Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Great Games You Never Played: Alpha Protocol














"Fine, obscure gems." Part of a periodical series: Great Games You Never Played

Formed from refugees of Black Isle Studios -- the development team responsible for some of the best RPGs in the golden era of RPGs -- Obsidian Entertainment has been making games for over a decade now. For the longest time they held the earned and much-deserved reputation of being "that game company that makes buggy sequels to other people's games," after releasing Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (a followup to BioWare's original Knights of the Old Republic) and Neverwinter Nights 2 (a followup to BioWare's original Neverwinter Nights). That reputation continued with Fallout: New Vegas (a followup to Bethesda's Fallout 3) and Dungeon Siege III (a followup to Gas Powered Games' Dungeon Siege I & II).

In each case, the games were maligned by critics and gamers alike for being buggy, unpolished, and in the case of KOTOR2, even unfinished, yet keen observers were able to look past those shortcomings to find games with a deeply rich soul and personality. In the case of KOTOR2 and FO:NV, the only two Obsidian games I've played, I actually preferred their versions of the game to their predecessors', since Obsidian's games showed a much deeper complexity and understanding in terms of RPG mechanics. I was easily willing to overlook the technical flaws in favor of their inspired and ambitious design. It's natural to say, therefore, that I hold a lot of respect for Obsidian and consider them one of the best designers of modern RPGs.

Alpha Protocol, released in 2010, was Obsidian's first attempt at creating an original IP, their first chance to establish themselves as a company that could do something worthwhile with an original formula instead of simply building upon other people's success (and, in the opinion of some gamers, ruining it with bugs). With this great opportunity before them, Obsidian failed big time and Alpha Protocol was gashed by critics. Besides the usual complaints of crashes, glitches, and it feeling generally unpolished, the game was criticized for its tedious and repetitive stealth-action sequences, its poor enemy AI, and its inconsistent game balancing.

Buried within this mess of a game is the soul of a good RPG, where your skills and stats determine your efficacy in encounters and where your decisions can lead to vast alterations in the course of the plot, complete with interesting characters and settings as well as one of the better dialogue systems in existence. It's clear that Obsidian know what they're doing when it comes to implementing compelling RPG mechanics in games, but it's also clear that the team had no prior experience with stealth-action gameplay. In most ways, Alpha Protocol deserves its bad reputation, but there's also enough here to enjoy if you're a fan of RPGs and want to experience one of the more unique RPGs we've seen in the past few years.

In this game's world, "Alpha Protocol" is the name of a top secret organization of spies and intelligence analysts employed by the United States government for the sake of carrying out covert operations with plausible deniability by top government officials. If an agent's identity as a US operative is discovered while working in the field, he is declared rogue by the agency, which then shuts itself down and begins anew under a fresh identity. You play as Michael Thorton, a new recruit to Alpha Protocol, just after a passenger airplane is downed by missiles over American air space. On your first mission, you're sent to Saudi Arabia to investigate a terrorist organization known as Al-Samad and eliminate its leader, believed to be behind the missile attack.

Alpha Protocol, the bearded man simulator.

While having a set face, voice, and general personality, you're free to customize some of Thorton's appearance -- his hairstyle, facial hair, eye wear, and head wear. This is an interesting concept, since it allows the developer to tell a story around a finely-realized protagonist while still allowing players to create their own custom version of the main character. Throughout the game, you're also able to choose how Thorton responds to and handles various situations, most prominently in dialogue sequences, using what Obsidian have coined "the three J.B.'s of spy fiction" as a general template: James Bond for playful suaveness, Jason Bourne for calm professionalism, and Jack Bauer for no-nonsense aggression.

These three options typically show up in dialogue as "suave," "aggressive," and "professional," with occasionally a fourth special option. While in conversation, you're given a limited amount of time (usually just a few quick seconds) to choose a response based on different assortments of adjectives and verbs that correspond to the three main JB-inspired nodes, a system that encourages quick thinking and which makes you live with whatever consequences present themselves as a result of your choices.

