An Hour With… Alpha Protocol

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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