An Hour With… Alpha Protocol

By John Walker on May 31st, 2010 at 12:30 pm.

This screen is definitely the best thing in the first hour.

We had hoped to bring your our Alpha Protocol WIT by now, but a series of unfortunate circumstances means that it’s much delayed. You might even have your own Thoughts to Wot below. So here is a description of the first hour or two, which isn’t a very pretty sight. I’m absolutely sure things much improve after this, especially now I have the game in a state in which I can play it at all. So yes, this is especially negative. No, this absolutely is NOT our review of Alpha Protocol, and anyone who says it is gets a dead arm.

When you’re a spy, it’s very important to never step over anything. If there’s a long way around, ideally surrounded by guards, cameras and locked doors, then this is the route the good spy will take. Rather than lifting his legs over a one foot fence.

A lot of people think a spy uses the art of stealth, silently sneaking through rooms, the enemy not even aware he was there. This is a myth. When you’re a spy you want to walk into a room, loudly declare your arrival, then mow everyone down with an assault rifle. Don’t worry about the alarms – just turn them off and everyone will forget you were ever there.

And of course, when you’re a spy you have to buy your own weapons.

I could keep going with this joke for ages. When you’re a spy you have to hack the .ini files of the game to change options that appear in the game’s menu but don’t actually do anything. When you’re a spy you don’t have to worry about leaving dead bodies lying around as they evaporate seconds after death. When you’re a spy you only go into cover about one in three attempts… But the strangest thing about /Alpha Protocol: An Espionage RPG/ is that it’s not about being a spy at all.

Not for any of the above reasons. But because it just simply isn’t a game about a spy. It’s a game about being a commando. It’s every other third-person action game, where a black-ops military man is sent to clear out entire bases, except with an awful lot more talking.

Conversations implement something a little similar to Fahrenheit’s much-ignored system. As the other character is talking you’re given three or four manners of response to choose from. These will be words like, “Suave”, “Frustrated”, “Professional” and the ilk, that determine how Michael Thorton behaves. Unlike Fahrenheit you’re given quite a lot of time to make this choice, and like Fahrenheit, the responses often seem at odds with the word you picked. Seemingly innocuous choices can lead to causing offense with your companion – but then, that’s life, isn’t it?

Once you’re in the field, things play an awful lot like Mass Effect 2, except with a peculiar reluctance to use cover. Thorton would much rather stand in the line of fire than hide behind a box, it seems. Which makes the option of stealth a frequently frustrating direction to head in.

In fact, it seems quite impossible to sneak through an area unnoticed – combat is forced upon you. You don’t have to kill. Tranq bullets let you stun enemies, and hand-to-hand combat will put them into a deep, bruised sleep.

Although my attempt to play through without killing fell in the very first mission when I discovered as soon as Michael ran out of tranquiliser bullets he switches to regular ammo without asking. The pool of blood leaking out of the baddie was my first clue.

In between combat there’s the minigames. There’s three main types: hacking computers, turning off alarms, and picking locks.

Hacking computers is horrible. You’ve got to identify two sets of stationary letters and numbers in a large grid of rapidly changing figures, except after a short amount of time their position will move, and your ability to match the codes up is painfully slow. And on the mouse, barely controllable.

Turning off alarms involves a technology-ised version of the puzzle where you have to work out which fisherman has caught the fish on their tangled lines. Weeee.

And picking locks asks you to line up the tumblers. Played as intended (on the 360 controller, sigh) this is a vaguely tricky challenge to use the analogue nature of the triggers to squeeze them into place. On the mouse it’s as elementary as just clicking three times.

None is good. All are a frustration that interrupts the flow.

However, all these are delights only to be enjoyed by those who can play the game at all. Obviously new PC games are likely to have patch-requiring conflicts, but AP’s seem especially egregious. For a few, including me, the game is mostly impossible to play with mouse and keyboard.

Some extremely peculiar decisions have been made regarding how the game is set up. Mouse smoothing, for instance, something no one ever wants to set to “on” is hard-coded as “on” and is not available as an option. This is causing a lot of players to find the game staggers horrendously when they move the mouse, making aiming near-impossible. However, when played with a controller (ideally a 360 controller for compatibility) it moves smoothly. So it seems very likely to be horrible porting to PC.