Alpha Protocol employs a social reputation system that has all of the game's characters liking or disliking you based on your actions in the gameplay and how you talk to them in conversation. Some characters may like it when you're professional and to-the-point, while others may prefer a more casual attitude. Some characters may only respond to brute force and threats, and may not give you what you want if you're too "soft" on them. Do something a character likes or dislikes and your reputation with them will likewise increase or decrease; your reputation with a character determines how they'll respond to you, what kind of statistical perks you receive by being on good terms with them, and how helpful they'll be. In some cases, it's even beneficial to have low reputation with someone.

The dialogue wheel, meeting Madison for the first time.

Meaningful choices are frequent in this game, and they come complete with desirable or undesirable consequences. There's the whole reputation system, where your reputation with an NPC will grant you access to special bonuses or new content or possibly make things tougher for you, but you also make tons of important decisions in terms of how you approach mission objectives. When you have an objective to stop an important character, do you execute him, thus making his faction hostile but eliminating the potential for a bigger threat? Do you put him under arrest and hope to gain valuable intelligence from him during interrogation? Or do you agree to let him go and negotiate an agreement with him and his faction? Whatever approach you take, it will have an impact later in the game.

You also have a few options in terms of how you want to build your character, which will affect your playstyle in missions. You gain experience for completing objectives and defeating/evading enemies, which grant you 10 ability points every time you level up. You can use these AP to improve your skills in stealth and hand-to-hand combat, to enhance your weapon skills with pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, and sub-machine guns, or to boost your infiltration abilities and your proficiency with technical gadgets. Combined with the different types of weapons, armor, equipment mods, and gadgets, you can build Thorton to be a quiet assassin, a rambunctious commando, or a tech-savvy engineer.

As is typical in good RPGs, specialization is important. If you put a lot of points into the sabotage skill, you'll be able to pick locks, hack computers, and manipulate security to your advantage, which can earn you extra cash and bonus intelligence, but higher level hacks will be all but impossible to you if you don't. If you put a lot of points into stealth, you'll have an easy time dispatching enemies quietly without conflict but will have a harder time dealing with enemies when you're faced with a firefight. If you avoid the toughness skill and put your points into weapon skills, you'll be able to kill more efficiently but be easier to kill yourself. Ability Points are extremely limited, which means you can really only max two or three possible skills out of nine, which requires you to spend your AP intelligently and allows for greater replay value.

Responding to emails.

Gameplay is mission-based, with Thorton based out of various hubs before and after each mission. In his safe house he gets the opportunity to watch the local news, which changes to reflect some of his actions in the plot, check his email and correspond with informants, purchase gear and intelligence from the market, change his appearance, and change his equipment loadouts. A large part of the game's appeal stems from its emphasis on preparing for missions -- before each mission you usually have options to meet with informants to gain their aid or learn valuable information, and you can buy intelligence reports from the black market that will add bonus objectives, add extra item caches, give you a map of the location's layout, reduce security, or unlock dossier information on important characters, among various other things.

All of this costs money, which is found in missions and earned from selling items and intelligence on the black market. When you find incriminating evidence on someone or something, you can sell it on the black market, use it to blackmail the source, or send it to a journalist for positive reputation and a small finder's fee. Depending on your reputation with various informants and suppliers, you can get discounts on gear and information and unlock extra things for purchase. Buying all of the available intelligence will make missions easier, but that will reduce your funds to spend on things like weapon upgrades and armor, so it's a fun balance trying to take advantage of both and use your money wisely.

It's important how you choose to prepare for each mission, but it's equally important what order you choose to do them. Once you've completed the opening missions in Saudi Arabia, you get the choice of going to Moscow, Rome, or Taipei. If you go to Moscow first, you can meet an NPC who will be able to help you in combat for later missions in Rome and Taipei; if you go to Taipei first, you can gain an ally who will make a boss fight in Moscow easier; if you go to Rome first, your interactions with an NPC will influence another NPC you meet in Moscow; and so on. Even picking what order to do missions within each location affects the outcome of subsequent missions and your reputation; visit one informant before another and he'll appreciate it, offering you a discount on intelligence; visit an informant before mounting an assault on a gang leader's mansion and he'll be warned in advance.

