Saturday, June 5, 2010

Alpha Protocol (PS3)

I gave in and bought a new copy of Alpha Protocol. And I played it straight through for two nights and an afternoon. I'm left with a weird taste in my mouth, like I'm sucking on a chocolate-covered penny.

The main complaint of the mainstream critics about this game is the lack of technical polish. And it's certainly true that Alpha Protocol's technical issues are legion. The guns are woefully inaccurate. The enemy AI is exploitably stupid. The cover system works most of the time, except that you'll often encounter walls you can't hide behind. Some enemies can spot you from a mile away, while others can't see you from across the room. The movement controls are mushy, and the item switching controls are just wrong. The item description text needs a copy editor like Glenn Beck needs a muzzle.

However, most of that can be overlooked if you come into Alpha Protocol with the understanding that it isn't a shooter. It's an RPG with shooting. This semantic distinction may seem minor, but it can make the difference between smirking at the clunky mechanics or throwing your controller in rage. But, the chocolate-penny taste lingers with me even when I look through the RPG lens.

Alpha Protocol's major selling point, its gimmick perhaps, is that dialog choices are not made explicitly. Instead, you're presented with three or four "attitudes" to take at each choice point in the conversation. So, unlike most RPGs where you select from specific lines of dialog (e.g. "Where are you keeping the shipment?"), you'll instead be presented with the option to be, for example, Cocky, Suave, or Matter-of-Fact. Oh, and you only have a few seconds to choose your attitude--usually just the time it takes for the other person to complete their dialog.

The option you choose determines what the next line of dialog is from Agent Thornton. It also determines your reputation with the person to whom you're speaking. This system of reputation then wins you allies and enemies as you progress through the game. These allies can have very real in-level effects, including providing allied troops for support. And since you only have a few seconds to make your attitude choice, you don't have the luxury of contemplating which approach will yield the best results.

I love this dialog system. It does an excellent job of capturing the nerve-wracking excitement of fast talking your way through an encounter with somebody. For a spy, whose life depends on his ability to quickly and convincingly lie, this is the central experience of their job. Which is why I'm so disappointed with how these dialog scenes fit into the rest of the gameplay.

A real spy's life does not revolve primarily around covert infiltration and explosions. It's about gathering information by working contacts. But, in Alpha Protocol, the bulk of the gameplay consists of sneaking and shooting. And the big confrontations, the climaxes of the various missions, are all woefully conventional boss fights.

The basic structure of the game is that you travel to a city, gather intelligence through infiltration and making contacts, and then use that intel to thwart the enemy operation planned in that city. Along the way, you make a great number of choices (kill that dude or not, save the girl or the innocents, join up or fight) that come back to haunt you in later missions.

But only one of the cities, and its missions, feels like a real intelligence operation (that would be Rome, if you're curious). This is the only city in which the majority of the missions are basically non-violent. You infiltrate a CIA listening post, observe partygoers through a sniper scope, and meet with various scary individuals. It's also, unfortunately, the shortest series of missions in the game.

The bulk of the rest of the missions are basic Metal Gear Solid knockoff sneak-and-shoots. And because of the technical and design failures, these are often more tedious than fun or challenging. Trying to complete every mission by sneaking is probably the most fun, but there are routinely areas where it's basically impossible. Shooting your way through everything isn't fun at all, and yet whenever you take advantage of your allies, the entire mission devolves into a pitched fire fight.

What also bewilders me is the character development system. Each character level you advance, you get ten AP to spend on various skills. These include Pistols, SMGs, Assault Rifles, Toughness, Martial Arts, Sabotage, and Stealth. The only skill that has significant game-changing scope is Stealth, since you eventually gain the ability to become invisible for a period of time. The rest of the skills have occasional perks, but I almost never used the active ones, and rarely noticed the passive ones. In a Western-style RPG, there should be some sense of utility in improving a skill. And I routinely found none, only spending the points to get whatever high-level ability might be hidden at the top of the ladder. I suppose that the designers realized that the Stealth skill was so unbalancing in itself that adding legitimately useful skills on other paths would simply make you invincible.

The writing and characterization are pretty decent. Not Red Dead Redemption-level, but definitely better than average. And the game does a good job of letting you choose your actions at major plot points. The number of variations in different missions, dialog sequences, and endings as a result of your earlier choices must be staggering. Mind you, many of them are minor, a mere throwaway line by another character. But, it does a very good job of making you feel like your choices have real impact and consequences.

