but hoped it would all work out. The following sequences played out very similarly, if not identically, each time.

I’ll end it here by saying that the fun level is high and I’m enjoying the second play-through — perhaps more than the first. I feel very confident with my skills against the game’s challenges and am enjoying the different approach, even if I am a little worried about the eventual battle with coke-head Brayko. Not sure if there will be another review after this one; I have probably written everything that needs to be written (and then some). I guess we’ll see. 🙂

Alpha Protocol: Post 02

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.

The Missions

  • 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.

The Bugs

  • 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.

Alpha Protocol: Post 01

Since finishing Mass Effect 2, I finished Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands and have been powering my way through Super Mario Galaxy 2. I also started up Alpha Protocol. I plan to write a single post referencing my thoughts on PoP, but before I get there here are my first thoughts on the Alpha Protocol tutorial in my traditional stream of consciousness style — based on about two hours of play. *spoilers for the first two-hours of the game beyond this point*

  • Ah, character creation. The moment when the game asks you to pick skills before letting you know what the obstacles will be. Here, I’m offered the chance to gain skill with a weapon. I get that there’s a supposed stylistic choice between, say, sniper rifles and assault rifles and martial arts. Rifles work from a distance, fists work from up close. And assaults rifles let you run-and-gun at in-between distances. Assuming I’ve played a game like this before, I should know which style I prefer — even if I don’t know what’s best for this game. But what are the differences, in regard to play style, between shot guns and pistols and assault rifles? And what about the other options? How important is toughness or stealth? What about sabotage? Are there a lot of instances for me to use a tech ability in this game? As can be said of every RPG, it’d be nice if we could at least try out the options before we’re forced to decide. Anyway, to get things rolling I pick shot gun and put all my available points into it.

  • On-screen instructions tell me to press [A] to pick up the fire extinguisher to break out of the opening room, but it looks like an [R] to me. I squeeze [RT] a few times before realizing it’s just a tricky font and that they want me to press [A].
  • A thug attacks me after my escape from the lab but I don’t notice any instructions on how to fight back. I try the usual [A] and [X] and [LT]/[RT] before discovering that the [B] button is used for attacks. I manage to survive a bit of a beat down. It’d have been nice had the game paused and told me what to do before the fight.
  • Everyone is skating (“skating” is when the character’s walk animation is out of sync with its movement speed, so the feet slide against the ground). The animation is jerky. The camera is jerky. This is definitely not Unreal3/ME2. For the record, I’m noticing it now but I fully expect that in 20 minutes, through to the end of the game, I’ll never again notice it or think about it. It’s not that important to me, but I think it’s worth noting.
  • Targeting with a gun is like aiming in a FPS (first-person shooter). That is, there’s a reticule on-screen and you move it with the left analog stick. I love FPS-style when I have a mouse to control the reticule. And I don’t mind it when the reticule moves smoothly and comes with targeting assistance (snapping to a target, larger bounding boxes). But in Alpha Protocol, the reticule moves very quickly and is a bit jerky even on low sensitivity. Compounding things, I move my reticule to someone’s upper forehead, shoot, and they don’t seem to take a hit. But I have it a little left of their leg, and they take a hit.

  • Yes, I died during the tutorial. Fear my elite skills. The game told me to sneak up on a guy and take him out with [B]. In most tutorials where you are assigned a specific action like this, the game doesn’t throw you a curve. In this one, however, I got to within 30 feet of the guy and he spun around and opened fire — alerting another nearby guard who also opened fire. I died before I could close the distance to the first guy. After the reload, I stuck to cover and moved more slowly. I took out the first guy without him spotting me, but his friend immediately opened fire again. I hid behind cover and took him out as he approached. Not quite stealthy like, I assume, the game was hoping I’d be. But it got me past the encounter.
  • Here’s another thought from the “all RPGs do this” category: everyone is running around with guns except for me. I take someone out and look down at his body and see him holding a gun. Too bad I can’t take it from him.
  • I sneak into an office and see a guy at a computer. He spins around as I get close. I hit him a few times and he pops up on top of the computer — out of my reach. He hits me a few times and I can’t do anything about it. I back up and, thankfully, he falls back to the ground. I finish him off. That’s two RPGs in a row (ME2, AP) where someone got stuck standing on a computer. Why not put an invisible wall around the computer and similar placeables that stretches up 100 feet?

  • Continuing that thought, I beat up the aforementioned guy-at-a-computer and there’s not a lot of room for him to fall so he does this awkward bend-in-half collapse. I don’t think yoga masters could have bent like he did. And just a few kills later, I spot someone else perform a similarly-bizarre death sprawl. This game could probably use a few animation limits/tweaks with their rag doll system.
  • How many times does an alarm activate and then get shut off before people ignore the shut-off? OK, OK — that’s another one to throw at just about any RPG with an alarm system. Actually, any *game* with an alarm system, RPG or not. But I find humor in mentioning it.
  • So far I’m finding combat more difficult than ME2, but I think it has more to do with my manual-aiming control than the AI or anything of that nature. The feedback also seems poor (I hit a guy with a few tranquilizer darts but he seems fine. I’m not sure if he’s got a lot of health or if I’m missing) but I’m thinking it might be because I don’t know the cues yet.
  • The alarm system mini-game is very easy but looking at a screen filled with swirls and such make my eyes glaze over. The following screen shot is for the PC version. I believe on the Xbox version, the puzzle is full-screen.