Some of my perks.

Basically everything you do in this game has some kind of effect, often represented in the form perks. Perks reward you for completing certain actions in the game; become trusted friends with a mission handler and you'll get a boost to your endurance; eliminate 50 enemies with silent take-downs and you'll emit 20% less sound when sneaking; talk your way out of situations and you'll get a bonus to an active skill. During one mission you're sent to stake-out a party, spying on attendees from a distance with a sniper rifle; if you peacefully identify everyone at the party, you'll get a 5% discount on all intelligence sources, but if you decide to kill everyone you'll get a 20% discount on ammunition. The game rewards you for your actions and can even compel you to try different things in hopes of getting new perks.

There is, therefore, an awful lot of replay value to be had with this game. You can pick different skills in which to specialize, try visiting the locations in different orders and see how things change in the story, do missions in different orders, use different weapons and gadgets, play a completely different style, talk to NPCs differently, let some characters live that you might have killed or save characters that you let die, and so on. With so much variety in things you can do differently, it's a sure sign that the game values and emphasizes your choices, offering a different gameplay experience each time. Even the final boss can change depending on your actions.

The story is a little hit or miss; how much it engages you will depend on how deeply you get into the conspiracy theory premise. It was a little difficult for me to follow what was going on in the grand scheme of things because it always feels like you're just chasing after information and meeting with conspirators, rarely actually doing anything. The game is so apt to weave its web of conspiracies that it can feel needlessly convoluted, and it's not always satisfying to complete an entire mission arc in one location because you don't always have a firm grasp of what's actually going on or what's actually at stake. In the end, the story just amounts to the cliche of a private military company trying to spark a cold war to profit off weapons sales, which you kind of learn early on, and then the rest of the game is relatively mundane tasks gathering proof of this and, eventually, stopping the bad guy.

The interrogation with Leland.

The one nice twist on the story is that it's told in a flashback framework, as Thorton faces interrogation from a man in a suit. The game begins in the interrogation room, an event that happens chronologically towards the end of the game, with Thorton and the Suit discussing past events that led to their current situation. The game flashes back to earlier in the story as Thorton goes about completing his missions, then flashes forward periodically for Thorton and the Suit to reflect on why he made the choices he made, while foreshadowing other elements that you haven't yet seen as part of the flashback chronology. It's an interesting system that keeps tying everything together, and it's particularly good that the framework calls attention to your actions.

But for all the praise I can give Alpha Protocol, the sad fact remains that its gameplay isn't very good. First impressions are everything in virtually any media, but they're especially important in video games since they often require much more time commitment.  If the first hour or two of your game is crap, players won't be likely to stick around to see the ending. Alpha Protocol's beginning is long, boring, and clunky, filled with long exposition and tutorials that take forever to get you into the meat of things, before dumping you into boring starter missions in drab environments, where all of your skills start at zero making you totally ineffective at everything until you've spent enough time gaining experience to level up. It also reveals most of its more glaring superficial issues right from the start.

The first thing I noticed once I started the game was the incredibly narrow console-style field of view that zooms in so close to your character's back and gives you no peripheral vision whatsoever. I went into the ini file to change the FOV to something more desirable, but then discovered that doing so breaks numerous aspects of the game. With the wider FOV, you can no longer use the zoom function on sniper rifles, menus become obscured by objects in the foreground/background, and you can't see your character preview in the appearance customization window. It also breaks the staging of cutscenes by pulling the camera out and showing you things Obsidian meant to hide off-camera, like characters walking "off-screen" and then freezing in place, or characters walking "into the frame" and clipping right through a couch, or a character typing on an invisible keyboard since you weren't supposed to be able to see his hands in the frame.