The penny-taste comes from the contrast between how well done the dialog/choice system is, and how slapdash the sneaking/shooting system is. I understand that there's little market appeal for a game consisting entirely of talking to people, and that if you go to the trouble of building a sneaker/shooter engine you're going justify its existence by using it extensively.

But the balance between the two in Alpha Protocol is tipped way too far toward the action side. It doesn't feel like espionage to me. It feels like covert special operations.

In short, I was hoping for Michael Westen and I got Jason Bourne.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey (PS3)

While I'm waiting for a used copy of Alpha Protocol to show up, I've been playing IL-2. This is a WWII fighter game made by 1C (a Russian game developer), named after the most-produced military aircraft in history (the IL-2).

As an interesting turn of events, IL-2 focuses on the Eastern Front of the war--for those of you rusty on history, that'd be the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Personally, I love this decision, since it's introduced me to an aspect of aviation history with which I was unfamiliar. I had never considered the fact that the Soviet Union must have had an airforce during the war. But, they did, and having done a fair bit of reading now, it appears that the skies over the Soviet Union actually saw significant action.

Unfortunately, the game rather fails to provide any idea of the historical context for the air battles you fight. The campaign is broken down into various real battles (Stalingrad, The Bulge, etc.), but the only real context given is "diary entries" by the playable pilots. These are exceptionally boring, and focus on trying to build sympathetic characters instead of exploring the history of the air battles.

History aside, I have rather mixed feelings on this game. On the one hand, it doesn't play like X-Wings Over Europe. But, it also has some deep playability issues.

There are three difficulty modes: arcade, realistic, and simulation. The basic flight model is the same in all of them, but arcade mode includes a bunch of flight assistance. Your angle of attack is restricted such that you never stall, and your wings self-level if you let go of the aileron stick. Additionally, your rudder provides heading corrections with yaw--a real rudder does not control the heading of an airplane, but is rather used in coordination with the other control surfaces to maintain proper flight.

In realistic mode, section-by-section damage is turned on, and the flight aids are turned off. You're responsible for keeping the airplane out of a stall. And herein lies the problem.

In a real airplane, a stall is pretty much a non-event. Your angle of attack increases beyond the critical angle for the speed at which you're flying, the controls lose authority, the nose drops, the angle of attack corrects, you gain speed, and you're out of the stall. It looks like this. But, in IL-2 every stall results in a spin. A spin is far more difficult to recover from. And, while it's true that fighter planes certainly spin more easily than, say, a Cessna, having every goddamn stall result in a spin makes flying in realistic mode in IL-2 very, very difficult.

Realistic mode also turns off the bullet lead calculation, so you have to lead your targets yourself without the assistance of a computed aiming point. This isn't a big deal early in the game. But as the enemy dogfighting AI gets better in later missions, I found it impossible to down enemy planes without the computer assistance.

Simulator mode is even more impossible, since it turns off the radar. Given that there's no head tracking on the PS3, it becomes quite impossible to even find the enemy. I couldn't even make it through the simulator mode tutorial, as I kept losing sight of the enemy fighters.

The ultimate problem here treating the flight realism options as difficulty modes, where you have to take or leave everything. In arcade mode, the flight controls do not act like a real airplane--I was constantly fighting the auto-leveling. Meanwhile, in realistic mode the lack of bullet deflection calculation made dogfighting tedious. I would kill to play this game with a la carte assistance options: I'd like to play with realistic flight controls, moderate stall assistance, and bullet deflection assistance. Instead, I played the first half of the game in realistic mode, and then was forced to arcade mode for the rest of it.

Another annoyance is that there's no AI to control the turrets of a bomber. So, if you're in a slow-ass ground attack plane, like the titular IL-2, and a fighter is on your tail, you're forced to switch views and manually operate the turret. While it's nice to be able to shoot the turret, it would be even nicer if there was also at least some brain-dead AI to run it while you concentrate on bombing Panzers.

This is a game that's probably best for existing fans of WWII fighter sims. It's certainly the best I've seen yet on any of the consoles. But, if you aren't already into airplanes, then this game almost certainly is not for you. And if you're a pilot, or have played a lot of high-fidelity simulators on PC (like X-Plane), it's probably also not for you--the physics are just real enough to make you think you know what you're doing.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fuck that noise

Okay, so, I made a mistake and read some initial reviews of the European release of Alpha Protocol. They say it's well-written and kind of innovative. And that the actual gameplay is clunky, broken, and obnoxious.

Yeah. I'm gonna wait to find a cheaper, used copy before I play it.

(I did buy an older WWII fighter sim, though, that I'll be reviewing in the near future.)