In Defense of Alpha Protocol

Alpha Protocol has not gotten favorable reviews.

On the high end it rates as an ambitious attempt to combine stealth-action with role playing, played in an espionage setting, that misses the mark on several technical notes. On the harsher side, Destructoid called it “a castle that’s collapsed in crap”. Without question, Alpha Protocol is a disappointment.

I’ve learned not defend anything on the ground that it’s “not that bad.” Mediocrity is a difficult thing to defend. No matter how unbalanced the bashing on the other end may be, trying to convince people something that’s disappointing, “isn’t that bad” is always a losing battle.

So here’s the deal we’ll make: I’ll agree with every negative thing you have to say about Alpha Protocol, every single one. To date, I’ll list the most egregious offenses.

  • abysmal enemy AI
  • low frame rate, and stuttering
  • random load times
  • bland, generic graphics and environments
  • clinging to and getting stuck on the environment, including in cover
  • a clumsy cover system
  • unpolished aiming and gunplay
  • inconsistency in the weapons
  • gimmicky melee  animations
  • linear story + mission structure
  • uninspired tone and setting
  • overused character roles
  • it caused the oil spill
  • it killed younglings
  • it signed Kesha (I refuse to spell it with a “$”) to a record label

OK, those last three aren’t true, but the way people are crucifying this game, you’d think they were. Fine, I concede all of those points. I agree that the game has all of those things wrong with it.

Now here’s the second part of the deal: I’m going to ask you a series of questions, and you have to answer “yes” or “no”. Make whatever justifications you want in your head, but you ultimately have to settle on a “yes” or “no”. OK, ready?

Is being in control of your stance in dialogue a good thing?

You have the power to have a personality. It’s beyond just taking a general “good” or “bad” dialogue option, you can wise-ass people, or play it professional, or run people over verbally. It’s a weird next step in dialogue, you feel like you’re actually driving the conversation. The complaint I’ve heard from reviews is that supporting characters aren’t original. I take issue with that statement as a whole, but even when it’s true in certain instances, it’s overshadowed by your dialogue options as Thorton being well written, and memorable.

Are counterintuitive reactions to your dialogue stances a good thing?

You shouldn’t always be nice. You shouldn’t even always be professional. Alternatively, you can’t always be a smart ass, or a hard ass. You know that real communication, especially when varied with different kinds of people, isn’t predictable, and often times can be the opposite of what you thought it was going to be. Sometimes you need to be aggressive with your boss, or be nice to the guy trying to argue you with you. Sometimes being nice to the jerk won’t work, and you’ll have to give him his own medicine. Sometimes being nice to the girl will guarantee she won’t give you her phone number, but busting on her in a cocky way will make her feel attracted to you. People who live out in the real world with real personal skills know that communication is counterintuitive; you have to read people, and sometimes do the unexpected. Before Alpha Protocol, I had never seen this realized in player-selected dialogue.

Is character and equipment customization a good thing?

The presets in character customization at the start of the game are pretty standard, but picking free lancer (just ignore the ridiculous profile picture) gives you the option to spend all your points however you like. Recruit was the one original option, where you start with all your stats at zero, and have work your way up. Beating the game after starting like this unlocks a “veteran” option, supposedly the best of the best. There’s also a large selection of weapons, and weapons mods. From what I can tell so far, armor and armor mods are also going to be plentiful. Weapons all have unique strengths and weaknesses, and attachments all affect performance as well.

Are delayed consequences a good thing?

When The Witcher for PC introduced to a system where consequences for your decisions were delayed until later in the game, it was heralded. We see some instances that are similar in console RPGs, but not many. Alpha Protocol puts itself into the higher level of role playing games that understand decisions shouldn’t always have a tangible, immediate outcome. You don’t know exactly what will happen down the road, but you have to make a call anyway.

Is interaction with personnel assets affecting your missions a good thing?

You can buy valuable intel and favors out in the field. I paid a PMC in the region to start a skirmish outside a target’s camp, diverting security resources to dealing with that so resistance was thinned for my infiltration. I had a weapons dealer and runner, insert a sniper rifle near an airfield I had to infiltrate. When pressed to find my own funding, in the field, my field runner set up a contact at a local bank, who was able to wire funds into an account for me. All of this was completely optional, and if I had a complaint to leverage, it would be that some players may miss these options all together. That would be, however, their fault for not playing thorough agents. I can develop a plan to assist the success of my objectives in the region, that is entirely optional, and up to me.

This isn’t a case of “not that bad” – that’s just not what this is. Alpha Protocol has got some inexcusable shortcomings. There are parts of this game that are flat out miserable, and there’s no denying that. Nevertheless, there are parts of the game that are damn good, and despite what you may have read elsewhere, highly original, or least still novel. The bad parts are bad, but the good parts are well above average, and absolutely worth checking out.

Posted on June 7, 2010

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