Where do I start?

Well, I'll first apologise for taking an extra day to write this up – not that excuses are any good, but I had started writing this yesterday, and had finished up the first section (next paragraph), then my PC started playing up and I lost all of the work I had done so far. The same happened the second time I tried writing it, though I didn't get as far. So, whatever the reasons, I'm sorry this took a while longer. Anyway, Alpha Protocol, a rather unique game, as it is one of the very few, if not the only, “modern spy” RPG, at least on consoles. I received the game on the 27th May, and spent most of the time since, at least until Monday morning, at exactly 00:01, playing the game. But, before I go into the game itself, I'll talk a little about the background of the game. Alpha Protocol, released on Xbox 360 (which I'm reviewing, though I suspect the PS3 version at least is a carbon copy), PS3 and PC, was developed by Obsidian Entertainment. This is Obsidian's first unique IP (Intellectual Property – not directly based on any previous Media), although they are the people behind Neverwinter Nights II, and its two expansions and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. They are also in the process of developing Fallout: New Vegas, a much-anticipated expansion pack for Fallout 3. The company has had a fairly close relationship with Bioware, creators of the original, masterpiece, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, so when they declined to work on a sequel to the game, they recommended Obsidian to work on it. Now, I'm not sure how familiar you are with the KotOR games, but KotOR II was never as widely received as its parent, as the game was released with a plentiful of bugs and glitches, as well as evidence of a lot of missing content, including an entire droid factory, meant as a side-quest to HK-47, and would play into the final battle on Malachor V, and that's just one thing they left out! Despite many fan attempts to re-create this content, efforts have never truly realised the original dream that Obsidian had. For fans of the game, this is widely known, but what is slightly less as popular a fact, is that the (main) reason that KotOR II had all of these glitches and missing content, was that, for obvious reasons, I guess, LucasArts were pushing Obsidian to release the game for a Christmas 2004 release, meaning they didn't have time to implement those features or polish the game up as well as they planned. Still, Obsidian has never really been able to escape the “let-down” of KotOR II, and I believe that is one of the reasons that Alpha Protocol has been rather under the radar since its initial announcement, although releasing it at the same time as Red Dead Revolution probably wasn't the best idea they had. The game was originally to be released in October 2009, but it was pushed back to this week (28th May for Europe, 1st June for USA), though it is not entirely sure if this was a “marketing pull” (seems unlikely with the release of RDR), or if they were making “last minute” changes to the game (even if Obsidian says that it was a marketing pull). So... onto the game itself. Before the actual review (don't worry, nearly there), I'll give you a little plot information. As previously mentioned, the game is a “modern spy” RPG, and, as such, you play Michael Thorton, enlisted into a special-ops, “completely” secret, division of the United States government security force. Think CTU (if you're a 24 fan) in terms of employees, mixed with the secretive nature of Third Echelon (if you're a Splinter Cell fan). Anyway, you're the newest agent, and, for your first mission, you're sent off to Saudi Arabia in order to track down some stolen missiles (from a US arms developer, Halbech) – one of which has just blown up a public airplane. Once you do find the terrorist leader who had announced his group's involvement in a news report (as Bin Laden might in the real world), he tells you that the weapons were not stolen from Halbech, but bought. At this, you are told by your handler that an unidentified object hurtling towards your position.

No prizes for guessing what it is you see when you look up and start running away, straight away. Yes, missiles! It is at this point that you stop becoming an official agent of Alpha Protocol, as, it seems, they might be a large part of this “selling missiles to terrorists” along with Halbech. Instead, you travel to Moscow, Rome and Taipei, completing missions to try to unravel and uncover this deep conspiracy, with just one initial friend to help you. After playing the game, I suspect the “push-back” of the release date was in fact a marketing pull, as, although I didn't seem to experience even half as many as some reviewers made out, I did experience a few bugs/glitches, mostly involving the cover system automatically moving me out of cover and one instance towards the very end of the game, where, during a mini-boss battle, the mini-boss disappeared from his position entirely, as if I had defeated him, but refused to let me enter the next area of the game. Another hilarious, yet constant, issue with the game is the “crouch”/sneak motion, entered when clicking “in” in the left thumb-stick. Considering it's probably the first thing you'll actually do in the game, you're probably gonna burst out laughing at the sight of Thorton's “motion” - one reviewer said, "Thorton's sneak animation is comical too, and appears as if he's wandering around trying to conceal an erection.". I can't actually believe I didn't think of that imagery myself, though I could see there was something strangely (cough, familiar, cough) going on with it, and in reflection, yes – it most definitely does! The cover system itself is pretty horrible altogether though, it's not too bad when using it as a straightforward cover (though be careful when you're up against snipers!), but there is no point whatsoever in using the “cover-to-cover” (“C2C”) system that the game includes. There is no “crouch run” as such, so you'll become seen a lot quicker if you do use the “C2C”, as you're in plain view, and it's never that clear if you'll be running to your next cover, or merely running blindly towards your next cover. In short, avoid “C2C” completely – just exit cover (still crouched) and move towards the next cover. Moving onwards to the combat, again, not a strong point. Well, “Close Quarters Combat” (“CQC”) is actually pretty good, though it's not recommended when under heavy fire/surrounded, of course, but the weapons of the game aren't “all that”. Discounting gadgets for the time-being, there are four types of weapons – handguns, SMGs (you use two, one in each hand), shotguns, and assault rifles. I'll come back to one aspect of the weapons later on, but, during my first play-through, I used almost solely the handgun. You can take two weapons with you on any mission, the handgun and one other – I took the assault rifle, though I must have only really used it when facing enemies in a heightened, distanced, position, though it never seemed to help as much as I would have hoped. I only used the SMGs and shotgun when in the training stage, and let me tell you now – the SMGs really are useless – supposedly used when outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, they only seemed to waste my life away. Shotguns, despite usually being my favourite gun, were unused by myself, unfortunately, though it does seem a powerful weapon from the brief usage in training. Gadgets, on the other hand, seem pretty cool, and have a nice balance of offensive and defensive traits, but, again, outside of training, I never once used them, again partly related to aspect I'll be coming back to. The handgun was partly my chosen weapon for the silencer – a most-definite must if going stealth – and the tranquilliser darts, which I stopped using after a while (again, that notforgotten aspect). They're not actually that bad in terms of power and accuracy, in all fairness, but it might take a short while to line up a truly effective shot, especially on a moving target. If you're gonna be using any weapons, I would recommend the handgun, but it is the last weapon I'd use while moving/”running and gunning”.