Or characters sitting on non-existent chairs.

Then you've got things like Thorton's crouched movement animation that looks like he's made a fecal deposit in his pants, and the fact that there are no transitional animation frames when changing diagonal directions, causing Thorton to suddenly pop in and out of different orientations. Some guards' walking animations are much faster than their actual movement speed, making it look like they're walking on treadmills. It's really easy for Thorton to get caught on invisible collision meshes in the terrain, and movement controls sometimes become unresponsive for a brief moment after coming out of a menu. Two-thirds of the infiltration mini-games, meanwhile, were designed specifically around controller-exclusive features, which the mouse and keyboard come nowhere near close to replicating.

Lockpicking, for instance, was designed around pressure-sensitive triggers; each lock has a number of tumblers, and you have to press/depress the trigger to find the "sweet spot" before locking it in place with another button press. On the PC, you simply drag the tumbler into position, which is incredibly easy. In computer hacking, you have drag-and-drop two static alpha-numeric codes into a field of fluctuating alpha-numerical units, using the joysticks to move each one. The WASD keys are assigned to the left code and the mouse is assigned to the right code, but the right code always seems to lag behind the mouse movements and move unpredictably, which leads to way too many accidental errors. The mouse cursor, meanwhile, remains on screen while you move the codes around, which can lead to accidentally clicking the "abort" button and triggering every security system.

In true RPG fashion, your stats are largely what determine your efficacy in things like hacking, stealth, and combat -- starting out at level zero with no skill points means you'll be woefully inefficient at everything you do. Trying to stealth past guards is almost impossible in the beginning because you make so much noise that they inevitably hear you and turn as you approach them, and trying to take them out after alerting them is a major hassle since your accuracy and recoil with weapons are so bad. This makes the first couple of levels especially frustrating because you can't do simple things you're accustomed to doing in any other stealth game or third-person shooter, which makes everything feel horribly clunky and unsatisfying until you've played long enough to have leveled your skills sufficiently.

Stealthing up the ruins.

As important as it is for an RPG to value your statistical prowess, Obsidian chose to implement these stats in an action and skill-based system, which in this case doesn't properly balance the two ends of the spectrum. Alpha Protocol feels a lot like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, except with much better RPG mechanics and much worse action-stealth elements. Ordinarily that would be fine for an RPG, but the action-stealth is where the bulk of the actual gameplay in AP takes place.

Stealth gameplay is frustratingly inconsistent and lacks the kind of features and sophistication that anyone accustomed to stealth games would find standard and essential. Stealth utilizes both sound and line-of-sight for detection, but doesn't take any advantage of lighting. The game employs a "hard lock" stealth system that lets you glue yourself to a cover source, but this is actually worse than the "soft" cover system of simply crouching behind boxes -- you can still be detected while hard-locked onto cover, you can't shoot from a hard-locked cover position and remain hidden, and your movement gets restricted to one dimension. It's generally better not to use the game's intended cover system, which kind of defeats the purpose.

Any satisfaction that comes from stealth is further hindered by the game's lack of free-form movement. In classic stealth games, a lot of the satisfaction comes from exploring different paths and finding creative ways to approach a situation; in AP, your options are limited to blatantly obvious context-sensitive hotspots. If there's a two-foot wall of sandbags set up around a turret, you'll be forced to walk all the way around the sandbags through security cameras and other patrolling guards, rather than just hopping over the sandbags and approaching the turret guard from behind, because you lack any ability to jump or climb outside of preset hotspots. You're also typically funneled down a series of small rooms and hallways with only one entrance or exit; everything is plainly laid out before you and you have no choice but to follow the one or two possible paths through the room.

Press space to watch pre-rendered jump animation.

