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.

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