One thing I do agree with the reviewers on is the AI and graphics, which is why I'll keep this part short and pretty much just quote what they said themselves. I say “one thing”, because they were both given the same term - “last gen”. Graphics really are PS2 quality, early PS2 too, I'd say. AI is definitely artificial – they seem blind to any gadgets thrown towards them, and often leave themselves exposed to easy kills even when you've been spotted, such as climbing up ladders when you've got a head-shot lined up waiting for them. And, unfortunately, I guess, there's no real way of discerning whether or not you'll be seen by the AI if you start moving around. Yes, there are four different markers, above enemies' heads, showing “friendly”, “unaware”, “suspicious/alert”, and “attacking”, but no “line of sight” as such, which Splinter Cell's light/dark and sound metres implemented extremely well. For the time-being, that's the bad-points, and, one thing I will say is, most of them only really depend on how you play the game, which is partly why I don't feel the reviewers were very fair of the game, though I guess it is very possible that a majority of players will play it in a different way to myself, thus experiencing more of these downfalls of the game. Also, if you have read any reviews, though the good/bad points may be very similar to other reviews, even my own, take them with a grain, maybe even two grains, of salt, for two reasons. The first being that everyone is different, so you, like I said of myself above, may not feel that many of these bad points (such as the graphics) are that bad (and that crouch of Thorton's is so comical!). Reason two is that one review that I read obviously wasn't very thorough at all – they had said, as a negative point of the game, that there was no sprint button, and yet there clearly is. Although it's easy to discover accidentally anyway (especially if using “C2C”), it is clearly marked in the manual. I'm glad some of us still read them! On that note, take everything I say with a good few grains of salt, as I normally feel the opposite of reviewers, enjoying games that many would find terrible, and, also, I've only really just started my 2nd play-through, so I can't comment too deeply (i.e. my own experience) on how changes effect the story, and I've had to rely on the majority of views I've heard/seen already... Anyway! Right, although I consider the actual feature a good point, that one aspect I had earlier when talking about the weapons is the “Clearing House” - a bit of an “up-market” name for the black market. In-between missions, you can view the CH and purchase or sell weapons, gadgets, weapon attachments (such as the silencer), body armour (and “attachments” for those), and Intel. Intel is a great idea – before going into a mission, relatively blind, you can buy Intel, although they are usually a map of the mission area, dossier information (again, I'll come back to that after this), or an additional weapon being “accidentally” left unattended. However, sometimes, they can consist of some really useful benefits like guards being moved around so you face some weaker enemies, or even having some organisations provide additional fire-power for you at some stages of the missions. The aspect of the “CH” I had a problem with was the price. Now, I understand that the most powerful weapons in the game might cost in the hundreds of thousands (100,000), but, again, maybe this was just because of my play-through (though I doubt it), but I only started gaining even close to that amount when preparing the final mission. Again, an aspect of the “CH”, which is why I kept mentioning it during the weapons section, is that I don't think the money-shortage was my fault, as I had a fair bit of discount (coming back to that along with the dossiers), and money collected in the missions, but I also sold any additional weapons I had (except for any better handguns – which only happened once, if I remember rightly) and any gadgets I obtained, which is why I kept almost exclusive to the handgun or “CQC”.

