There are a lot of games that are genuinely bad. Every so often, however, a genuinely good game will get mistakenly lumped into that group of bad games. Sometimes it’s bad timing. Sometimes a rough beginning frustrates fans, who then warn others without the prerequisite knowledge to actually have an informed opinion. Sometimes developers simply forget to appease the volcano god. Whatever the reason, the third-person-shooter-slash-RPG Alpha Protocol is considered by many to be a bad game, and has been largely passed on by those who don’t know better. Sadly for those who missed it, it happens to be one of the best games to be released in a long time.
First, the bad: There are some annoying minigames to be found. The hacking minigame in particular is so atrociously bad that it’s surprising that it found its way into the final product. Fortunately, you only have to engage in this particular minigame once in the entire game thanks to the ability to use EMPs to circumvent any of the minigames. You never lack the necessary money to pick a ton of these up, but can only hold so many going into a mission. So long you keep them around and manually pick locks/deactivate security systems (both are easy enough that using EMPs for them is a waste, except at the very end of the game), you won’t have to deal with the hacking minigame at all, save for once in the tutorial. It makes Alpha Protocol much more enjoyable to use EMPs to avoid hacking, trust me.
One more negative: You can’t save wherever you want. This usually bothers me, but the checkpoints are frequent and well-placed enough that this never actually got on my nerves or caused any problems. For those who want to save wherever they want, this could be a turn-off, but the checkpoints actually help to add to the fun of sneaking and combat by raising the stakes a bit. You’ll never get to the point where you have to replay a huge chunk of the level you’re in if you make a mistake, so this is only a very minor negative, despite checkpoints being outdated and largely worthless.
Now to the good—everything else in this game is amazing.
When it comes to gaming, decisions that actually impact the in-game world are a rare thing. Usually, games are content to offer up a plethora of superficial decisions, the results of which are quickly played-down so that they never have to be seen or felt. It reduces the amount of work developers have to put in, I guess. The decisions in Alpha Protocol are different, though. Not only are there a ton of them (virtually every major character can be killed and your choices can lead you to completely different story outcomes), but their impacts can be felt in a number of other ways. Guards may be on alert in future missions if you kill or harass a certain character, while allying with one character over another could mean the difference between stealthily sneaking in to an area and blasting through in a tank.
You meet a number of different characters, all of whom are colorful and memorable; from Steven Heck—who is basically a conspiracy nut/psychopath who appreciates chaos—to the professionalism-appreciating Mina, everyone has their own distinct personality and agenda. The game balances having eccentric characters that would find themselves at home in one of the Connery Bond films with a more modern, realistic approach to espionage (or just running and gunning, depending on your playstyle). How it all ties together into one cohesive whole, I have no idea. Suffice it to say that Obsidian knows how to make a good game.
Gameplay is as varied as the characters and choices. Want to sneak around with silenced pistols and never let anyone know you were there (my personal favorite)? Knock yourself—and invariably, hundreds of unnamed baddies—out. Want to run around like a psychopath, set off every alarm, and gun down everyone who crosses your path with an automatic rifle? This is the game for you, too. Want to befriend everyone you come across and end up with tons of allies? Practical, and probably a good idea. Want to go the other direction and leave no one alive to tell your tale? Leaving no witnesses is smart, too. There’s no wrong way to play, and this makes multiple playthroughs especially worthwhile.
The story is awesome, too. I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say that everyone is double-crossing everyone and you’ll never know who to trust. The paranoia you’ll feel in every conversation is exacerbated by a timer that forces you to choose your responses in the heat of the moment, and the whole thing works masterfully; though the story has many different branches, all of them (that I’ve seen) are well-written. In fact, the first time you play through, you may very well believe it to be a linear game because of how good the writing is, and how rare that is in games that aren’t completely linear. It’s only in the middle of a second or third playthrough that you really begin to appreciate how things are changing in response to your actions without losing the overall narrative strength. Most games sag and have their plot weakened as soon as choices pop up, but Alpha Protocol actually seems to be stronger for it.
Graphics are good, too. They’re not the most detailed in the world, but there’s a sleekness to the aesthetic that I really like. Areas are all distinct from one another, though there’s a same-y kind of desert area toward the beginning. Don’t be dismayed, though, because you’ll quickly be given the freedom to choose which area to go to next.
Music is good, though, like much of the game music within the past few years, it doesn’t really stand out. Still, the title theme could get stuck in your head, and the music does its job of adding to the moment in certain scenes. For a game like this full of paranoia and freedom of choice, the atmosphere that it adds is never a bad thing.
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