When it was announced that Obsidian Entertainment would be handling the development of Fallout: New Vegas, order I received the news with a no small amount of conflict and trepidation. On one hand, capsule Obsidian’s staff included a number of folks who’d created Fallout in its original isometric PC incarnation. On the other, the firm had a semi-deserved rep for releasing problematic — if not outright broken — sequels to outsourced franchises.
Granted, there were other, eternal factors upon which to lay some of the more notorious issues associated with Knights of the Old Empire 2 and Neverwinter Nights 2, and so I was curious to see how things panned out with Alpha Protocol, Obsidian’s Sega-published espionage action-RPG title which was scheduled to hit the shelves a few months prior to New Vegas.
The prognosis turned out be ominous in the extreme, as reviews for Alpha Protocol ranged from “mediocre” to “downright dire” with the litany of well-considered complaints and lack of bias one has come to expect from geek-centric internet circles. The chorus of adjectives describing Alpha Protocol as “boring,” “buggy,” and “unplayable” didn’t bode well, and I lowered my expectations for New Vegas accordingly.
When New Vegas finally arived and exceeded (with a stumble or four) the low bar I’d set for it, I was modestly relieved. It wasn’t until I picked up a cut-out bin copy of Alpha Protocol out of boredom a few months later that I discovered that despite the critical consensus, New Vegas was by far the more disappointing game.
There’s no question that Alpha Protocol suffers from a severe lack of polish, a plethora of bugs (graphical, AI, and, gameplay), and a baffling decision to give non-intuitive RPG mechanics precedence over an illusory action-oriented front-end where hidden algorithms overrule what appeared to be a cleanly lined-up headshot. But — and it’s a very big “but” — if you can get past its cloud of petty irritations, the game can be a highly entertaining experience with a number of pleasant surprises and reversals of genre formula under the hood.
The player takes the role of Michael Thorton, a customizable (stealth, combat, gadgets, or combination of the three) agent recruited by one of the triple-super-duper-secret black ops agencies which the genre-weavers would have you believe hold the fate of the free world in their plausibly deniable hands.
What begins as a pretty typical exercise in eliminating a Middle Eastern threat to the American Way of Life spirals into something vastly richer and more complex than the usual exceptionalist, “hard man” narratives typically associated with the videogame iterations of this premise.
The ultimate goal, of course, is to save the world from sinister forces, but the true nature — and indeed, identity of — the threat is tied up in a tapestry of individuals and organizations with their own dubious motives, and who must be courted, thwarted, or manipulated according to the player’s discretion and an ever changing set of circumstances.
While a great deal has been said about L.A. Noire‘s flawed interrogation/interaction mechanic, there’s been little mention of Alpha Protocol‘s similar and superior approach to character interaction…save some predictable complaints that it didn’t meet the expected standards for vocalized chest-beating nonsense passing as “good” voice acting. The system uses a three-tier system of responses reflecting espionage genre achetypes — suave (Bond), professional (Bourne), and thuggish (Bauer) — with occasional interrupts depending on situational context (such as the conversee reaching for a gun or begging for a fist to the nose).
Talkiness can be a turn-off, and the rather involved gabfests can wear thin during repeated plays, but Alpha Protocol‘s conversation model works adheres closer to the genre source material than L.A. Noire ever did, and makes it much easier to deduce appriopriate approaches corresponding to the other parties’ personality types. The rewards for friendship — or strained bed-fellowship — translate into mission-specific perks such as hidden weapon caches or having a contact spike a Russian mobster’s stash with rat poison, thus making the subsequent boss battle wee bit easier.
Where other Obsidian games played coy with a nominally open-ended narrative structure — placing region-blocking wall o’ deathclaws in New Vegas or unsubtle nudging in KotOR 2 — Alpha Protocol does an outstanding job at creating an interlocking and context-adaptable framework of missions revolving around three visit when-you-want-to central hubs (Rome, Moscow, Taipei). There is no “correct” sequence to speak of, merely a set of choices with offer opportunities and benefits akin to the rock/paper/scissors boss selection mechanic of the old Mega Man games.
This design framework, combined with the game’s emphasis on deciding between pragmatism and morality, gives Alpha Protocol replay value almost unheard of in the RPG genre. Conversely, it’s also a game where the story suffers from exhaustive exploration of narrative threads, as the “big picture” reveals itself as a Claremontean tangle of improbable relationships.
The most surprising element of Alpha Protocol is the game’s politics. Combat espionage narratives in games (with the exception of whatever the hell the message of the Metal Gear games is supposed to be) tends to slant rightward, with a exceptionalist-paternalist worldview where men of iron take on the dirty jobs where moral niceties must be set aside. While it is possible to follow that ethos within the confines of Alpha Protocol, it is also a game which encompasses such actions as forwarding documents about corrupt military contractors to the press and — depending on one’s in-game choices — deciding to accept the help of an Osama Bin Laden analogue to bring down a thinly disguised stand-in for Haliburton.
Other games toy around with decisions and moral consequence, but Alpha Protocol is one of the very rare few that follow those threads to their logical and frequently unsettling conclusions.
Alpha Protocol is not a great game and its charms depend one’s ability to tolerate its (many, many) rough edges, but it ranks above both Mass Effect games (but below Fallout 3 and Dragon Age 2) as my favorite RPG of this generation of consoles.