Enemy AI is just as inconsistent as the cover system. Some enemies remain completely stationary staring at walls while others seem programmed specifically to turn and face away from a wall the moment you move out from cover. Dead or unconscious bodies will sometimes disappear from existence before another patrolling guard has a chance to see it, other times they'll remain there and enemies will be put on high alert. Sometimes guards don't even notice or react to bodies lying on the ground. Some guards react to their buddies being silently sniped right next to them while others don't. All of this is to say that there's very little predictability in stealth, where success feels based more on random luck than your character's stats or your own personal skill.

The effect is that stealth usually devolves into an all-out gunfight -- all it takes is for one enemy to catch a casual glimpse of your elbow poking out from behind cover for them to send everyone into full alert. The fun of playing stealth games is supposed to stem from the fear of getting caught, the tension that comes from close encounters, and having to think fast and improvise when things don't go according to plan; in Alpha Protocol, it never feels like there's any actual tension since guards are either moronically oblivious to your presence or impossibly aware of your exact location. It's not so much a fear of getting caught as it is a fear of the game turning into a boring, tedious shooter.

Blind firing an assault rifle from behind cover.

This was, in fact, one of the most frustrating games I've ever played in my life. I chose to play on hard mode, you see, because typically in stealth games and RPGs, harder difficulties force you to make your decisions count much more and require you to play the game more intelligently, rather than simply making it more dexterously challenging like typical FPS games. As it turns out, hard mode in this game just makes it a tedious, frustrating chore, wherein it takes multiple body-shots from your fully-upgraded pistol to kill a single unarmored enemy while they can all kill you in just one shot.

I chose to play the game as a sneaky spy, relying on stealth take-downs to eliminate enemies and infiltrating every computer and picking every lock I could find, which works decently enough when dealing with unaware patrolling guards, but becomes utterly problematic whenever the game forces a major boss fight on you. As a character who wasn't built around dealing fast amounts of damage or sustaining any sort of damage at all, I found myself getting destroyed almost any time the game dropped me into a major fight where stealth was not an option.

At the end of one mission, you're tasked with defending an NPC (who has apparently no capacity for self-preservation) against a dozen or more highly armed, aggressive enemies. This NPC is so inept and dies so quickly that you don't have time to slink across the courtyard waiting for opportunities to sneak up on enemies, or even to sit there "charging" critical attacks with your weapons (basically necessary to fire with any sort of accuracy); the only way to get past this objective is to kill the enemies as quickly as possible, a task for which I was utterly unprepared. After spending 20 minutes carefully working my way through the mission, I got stuck spending another 20 minutes repeatedly attempting this one objective before concluding I stood no chance. I then had to exit the mission and pay to have a sniper rifle dropped for that specific encounter, and then work my way through the entire level all over again.

Turnip the radio. I need the music, gimme some Moe. 

In one of the game's more interesting boss fights, you fight a Russian mob boss on an 80s dance floor. It's a pretty cool fight with fun music and lighting effects, but it was a fight I found myself literally unable to beat without dumping a bunch of skill points into the toughness skill, just so I could stand any chance of surviving the boss's devastatingly over-powered, un-dodgeable knife attacks. Later on, after being captured and stripped of all my gear as part of a main mission, I was forced into a situation where I had to defend myself against two thugs in hand-to-hand combat. Since I hadn't invested any skill points in martial arts, I once again found I had to put some left-over points into that skill to stand any chance of surviving that encounter.

For as much as the game emphasizes player choice, it's incredibly disappointing to learn that you basically have to take certain skills just to get through the game. Some skills, meanwhile, are absolutely broken and over-powered. I was struggling big-time making stealth a consistently viable option early on, but once I maxed the skill out I was able to cloak myself for 30 seconds at a time and kill an entire room of guards undetected, just by walking up to them and pressing the space bar. Pistols are by far the best weapon in the game, with its chainshot ability allowing you to kill certain bosses instantly once you've maxed out the skill. Parts of the game are infuriatingly cheap and difficult, while other parts are laughably easy, and it seems totally possible to "break" your character by specializing in the wrong skills.

Using chainshot to mark targets in slow motion.

