Ever since catching Goldfinger on TV at Christmas as a kid it is implanted in your brain that being a spy is probably the coolest possible profession anyone can do. As the decades roll by and the depiction of spies in movies and television have moved away from the occasionally camp Bond to the Butch Bourne and the brutal Bauer one thing has still remained the same – we all still would secretly like to be one. Sadly, the closest we’re likely to come to anything resembling that sort of excitement is hitting “stop” on the Microwave with one second left to go on our ready meal in some bizarre kitchen-related bomb disposal fantasy.
The premise behind Alpha Protocol taps straight into that desire. Where other spy games have focused solely on the action, the adventure, the stealth or the politics, there haven’t be any that have really looked to bring together the whole package. All too often the player is left controlling a pre-determined character with their own unique skills and while that can be fun it never really leaves the player feeling like they are living the spy dream the way they want to. What makes Alpha Protocol different is that it’s an RPG and while the agent protagonist has a fixed name, Michael Thornton, his appearance and spying skills are all customisable making for a more immersive and satis-spy-ing experience… The only thing that remains to be answered is whether it gets a Goldthumbs up or a resounding Dr. No.
Yet when the action does begin it is weighted down with all the problems that a blend of action and RPG would be. The character is supposed to be a high ranking government agent, yet in the first initial encounters the lack of stats leave him being outgunned and outmuscled by low level goons for hire. This is especially frustrating as it kicks in at a point where most games are taking the player through a tutorial yet here there is a real risk of danger and attacks are shockingly ineffective. It becomes essential very early on to specialise in one weapon and try and attain a respectable standing with it to simply make these shoot-outs bearable.
However, it must be said building a character is incredibly fun and the combination of being able to choose not only the stastical basis for spy skills but also the arsenal at your disposal too is one of the most successful aspects of the game. It spares no detail either, with gun add-ons all offering their own buffs and stat modifiers that make personalising what type of agent Thornton becomes a very intricate balancing process. However there are still ways to go that are easier than others. At low levels pistols and sub machine guns don’t tend to do a lot of damage to enemies and there are certainly better weapons with which to clear a room.
It’s not all about gunfights though. Everyone knows there’s a lot more to this spying lark than just killing wave after wave of inept, generic looking foreign nationals, although that sure does play a big part in it. There is also a large espionage element to the game too, which doesn’t only encompass sneaking from room to room using cover and hoping to avoid detection based on the make-up of your spy but also deactivating alarms and picking locks. Sadly, this part of the game does lack some forethought and instead of being a simple matter of statistics and invisible dice rolls, they trigger some fairly lightweight mini-games. The difficulty of these are determined by how well versed Thornton is in certain areas but all can be prone to frustrating failures that can have a significant impact on how the level pans out. Being detected or triggering an alarm can all too often lead to being horrendously outnumbered and hoping for the best as bullets come flying our way.
If there is one area of the game which would really have benefited from some extra pre release tweaking it is the game mechanics. By today’s standards they feel a little dated with hand to hand combat being a little clunky. For some this old school feel may not be an issue and for those who look past this there are some really nice touches to be uncovered as the game progresses.
For example, the tone of the game seems to radically shift half way through. No longer is it a super serious spy game with intrigue and a degree in geo-political studies. Instead it morphs into a wonderfully silly and unbelievable eighties spy spoof. The boss fights are great fun with some characters that won’t be forgotten in a hurry – no spoilers – and they completely contrast with the combat of earlier levels. The best part is that the bosses Thornton will fight in the game are dictated by decisions made earlier. At times it is necessary to choose allies and in turn who will become enemies. Once the die is cast the storyline will pan out accordingly and the levels will reflect that. This does derail the game, in a completely positive way, from the set route of its fixed storyline roots.
Again, even though the storyline is ultimately linear, once the abilities of our superspy have reached certain levels then the ways in which levels can be cleared increases so those low level frustrations experienced in the start of the game do dissipate. Some of the later abilities are also wonderfully over the top, including a virtual invisibility skill that makes the hijinks of Metal Gear Solid seem realistic.
The in-game dialogue is crucial to developing relationships and plot strands too. Different characters respond to different methods of approach – a lot of the exchanges with females, no matter how butch and intimidating they may be, often take on the flirtatious tone to be expected from such an environment – and choosing the right one will yield better results.
Combine all this with a storyline that has many layers, which is actually well scripted, as well as plough through all the e-mails and documents sent to Thornton in the course of his mission(s), and it’s a game that gets much better as it goes on. It has to be said though that it takes at least eight hours of game time invested before Alpha Protocol really hits its stride.
By contrast the palette used in the game is actually quite clever and a nice touch. Each country has its own distinct look that is defined by the colours chosen to portray it. The searing reds, yellows and oranges of the Persian Gulf and the icy blues of a Russian winter give each level its own distinct feel. The scenery isn’t that bad either and at least the environments do feel atmospheric enough to be considered almost authentic.
Still, this part of the game looks like it was the one most neglected as everything else was rushed off. While it’s true that graphics don’t make a game, there is a reasonable level to expect from a next-gen title and this falls well below it, to the point where it does undo some of the good work in other areas of the game.
There are a wide variety of different gun noises that make each one reasonably distinctive from the other. Espionage sequences have a suitable amount of tension pushed into them as well and when alarms trigger it does what is to be expected in that situation. The background music too does everything expected of it, with the type of stirring score used in almost every Hollywood political thriller.
There is enough here to see the promise in the franchise and hopefully everything can be resolved if there is indeed another installment. This title might go underground for the time being but at least it hasn’t gone rogue.
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