Stranger still, options presented in-game do nothing. Vsync, for instance, cannot be turned off, despite its claiming to have done so. And like many Unreal 3 engine games there’s no option to turn on anti-aliasing or anisotropic filtering, however here, if you overrule and instruct your graphics card to force it, incredibly the dialogue choices vanish. So instead of picking a style of response to the conversation, you instead have three anonymous circles, and inevitably randomly guess at the insulting one. Which is… odd.

Then there’s the minigames, some of which are proving impossible to complete with a mouse, again requiring a controller for any hope of success.

(For clarity I should add: there are rumours on some forums that the various issues above are only occurring for pirated/DRM-removed versions of the game. This is not the case. The version of the game we have is a boxed copy sent directly by Sega.)

Hacks have appeared for those with the know-how to edit .ini files, but of course these are temporary plasters that don’t completely address the issues, and are certainly not something that anyone should expect a player to have to do.

The first hour with Alpha Protocol, involving a long, meandering tutorial, and a very dull mission in Saudi Arabia, is clearly not promising at all. What I’ve heard is that things pick up considerably after this. And I will be writing a full review once I’ve completed the game, hopefully bringing much better news.

However, I’ll be playing it on a 360 controller unless a patch appears very soon.

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192 Comments »

  1. malkav11 says:

    The hacking minigame is awful. The lumberjack beard and swamp hat is hilarious and clearly the only way to go. And yeah, the tutorial section is pretty dreadful and I was starting to regret my preorder as I played through it…but then the game got to Saudi Arabia (which a lot of people seem to find dull) and I was instantly having a lot of fun. The game does a bunch of cool things, some of which aren’t implemented quite as well as they should be, I freely admit, but they’re -there-, and they aren’t in so many other games. Certainly not either Mass Effect, where I was playing mostly for the story and dialogue and found the gameplay systems rather boring.

    Also, one of your mission stats is “orphans created.” How can you not love that?

  2. Count Elmdor says:

    Well if you didn’t want to play like a commando, then why did you make your character look like Beardy McBigbeard from the new Medal of Honor game? hmmmmmmm?

  3. Mercurial says:

    By modern standards to a modern audience this game is flawed.

    However, look past all that and its a real gem the comparisons to Deus Ex and Bloodlines (sans bugs for me at least) aren’t blowing smoke, the more I play it the more I see the similarities.

    Ignore the consolisation of the UI and controls (and checkpoints, grrrr) this game is an old school PC roleplayer, not some shoot and conversation rpg-lite like ME2.

    • Vinraith says:

      @Mercurial

      not some shoot and conversation rpg-lite like ME2.

      It’s not? Because I’ve gotten the sense from early reviews, a lot of the word-of-mouth, and John’s article here that that’s exactly what it was, a rougher version of ME2′s shoot-talk-shoot-talk gameplay with the same shallowness of RPG elements. Tales of disappearing corpses, problematic stealth, and automatic switches from non-lethal to lethal weapons reinforce that sense. I was hoping for something of at least Deus-Ex’s depth so if I’ve gotten the wrong impression please do correct, what elements haven’t I heard about that provide real old school RPG depth?

    • malkav11 says:

      It’s a bit rougher but it’s a lot more varied and interesting, at least so far. Adding stealth to your options alone makes for much greater tactical variety. Certainly you can’t stealth through the whole thing without speccing into stealth characterwise, but with a point or two in it you can take advantage of its existence to do things like flank enemies, sneak up close and grenade them, stealth kill the turret operator and then turn it on their friends, etc. The environments are also a lot more varied than “hallway full of cover.”

      I don’t remember Mass Effect real well anymore, but Alpha Protocol’s character building has substantially more in the way of options and impact than Mass Effect 2′s “I’m barely an RPG” nonsense tree, and has enough meat to it that you can and must design your character instead of simply which order you acquire all your powers in. There’s also a reasonable assortment of gear that gives some options in gear building and customization, both through a black market clearinghouse and on-site procurement. I’m told more opens up later, but at the moment for me it’s enough to give noticeable upgrades and options without the spammy overwhelm of Mass Effect 1 (you may get a couple of items as loot in a given mission, usually mods rather than weapons), yet avoid the Mass Effect 2 syndrome of having exactly two real weapons in any given category, one of which is clearly superior to the previous one, and a bunch of upgrades that make no immediately noticeable difference.