  • I found a guy running in place, stuck against a ladder. I watched him for a bit then hit him in the chest with a tranquilizer dart to see if his path finding was broken or if he was truly stuck. He kept running, so I figured he was stuck and put another couple of darts into him to put him out of his misery.
  • The story so far… A plane crashes, thanks to a missile that splits up into smaller missiles — each striking the plane. I wake up in a lab and must beat up guards to escape. Near the supposed exit, I’m told that this has been a test that all their agent recruits go through. I wonder how they extracted me from an exploding plane, and if that didn’t seem entirely too risky a manner to procure an agent. I’m later told the plane crash took place in the Middle East and it’s my mission to investigate. If that’s the case, then how did I get here and why don’t I remember arriving?
  • There’s a mini game for computer hacking that looks like a word-find puzzle — except that almost every square is rapidly cycling through bunches of letters and numbers. It took me a while to realize I’m looking for a string of six characters that aren’t moving (surprisingly difficult to notice considering everything is moving but them). It also took me a while to realize I controlled the left and right sequences separately; I kept targeting the right code with the left analog stick and then pressing the [RT] to select it (which returned an error). I admit the game told me that information, but I was still trying to grasp the concept of the puzzle when that information was revealed.

  • Appearance customization is limited, but I’m not disappointed and I like that I have a reasonably attractive character that I can’t mess up, like other games with their more extensive customization systems. Plus, it really allows for an “iconic” appearance that still has your flavor.
  • I’m in a room practicing using grenades. During the sequence I’m given a ricochet challenge. The game tells me to bank the grenade off the wall at the target, but I have no clue where the target is. The only interface information I see is pinpointing a location very near to where I stand. I assume it’s where I need to be to initiate the challenge (which is right), but I’m at a loss as to the target’s location and so I grenade myself. At least I didn’t die.
  • Later, I’m told hostiles are en route and I should set a trap with mines. Where are the mines in my inventory? I seem to only have grenades. Where are the guards coming from? Are they coming all at once or do I need to work my way through a level? How long do I have? What. I drop a few grenades near a door and run into a room. Three guards run in through the aforementioned door, uninjured. I beat two up before dying under heavy fire. I’m then rewarded with $20 grand and told I did well. I’d try again but there’s no option.
  • During the stealth challenge, I see a guard walking away from me. I crouch and sneak up behind him, but he spots me well in advance and gets a few shots off before I take him out. Am I doing something wrong?
  • Continuing on through the stealth sequence, I come to a zip line. There’s a guard below, looking up at me. I have no idea if I should risk the zip line or not. He runs for the alarm while I zip down overhead. I think it’d be cool if I could drop down on this guy but that doesn’t appear to be an option. He triggers the alarm, I beat him up, and then I disable the alarm. That seems like the incorrect sequence for a stealth challenge.

  • I’m graded each time I finish a challenge. At first I have no clue what the range is but I think it’s a typical 100-scale test. I ace the stealth test (???) with an 80-something. But my shooting test scores me a 51. I re-try it, taking extra effort to not miss and feel confident about my effort. Every time I hit [RT], something is dropped. I get a lower score.
  • It looks like I’ve finished the opening because a guy has been talking to me for the longest while and he won’t shut up. I’d tell him to shut up but RPGs have me well-trained to know that the longer he speaks, the more likely I am to be rewarded. He tells me that I can tell him to shut up, and he tells me how it can be useful to tell people to shut up, but I keep him talking and notice new rewards (like perks) popping up on the interface. I doubt if I’d be rewarded for telling him to shut up, being as that he’s the tutorial guy right now, but I suppose I should check that on a subsequent play through of the opening. Assuming I’m not rewarded, telling me I can skip dialogue while rewarding me for not skipping dialogue is mixed feedback to the player.
  • A few times, my player response pops up as “yes” or “no” while he’s talking. My timer is running low and he still hasn’t asked me a question. Finally he spits out the question and I’m left with about one full second to decide. It seems like there could have been a little extra time there. It’s not helpful to give the player his options early without also showing him the context.

  • We jump to a new location and the game saves en route. The guy starts yammering on again and I’ve decided that since the game just saved, I can reload later on to get this mission briefing. So I tell him to shut up so I can go to the menu and select “quit” but the games saves anew. Drats. Have I lost my mission briefing lessons? I guess it doesn’t matter if I’m going to re-play the opening.
  • Like usual, my observation may sound generally negative but I’m enjoying the game — especially since I’ve read, frequently, that the game picks up once you’re several hours in. It’s very similar in play style to Mass Effect: run down a hallway shooting things and using cover, hack some stuff along the way, and then chat up your friends for a while before repeating. I’m looking forward to putting some more time into it.