It's nice that the game rewards you for choosing certain specializations and punishes you for neglecting other skills, because that's traditionally a component that adds depth to an RPG, but it just doesn't feel balanced in this case. Ideally, different skills should enable different playstyles to access different content, and the punishment for not having a certain skill should only be enforced on optional content. If the point of the game is to allow for different role-playing options, then each mandatory situation in the main story should have multiple possible solutions to account for different playstyles, so that players aren't shoehorned into situations that make their own build feel irrelevant and meaningless.

The actual gameplay, therefore, feels poorly focused. It blends a lot of different elements together in a unique and interesting way, being simultaneously a role-playing game, a stealth 'em up, and a third-person shooter, but it has none of the usual sophistication of more traditional stealth games or shooters, and the nuanced background RPG mechanics are difficult to appreciate when you're stuck dealing with the more overt (and all-around mediocre) stealth and action gameplay. It seems like the case of a game that doesn't know its own identity or what it's trying to be.

Having said all that, is Alpha Protocol truly a "great game you never played" and is it actually worth recommending? This is a game that had me really impressed with some of its ideas and simultaneously yelling profanity at the screen because of how daftly some of those ideas were executed. It's a tough one to recommend because I know a lot of people will be justifiably put off by it; perhaps if I'd played on "normal" mode the gameplay would've felt less tedious and I would've been able to enjoy it a bit more. One the one hand, it's really nice playing a game where all of your decisions matter, and where there are so many opportunities to create small, branching paths in the main story. On the other hand, playing the game isn't always that much fun. In a way, Alpha Protocol deserves its bad reputation, but it has a lot of good ideas that any true RPG fan should appreciate.

Just for the love of God, don't play on hard mode.

3 comments:

  1. I've been secretly stalking this blog for a while and I would you review videogames a lot better than some of celeb gamers on youtube.

    I haven't played Alpha Protocol yet. Many people said it's so buggy and gameplay on youtube look very clunky. But after reading this review I would like to give a try, knowing in advance that the stealth system would be broken, because this review talk about the a very neat choice and consequence system. Role playing as three styles spy also interest me.

    It's sad but true that Obsidian games tend to be buggy. I think they are one of the more innovative developers. And they made RPG that get to the point of 'being RPG'. But they should really be more careful about bugs.

    (but on the other hand most of mainstream media and some celeb gamers are overreacting about this issue and ignore other good points of their games... like they said New Vegas has hundreds of bugs while I only experienced 3 crashed and 1 time got stuck in the rock while FO3 I got crashed more than 10 times. But all in all I still love both games)

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    1. Like I said, just don't play on hard difficulty. The stealth-action gameplay is the game's biggest (only?) weakness, but it's a pretty glaring weakness. Playing on hard difficulty doesn't offer a very satisfying challenge; it just places extra demand on its clunky stealth-action gameplay, which pushes it from an occasionally annoying mediocrity to an unbearable frustration.

      Alpha Protocol is worth playing mainly for the story and the role-playing mechanics -- how you build Thorton's skills, they way you act in different scenarios, and the decisions you make in the story -- and hard mode doesn't affect these areas all that significantly. It makes some of your decisions matter a bit more, since you won't have as much money to buy equipment, and it makes the the sabotage skills more valuable since the hacking mini-games become harder, but otherwise its mail goal is to make stealth and combat harder.

      The value of the increased emphasis on financial decisions and skill point allocation are not worth the cost of having to put up with the more demanding no-room-for-error-whatsoever-hope-you-like-reloading-checkpoints mission segments. Playing on normal (or even easy mode) will allow you to enjoy the story and the role-playing aspects while allowing you to get through the mission segments faster, without having to spend as much time reloading checkpoints because you got screwed by the game's inconsistent AI or shoddy stealth detection.

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  2. Loved this game, unfortunatly obsidien can't make a sequel even if they want to cause sega is hogging the rights. Maybe after they finish project eternity or something they will create a spirutal succesor using kickstarter maybe.

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