      The conversation system is, unfortunately, worse than Mass Effect’s in that not only do you have no idea AT ALL what is going to come out of your character’s mouth most of the time (as you’re picking “emotions” or something of the sort 90% of the time), but it’s also timed, something which adds exactly nothing to the game as far as I can tell. On the other hand, the things you say and do in these choices have real in-game effects both in perks and in storyline, as well as how subsequent missions play out. You can also purchase advance intel that affects your approach to missions, perhaps thinning out the guard population in advance or providing more supplies to loot on mission, a map or a preplaced weapon, or better yet, bonus objectives. That’s pretty rad, in my opinion. (It’s so far been easy enough to afford all of it, but maybe it forces meaningful choices down the line. I hope so.)

    • Vinraith says:

      @malkav11

      Thanks for writing up that detailed description. For the most part it reinforces my overall take on the game (and as mentioned earlier that dialogue system sounds absolutely game-breaking to me) but the more information at hand when making these sorts of decisions the better.

    • Tom OBedlam says:

      oddly I’m really digging the dialogue system, though I can think of two occasions that have had me scratching my head. I really prefer it to the old style pick a sentence, and the time limit makes it flow so much better. Also, as conversation is in a tree that drives forward, you never end up with the really disjointed conversations of ME2, conversations make sense and feel more like an interactive movie, but in a good way!

  4. innokenti says:

    Gotta say, so far for me 9.5/10 for dialogue and gameplay, but 6/10 for tech. I’ve not really had any serious problems and I’ve been playing the game fine (and no trouble at all on the hacking minigame…) but given the roughness of many of the tech areas I’d say it’s the Game of the Year that will never be.

  5. Turin Turambar says:

    Firt, it’s not a RPG.
    Also, it’s nothing like Deus Ex.

    It also have a mediocre beginning, and some glaring flaws. But in the end i liked the game more and more, around the middle part of the game, and near the end i was totally happy with the game.

    • jti says:

      Didn’t play Deus Ex then? You should try it and see how much it is alike but miles better.

    • Turin Turambar says:

      I did play Deus Ex. Two or three times.

  6. Tertiee says:

    Is this going to turn into a “what is an RPG” debacle all over again?

  7. sebmojo says:

    ‘A deep, bruised sleep’ is a great line :)

  8. BL says:

    I agree that the game has some problems, but I still like it alot. I have read that people find the minigames difficult, but once you get used to them, they are really easy (even with a mouse). I also had problems with the hacking in the tutorial, but once I learned how it worked, I only failed two times during an entire playthrough (and I’m not a better player than anyone else, if I can do it this easy, I think most other people can too, after a little practice).

    Stealth is not impossible, but actually much easier compared to games like Thief: Deadly shadows for example. But you have to invest in the stealth skill, and wear light armor, otherwise it’s very hard (just as it should be). So when people have trouble in the beginning, it’s probably because they have almost no points in stealth. It’s the other way around actually, stealth is overpowered when you specialize in it.

    I’m also annoyed about the mouse-movement bug (but it doesn’t make the game unplayable with mouse, it’s just a bit irritating). Hopefully it will be fixed soon in a patch. Some other things I dislike are the not so good AI, bossfights where you have to shoot someone in the head 20 times to kill them, and I would have prefered a conversation system without a timer. But the story , writing, and acting are good. And the game really has interesting consequences because of choices you make. And I have no problems with getting into cover, maybe we are playing different games? It does happen yes, but not 1/3 of the times, but perhaps 1/50 of the times.

    I had to defend the game a little, because it gets a lot of negative publicity, and it’s actually not that bad. I’d give it perhaps a score of 7.5/10 if I reviewed it, mostly because of the excellent “choices and consequences” the game offers. Probably the best in any action-rpg ever made, in the history of videogames, so that should get some recognition I think. But as a shooter, it’s below average.

