A well written RPG with some missing polish and incomplete feeling gameplay holding it down.

User Rating: 6.5 | Alpha Protocol PS3
In the games industry, there is a saying that goes "the difference between a good game and a great one is that extra 10%". In the case of Alpha Protocol, it's a game that has so much potential and talent behind it (in the form of RPG master developer Obsidian) with so many great ideas and concepts, but that saying might have to apply here for an extra 20% or 30% just because of the poor execution of these ideas and unfortunate lack of polish presented here. Obsidian is a company that is highly ranked among Bioware and Bethesda in their ability to make a great RPG, but they've never really been able to have control over their own big franchise like Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series or Bioware's Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises. Alpha Protocol was set to be that game and very well could have been with some more time, and it's a game that I absolutely love for what it is while despising it for its issues and the potential that went unused.

Players start off as agent Mike Thornton, a new recruit to the Alpha Protocol agency, hired to find and stop a terrorist leader accused of taking down a civilian airliner, who must then uncover a larger conspiracy involving arms manufacturers and the government itself. The story is one of the most interesting aspects of the game and shows Obsidian's talent for story making. The writing is top notch and makes use of twists and takes the story in interesting places, the plot itself is your basic government conspiracy that you see in so many spy movies and shows, but here it fits and Obsidian uses it to make some surprises and let us try and live out our spy fantasies. The game even makes good use of what classes or abilities you pick, with characters referencing previous accomplishments throughout the game, and even missions done within the game will have attention called to them, with one character pointing out my involvement in several missions I did before in order, which impressed me and made me feel like I was shaping the story in my favor.

The writing might be stellar, but as mentioned some of the clichéd tropes can feel a bit overdone, the biggest issue is the voice acting though. While some characters sound appropriate for their character, the main character himself sounds bored, and no matter what conversation option you pick with him, he never comes off as cool or in control, with a hint of boredom in almost everything he says. It's really hit or miss with the voice acting, but luckily it's never terrible as much as uninspired. It doesn't help that Mike isn't very customizable either, though weaponry, skills and armor can all be changed, Mike's personality is rarely changed even when players stick to specific dialogue choices. Mike doesn't sport many different aesthetical changes either, though players can give him a variety of hats and glasses, and a few different hairstyles, skin tones and beards he is always a dark haired Caucasian with a look that always reverts to default during certain sequences (which may have been an oversight, since even with such minor changes to Mike's appearance, it's still jarring to see him grow and regrow beards and change eye color for no reason).

The choice system is robust and as mentioned even minor references go a long way. Many characters can be killed off and it's possible to even miss out entire missions or characters through the decisions you make. In one playthrough of the game, I never met two of the game's most important contacts and found very little information on them, not for lack of exploration but due to the decisions I made and other characters I came across. Some missions will play out entirely different with different factions fighting with or against you, and any enemy or ally could potentially be on the other side, which along with the lack of a karma system forces the player to make some tough decisions and really makes the morally gray world of espionage shine through. Even minor decisions (like killing a single federal agent or opting to save a captured ally instead of going for Intel) drastically changes the people you come across and upgrades you gain. There really is no "bad" choice in the game either, since killing off a boss pleading for his life can earn you the admiration of his enemies or a discount to the weaponry clearinghouse, even if it means closing off any help or Intel they could have provided you.

The RPG mechanics are easily the best formed aspects here, all abilities are appropriate for a spy RPG and the different skills and abilities keep the game from feeling like a simple action game with RPG aspects. Options like stealth, pistols, endurance and technical aptitude all allowing for drastically different playstyles (or at least, having the potential to do so in levels that open themselves up), and unlike in the Mass Effect series or Fallout 3, force the player to choose what to specialize in since a player can only have a few abilities maxed out and attempting to become a jack of all trades keeps players from seeing the max rank in any abilities (and players who choose the Rookie option have even less points to waste in exchange for more dialogue options). It's an interesting call back to older RPG games that is used well, and establishes the game as an RPG first, action game second.

Some of the skills are a bit unbalanced, stealth is the most expensive but also the most useful, with latter skills allowing a player to become invisible and fast for up to a minute, while Shotguns don't offer nonlethal or suppressed ammunition or have much use at a distance, and abilities that boost lock picking and hacking are useless at difficulty levels lower than the hardest one (since those minigames are rather easy and checkpoints are generous enough to usually allow a player to try again). It's also unfortunate that some abilities are almost required for certain segments to avoid frustration, one part of the game has you stripped of weaponry and forced to fight or sneak your way to your gear. Depending on when you undertake the mission and what you have selected, you could either breeze through the mission, or die repeatedly attempting to use the unwieldy hand to hand combat and stealth you didn't specialize in at all.

