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Game Review: Alpha Protocol

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Alpha Protocol bombed critically and sold poorly. One might get the impression that AP is a terrible game. Sure, this “espionage RPG” has more than its share of problems, but I don’t think that any other game like AP exists. It might seem like a typical third-person shooter with light RPG elements, but it is surprisingly complicated and enjoyable.

World’s Best Dialogue System

Most games (that I’ve played) with dialogue options use one of two systems:

  • Simple Yes/No Decisions
  • Dialogue trees

Those with Yes/No decisions are very boring in that regard. You’re basically presented with questions like “Do you want to progress in the game?” and “Do you want to do something optional?” At best, you get asked “Do you want to be evil?” These games usually present the player no real choice in how to proceed.

Dialogue trees aren’t much better. Most of the time, they’re present strictly for flavor (which isn’t bad if the game is slow-paced and has a rich world). You can usually select any limb of the tree with little consequence. There are occasional actual decisions in dialogue trees, but they tend to be color-coded for good/evil. And, sure enough, you’ll usually stick to one color or the other because you’re doing a good (or evil) playthrough and the game doesn’t reward a varied approach.

Alpha Protocol presents dialogue in a unique way 1. Quite frequently, you are given a choice between 2 to 4 options. These options are sometimes color-coded, but they are never Good/Evil. The typical options are Suave, Aggressive, or Professional. For the most part, you decide what your character’s tone will be instead of what he’ll actually say.

There’s a reputation system in-play. Tell a character what they want to hear (or select an appropriate tone) and you get points. Say something that they dislike and you get docked points. Having negative rep with a character isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You usually get new dialogue or a stats boost when someone hates you. Having a positive rep has similar benefits. There usually isn’t much incentive to go for a middle-of-the-road approach with a specific character, but there are quite a few characters to talk to, and you’re rewarded for taking a varied approach in that regard.

Like most other modern RPG, Alpha Protocol is full of big decisions. Unlike most of those games, there are no right and wrong decisions to make in Alpha Protocol. Every major choice has consequences, but the game never outright says if you’ve done something good or not. Unless, of course, you shoot civilians. That’s evil. Everything else is a shade of gray.

Dialogue in AP changes depending on your reputation with a character, how you play the actual combat sections of the game, what your player class is, and even minor dialogue choices that you make. I played through the game twice for this review. Some dialogue was the same, but I noticed countless differences throughout the second playthrough. And there is a whole lot there that I haven’t seen yet.

Alpha Protocol’s dialogue is a major reason to play this game, and it’s absolutely essential to replay the game at least once. The dialogue itself ranges from great to merely good, but the system used in making dialogue decisions is the absolute best in any game that I’ve ever played.

Interesting Characters

By itself, the dialogue system is enough of a reason to play Alpha Protocol. The fact that you use it to interact with memorable characters is just an extra incentive. I’m not going to talk about every character that’s interesting. Why spoil the surprise? But I will say that the game contains the following:

  • A super secret agent who believes in every conspiracy theory
  • Monotone Spy Guy (who’s actually kinda cool in his own way)
  • The owner(?) of a gelato shop(?)
  • The personification of the 1980s

Yes, all of those characters, in the same game!

The character you play as (Agent Michael Thorton) has an unexpected amount of personality. Most attempts to pick the ‘Suave’ option in most conversations with women end with failure. His idea of being suave is giving an embarrassing pick-up line. It’s nice to see him crash and burn occasionally, and it’s something that you rarely see in a video game.

Stealth-Based, Third-Person Shooter RPG… Sort-of

I can’t praise the rest of Alpha Protocol like I can its dialogue or characters. The actual gameplay sections are merely okay. It’s basically a stealth-based, third-person shooter punctuated by mini-games. Yes, mini-games! Picking a lock, hacking a computer, or bypassing a security door brings you to a timed mini-game. They’re somewhat fun, but I can easily see where some might dislike them.

There are some RPG elements. You select a character class at the beginning and buy weapons, gadgets, and intel from your computer. There are skills and abilities to choose when you level up.

Yes, there’s an ability that allows you to skip most mini-games!

But there are some abilities that turn you character invisible when detected. That’s because someone knew that the stealth-based gameplay had a few problems. Enemies can hear you walking from behind walls, and they have a nasty tendency to notice you quite randomly. Alpha Protocol isn’t Metal Gear Solid 3, folks.

There are some abilities that make combat (especially boss fights) downright trivial. This is actually a good thing: Alpha Protocol’s shooting-focused sections aren’t exactly top-notch. You mostly hide behind cover and occasionally take shots unless you have some of the stronger combat abilities and skills.

The combat and stealth aren’t exactly bad, but they are the worst part about this game.

As I said before, the gameplay feeds back into the dialogue system. Characters know if you’re stealthy or loud during a mission and respond accordingly. Most characters that you talk to prefer stealth (or, in a few cases, non-lethal stealth), but a few characters actually prefer a direct approach. Dialogue can completely change depending on your field actions, and you can gain (or lose) rep in a few situations.

Dialogue decisions also affect gameplay. Refuse someone’s help and you might have to fight their faction in the next mission. You can even get an additional mission or two depending on how you handle certain situations. For example, kill a certain character and you miss a mission where you act on information that character would have given you. The game is crazy like that.

Bugs and Other Issues

Alpha Protocol is a glitchy game. Thankfully, most of its glitches aren’t game-breaking. The Alpha Protocol Wiki has a Alpha Protocol Bugs page (warning: spoilers), and some of these bugs are indeed weird. Alpha Protocol is a complete game, but it often doesn’t feel like a finished one.

If you get the PC version, be sure to install the latest patch. There are apparently no bug fixes, but it removes the (apparently non-functional) DRM from the game. Also, my DVD version of the game didn’t work with my gaming PC and I couldn’t find a fix for it. I was able to buy the game from GamersGate and that version worked just fine. Well, except for all the weird graphical glitches, but that would have happened anyways.

There’s another issue with the game that I haven’t addressed. And no, this isn’t a weird glitch. The first part of the game is the most boring part. Your decisions matter less and the plot is not too interesting at that point. The game greatly improves after this section, and decisions that you make during it matter later on.

It’s Still One of a Kind

Despite all its problems, I highly recommend Alpha Protocol if you’re looking for a game that’s different from the norm and you’re willing to give it a chance. It’s a seriously flawed game, but I think that it’s very enjoyable and one of a kind.

  1. There seem to be a few games with similar dialogue systems. I’ve heard about Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but I haven’t played it yet and it came out a few years after Alpha Protocol. There’s also Mode, an experimental adventure game that presents dialogue options on a color bar (and nothing else). I don’t think Alpha Protocol took inspiration from Mode due to its obscurity, age, and technical problems (it’s a PC-only game that only runs on versions of Windows prior to ‘95).