  9. sfury says:

    Just finished it and my god the ending is horrible.

    I still can’t figure out this game – so many things right, so many things wrong. Why are some parts so brilliant and others so rushed and ridiculous? What the hell, Obsidian??

    O_o

  10. vagabond says:

    The always on awareness and the evasion skill makes stealthing much easier, and the invisibility super power (called “Shadow Operative” I think?) makes for ludicrous fun if you like running out and stabbing three guys in the neck while they go “what was that noise?” “where is he?” “who the hell just stabbed john and dave right in front of me?”

    I played a stealth and pistol build, with most of the rest of my points in Martial Arts. I was able to do the CIA listening post in Rome without anyone even knowing I was there.
    Most of the rest of the time I snuck around shooting people in the head with real bullets because they were bad and deserved to die. (and also the aforementioned neck stabbing)

    What annoyed me was that (I suspect because I put no points into the “hacking” skill) by the time I got to the last of the three cities the hacking, lockpicking, and clipping games had become so difficult that I could only get them maybe 1 in 5 tries (or in the case of the 12 point clipping game, 1 in 30). Failing sets off an alarm, which invariably needed a 12 point clipping exercise to turn off, so I spent the end game in an almost perpetual state of alarms going off.

    • vagabond says:

      Reply fail to the thread about how stealthy you can be…

      The other thing I’m doing is replaying as an utter psychopath with a shotgun, and killing everyone I can as soon as I can to see how much that affects the overall story. (Mina’s reactions to my antics in the first 3 rome missions have been pretty amusing.)
      I suspect that there might be enough variety from your choices that it is more replayable than ME2.

    • The Snee says:

      I found the shotgun satisfying for a couple of missions, then pretty useless, so i either used the pistol or shot people for the rest of it.

  11. joseph "the man" manderley says:

    honestly, this is why i buy all games for consoles unless it’s pc exclusive- between DRM and these shitty ports it’s just not worth wasting the time on the PC versions

  12. DarkFenix says:

    Well, given that PC games are significantly cheaper, or free if you pirate, I’d say the PC has quite an advantage either way.

  13. My2pence says:

    Well I’m going to wait for patches before buying it.

    It’s interesting reading opinions of this game. From what I gather from the more refined audiences (RPS, gamerswithjobs, qt3, pennyarcade, rpgwatch forums) the game as a whole transcends the sum of each individual part despite each mechanic suffering (in the eyes of some) because of the focus on making it an “RPG.”

    The stealth portion sucks because it’s not Splinter Cell but more of some stat based abstraction that’s supposed to represent a stealthy operative sneaking around (no…he’s not really invisible), the third person gunplay sucks because it’s not like Gears of War but instead another stat based action to separate player twitch skill from character ability and the RPGness sucks because you can’t customize your character to a fine degree or play a chick (:facepalm:).

    But all in all, the people worth listening to are glued to their chairs for several hours straight and walking away from the game saying it was a great experience despite typical Obsidian lack of polish.

    Pretty accurate assessment?

  14. Magic H8 Ball says:

    Anonymous Coward said:
    more refined audiences (RPS, gamerswithjobs, qt3, pennyarcade, rpgwatch forums)

    I say, riveting tale, old chap!

  15. Alpharius says:

    To be fair to Alpha Protocol, apart from the aforementioned problems with the controls the only problem I have with the game is the fact that the story felt, to me, that it had only just got into full swing when it suddenly decided to throw you into the last mission. It seemed as if they were trying to tell a compelling story then ran out of time and thought ‘Sod it, lets skip the middle and tack on the end’. This was annoying as, just as I made a connection with my character, the game ended.
    That said i did enjoy the story and the game itself had great potential, but it seems as if Obsidian rushed it in the end.

    • sfury says:

      yup, but also the Rome missions were just as rushed and plain filler – awful linear unimaginative level design, boring missions…

      I don’t know who was in charge of those but they felt nothing like Moscow or even Taipei (which was a bit mediocre itself, but not THAT MEDIOCRE)

      I had my hopes up after Moscow but the game repeatedly disappointed me after that.