The combat and gameplay mechanics are very inconsistent with these abilities, which make it frustrating, even in cases where you have full choice in how you play. The game attempts to mix in third person shooter and melee combat, but the aiming reticle for any weapon is the size of a barn door forcing players to wait for critical shots, while the cover system is incredibly finicky, not allowing Thornton basic abilities like vaulting over cover and often flat out not working on certain surfaces. It is nice that I have to work on my abilities, and being able to instantly critically injure or kill an enemy with a full upgraded pistol is nice (especially since they mix in your own abilities with the upgrades and weaponry you purchase or find as you level up), but in some cases it just seems like they unfairly limit you. The melee combat is the biggest example of this, since Mike cannot do something simple like block while enemies can block as much as they like, completely negating any damage you do to them. It's an unfair example of false difficulty, and it seems like there are better ways to empower the player with the abilities they pick without having to make these concessions.

While the game does a great job of registering the decisions you make and options you use, it does feel like there are some cases where it also doesn't acknowledge you properly. While the game does allow you to use a nonlethal playstyle, it's only acknowledged in specific missions. While killing a single CIA officer might completely change the ending for me, if I allow an entire army to live in a level the end boss might still end up accusing me of slaughtering his guards and weakening him, while some assassination missions still register as completed even if I merely knocked out the target instead of killing him. It calls to attention the issue with stealth as well since bodies simply disappear often times and cannot be moved, meaning you have to hope they fade away before an enemy stumbles upon the scene or else you'll get caught.

The missions are fun and varied, taking you across the globe in an attempt to uncover the conspiracy and offering a change in aesthetics and contacts, all interconnected to each other and allowing you to take them at your leisure. The levels are moderately open to offer different approaches, and you gain experience for sneaking past soldiers or finding hidden areas, which rewards the different classes players can choose. The biggest issues with the levels are in how linear or underdeveloped certain areas seem, and how similar the enemies are to each other. Some of the levels you come across in the game will unfortunately have choke points where a player is forced to play a certain way, and as mentioned sometimes you have to rely on skills you didn't put any attention to just to complete a certain mission.

The enemies are also incredibly dumb and uninteresting from level to level, and while it might be cool to see two factions fighting each other with you in the middle, it just makes them even dumber and more susceptible to getting confused or spazzing out. Whether you are fighting a Taipei gangster, or a trained US Marine, the combat animations never vary, each fighting with the same hand to hand combat style with their accuracy and danger only reflecting how high your level is, not what kind of enemy they are. There are some minor changes, with certain enemy types using body armor or different weaponry, and some factions have an inclination towards finding players who utilize stealth instead of fighting them outright, or vice versa, but the changes are minor between enemies and the aesthetics of the different factions are the only things separating them for the most part.

The biggest issue with the game is definitely the polish and lack of refinement in mechanics and graphics. As mentioned above, much of the combat and many of the abilities you choose are unbalanced or unrefined, with constant issues in the AI and cover system, as well as more major bugs like occasional instances of game crashes or AI soldiers acting erratic. The graphical quality of the game leaves a lot to be desired, with frequent texture loading issues and pop in, as well as framerate dips and incredibly bland art design and architecture. The animations are wonky, and as mentioned all characters in the game walk and fight in exactly the same manner, which shows more when they all look like robots as a result. The game doesn't even bother to have an animation for certain things, with weapon recoil only expressed in the reticle change and doors popping open in front of Mike if you choose to open the door. I imagine that this might be one reason players cannot pick up enemy gear, since the animation for picking up a weapon and switching it for their own would have been too taxing more than unbalanced on the part of game mechanics.

Overall, Alpha Protocol is a game that is disappointing more than it is bad or good. It's disappointing because of Obsidian's pedigree, and because of the potential behind it along with just how well done so much of the game is, which makes the bad aspects shine even more then if it were a truly bad game because of how much they water down my enjoyment of what works in the game. It's a shame, but hopefully if Obsidian ever manages to make a sequel they can give it the proper time and polish it needs. If you can forgive the dated and incomplete design aspects in order to appreciate the decisions you can make and skills you can pick for your character, then you should give this game a try, especially with how different it is to so many modern RPG games. If you can't forgive glaring polish issues or are easily frustrated, then you should look elsewhere.