      Hell, it feels more unfinished and unpolished than KOTOR2…

  16. Mr.President says:

    Read the whole review as:
    “Obsidian game, Obsidian game Obsidian game Obsidian game. Obsidian game Obsidian game, Obsidian game, Obsidian game, Obsidian gameObsidian game. Obsidian game Obsidian game. Obsidian game…”, and so on.

    It’s all right. You are agreeing to deal with a bunch of broken crappy crap when you’re buying an Obsidian game. It’s all worth it in the end.

  17. csuzw says:

    For the 1st few hours that I played this I was just repeatedly frustrated and angered by the awful design decisions made in places. The controls and UI for the most part seem designed for a 360, the mini games are terrible, my character felt very weak initially and there were times where stealth didn’t seem to be an option.

    Now I’ve almost finished my 2nd play through and while the game is far from perfect I’ve really enjoyed it. I was wrong about stealth, you can play entirely stealthily for 95% of the game, it’s easier later as you have more skill and better gear but once you learn the oddity of the cover system and AI it’s really not that difficult or random. Despite the fact you can’t really use your stealth skills in boss fights it’s actually easier as 1 as you probably have pistol or martial arts skills which are both vastly better than the heavier weapons for these fights.

    While the actual missions available don’t change (the action missions anyway) having played through with polar opposite characters it’s really interesting to see the results of different choices made.

  18. DrugCrazed says:

    Sounds like an embargo is in place to me…

    Another game that appears to get hyped to hell and is a disappointment. Good thing I still have ME2, DA, Burnout, Freelancer and more to play.

  19. csuzw says:

    Anonymous Coward said:
    yup, but also the Rome missions were just as rushed and plain filler – awful linear unimaginative level design, boring missions…

    I don’t know who was in charge of those but they felt nothing like Moscow or even Taipei (which was a bit mediocre itself, but not THAT MEDIOCRE)

    I had my hopes up after Moscow but the game repeatedly disappointed me after that.

    Almost opposite opinion to me, I thought Taipei was the worst location by far, Heck felt really out of place, especially when he was “providing a distraction”. Rome on the other hand felt fine, not spectacular but it had possibly the best conclusion of the 3 locations. Moscow is definitely the best location overall though but it really feels like it should be done first, I don’t think it would have harmed the game at all to have made you do the locations in a set order.

    • sfury says:

      Heck at least was funny. :) I guess I liked Taipei because it was more exotic, though there were the occasional rushed things there too.

      What irritated me a lot in Rome was how linear and lazy the level design was, also it contained some of the smallest areas and was pretty uneventful (at least the way I passed it, well except one major event). But yeah it had its heights too – e.g. the Roman Villa.

      At least we can agree on Moscow, next time I’m gonna replay it Moscow-Rome-Taipei, it definitely is a good starter, though I’m not sure what the (ally) consequences would be if I leave it for later or last.

      Might even try that, but I’d hate to replay Rome or Taipei so soon.

  20. adds says:

    Another UE3 game with horrible mouse control? First Conviction (Oh god why are they are so delayed and unresponsive) and now this.
    Are the PC porting team that stupid and untalanted?

  21. Corporate Dog says:

    I know this is the internet and all, but…

    Is it ethically and morally possible for someone to like both AP AND Mass Effect 2?

    Or must I purchase two pit bulls, name them ‘Thornton’ and ‘Shepard’, and then let them loose on each other?

    • Javier-de-Ass says:

      of course it’s possible. they’re quite mechanically similar, though one is an rpg and one is a shooter with dialogues.

      I enjoyed me2 somewhat while I played it. but starting up ap, especially the beginning of it before any points are pumped into the different things it is very similar to me2 and I really don’t like me2 that much in retrospect. also went back to it a bit last night and I definitely prefer me1 to me2. ap is great.

  22. csuzw says:

    I like both AP and ME2 but despite 1st appearances they’re very different games. As far as I can tell most people who only like 1 and not the other are trying to make out they’re the same type of game.

    It’s far from impossible to play with mouse and keyboard, it’s just very noticeable with a lot of things that the UI was designed with a 360 controller in mind more than mouse and keyboard.

  23. vagabond says:

    I’ve now done rome and taipei and am moving on to moscow.
    Towards the end of taipei I was finding that armoured opponents were starting to take 3 or 4 shots to kill. However most of the perks I have gotten for being an utter psycho have given me reduced cooldown on the Room Sweeping power, so that sees a lot of use. I do fear for that boss battle where the dude in the guard tower throws grenades at you, since standing next to him and room sweeping him two dozen times with phosphorous rounds isn’t really possible.

  24. Narrenschiff says:

    You guys are pussies. I’ve been playin’ alpha protocol on hard mode and lovin’ it despite all of the supposedly egregious flaws. Yes, it’s flawed. Yes, it’s unrealistic. However, the storyline is tight and the dialogue system is fun, and sinking all your AP into stealth and rifles means you can pick off everyone you want from a distance or simply do a ridiculous chain of neck-stabbings while invisible. Oh god I love that.

  25. PC_FTW says:

    I hope that every publisher/programmer/dev team that develops for consoles instead of PC and then just does a (maybe not even decently cross-compiled, but instead even emulation environment) 1:1 console port to PC in order to extort even more money from unaware consumer morons CATCHES A HORRIBLE DISEASE AND JUST AS HE NEARS DEATH DIES IN A FIRE.

    Console games are still threatening PC game development, at the very least in the sense that there is a distinct trend to over-handholding, near invincibility by default(health gauge what health gauge), oversimplification(look, your enemy has THIS much hitpoints left, shown as a pretty, colored bar!) and, quite frankly, general dumbing-down of everything.

    I hope games like the Total War series and Men of War(or Evil Genius, Dungeon Keeper, etc pp) and so forth will survive this plague and eventually banish this sickness from our existence.

    Thank you for watching.

  26. N Cowan says:

    This game is frustrating the hell out of me. Why? Because it’s absolutely phenomenal. I loved Deus Ex, Vampire Bloodlines, and my current favorite game is the Mass Effect series. I don’t like spy movies, never watched one episode of 24, do not care about Bond, and found the Bourne movies boring. Spy stuff bores me. This game does not bore me. The characters, the writing, the choices and consequences are amazing. The frustrating part is that there are a lot of broken/dodgy game mechanics that could have used more time in the oven. But they are forgiveable if only because I find myself thinking about the game when i’m not playing it. It’s addicting.

    The real shame is that because of all the poor reviews, negative feed back, and half-baked game mechanics, this game may never get the sequel it deserves. Maybe we’ve been spoiled by Bioware’s sense of polish and shine (and I love them for it) but we SHOULD have been spoiled by Black Isle’s/Troika’s/Obsidian’s writing and ability to make games that are far better than the parts they are made from. This game deserves not only a sequel, but full on trilogy treatment. I LIKED Mike Thornton, because he had character. Maybe he wasn’t exactly how i’d picture myself as a spy, but he wasn’t a cardboard cut-out like Shepard (and I stress, ME is my fave game series at this point.) I have played every Obsidian game up to this point, and even though they are seen as the red headed step-cousing of Bioware, they deserve more. This game deserves a few patches, and it deserves sequels. It needs love.

    On the other hand, releasing games this buggy with mechanics this broken is frustrating. It’s as though NO ONE actually tested it, AT ALL. I have all stealth maxed out, and it’s still hit or miss on whether that actually works. Sometimes I can get by with no issues. Sometimes deadly headshots with a fully maxed out pistol skill simply annoy the target and have him set the “all guards screaming” alarm. Maybe I survive and turn the alarm off. But in doing so, I feel a little less like a super spy, and a little more like Frank Drebin. At this point, it’s comical how much I can screw up a mission and still succeed. Then maybe I get killed by mega-train, or the 80′s coke head (best bost fight/music video ever) and maybe even Darcy is constantly shoving 3 grenades at a time up my ass, and I die. Then I reload. THEN there are NO enemies on the level. I get that I can just manually reload my last save, and that’s fine, but didn’t someone at Obsidian or SEGA notice this? Are they so elite at gaming they never ever died once? Again frustrating. Not only in itself, because this game will not likely succeed enough to warrant sequels, which it should rightly have.

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