Onto the dossiers then. When playing the game, you're of course going to come across some friends and some enemies, and dossiers contain some of those characters' backgrounds, and you can find more details on their background as you play the game, if you're fully exploring the enviroment, or by talking to other characters, or buying Intel, of course. Apart from providing a short break to read about these characters, you can also use them to discover new tactics for when you meet them (again). For instance, one dossier might say that “smart-arses are greeted with a bullet to the head”, or “every morning starts with two hours of boxing”, which obviously tell you that you should be more professional and long-ranged respectively, should the need for either arise. However, some might be slightly more “hidden”, such as a dossier saying that (this is a harder one to think up without revealing any spoilers), “the two are instructed to never travel without each other”, meaning that if you see one of those people alone, it either means that they are doing something “suspicious” or wrong (in the eyes of their instructor), so you might be able to blackmail them, or that the other one is actually nearby, but hidden, so you should be on your guard at either approaching or upsetting the one that you can see. In addition to this, when you do meet character that, shall we say respond well to “aggressive” players, you might get a +1 on their “Like” scale. Everyone starts at 0 (Neutral) and can go up to +10 (well, the highest I've seen), indicating friendship, and, I assume, -10 (though I've only gone as far as -1, I admit), indicating some kind of “mortal enemy”, I'm guess. These can also offer some immediate or long-term bonuses in the story, though I won't go into any specifics... Now comes the character interactions, a most definite strong point of the game. When you meet a “dossier character”, you're probably gonna start a conversation with them, and these can have some great effects on the story and game-play (because of the story change). After hearing the other character speak, you are given three, occasionally four (the fourth usually being a “Goodbye” or action, like “shoot”) dialogue options. They are roughly based on the three “JB”s of the spy world – the “suave”, James Bond, the “agressive”, Jack Bauer, or the “professional”, Jason Bourne. Many reviewers said that choosing a mixture of these can make you sound like you're experiencing “schizophrenic mood swings”, though I don't think this is fair, as I definitely didn't feel this way, though I did mainly keep to certain “stances” throughout the game, unless I thought a different approach would be more effective. And anyway, if you're cycling through the three stances, as they seem to suggest is the right way to go about the game, then yeah, at some points, you probably will feel that way. A great new feature of the game is that, during these conversations, you only have a small time period to give a reply (I'd say around five seconds), which helps keep the conversations flowing/moving and also truly gives you that feeling that the weight of the world is on your shoulders, and a spy should be under constant pressure, right? Also, a great aspect of the character customisation is that there are no real black and white choices, only shades of grey. Without trying to give the situation away (though you'll probably know the situation if you're read any reviews or features previously), as it affected my decision during that moment, but, in one conversation, if you act nicely to the character, you can get your intended Intel, and a 10% discount for some items in the “CH”. However, act “overly” aggressive, and you get a 5% discount for some items in the “CH”, but security is also greatly increased during a future mission. Bad result, right? What happens when I tell you that, during this future mission, a second force comes into play, and that increased security actually benefits you by taking care of a lot of those forces for you – great, right? The opposite is also true in just as many cases.

There are three different mini-games, offering a, usually, nice break in the main game-play, that will occur during the game, but bear in mind I'm not very good at describing these. There is the “Alarm” mini-game, where you follow the “trail” of wires to “connect” them up, the “Hack” mini-game, where you find the two “solid” sequence of numbers in a Matrix style grid of moving “flashing” numbers, and the “Lock-Pick” mini-game, which is similar to the “Bomb-Making” in Splinter Cell: Double Agent. Using the left trigger, you apply the right amount of pressure to your lock-pick, then when it is at the “break-point” of the lock/bar, you press the right trigger and “break” the lock. You might not need to worry about a majority of these mini-games (bar objective-specific tasks/paths) unless you're trying to stealth through the game, and, as you would expect, they increase in difficulty as you process through the game, either by increasing the work you have to do, or giving you less time to do so in. The “Alarm” and “Lock-Pick” games aren't too difficult, at least until higher levels, where with the “Alarm” game, I had about twenty seconds to “match-up” ten different wires, which aren't all that clear. I think that was the most frustrating part of the game... Spent about twenty minutes to unlock a safe (which uses the “Alarm” game) containing a measly 4000 “credits” (I don't like using specific currency). Not a happy bunny! The “Hack” mini-game, however, seems very hit-or-miss. As far as I can tell, there is no skill involved whatsoever – it really depends on if you can tell which numbers aren't moving... Still, maybe this was just a probably with me. Something else that works well is the Perks system. Throughout the game, if you complete certain conditions, such as “50 head-shots with the handgun”, or “complete twenty dossiers”, or some story-specific events, you'll gain a “Perk”. These are usually small bonuses, such as an instant +1 AP (I assume stands for Alpha Protocol, though it is the levelling system, which I'll briefly come back to), or some can be a constant bonus, such as a discount or addition to endurance. It's impossible to attain all of them during a single play-through, but there are so many that you're bound to pick up enough to be of use. The story, though I've been through it already, is fairly well played out, though very predictable as a whole, and there aren't as many real twists or turns in the story that make much of an impact, although, again, that might be because I've only played it once, and it might be to do with my level of friendship (or lack of it, in a few cases) with certain characters that events played out as they did, rather than the main story itself. Right, finally, levelling up and the difficultly/character creation. Again, another strong point of the game. Levelling up is usually reserved for the end of missions, though it is technically possible to do so at any time. I'm not sure what the maximum level is, or even if there is one, but I reached around the level 20 mark at the end of the game (I think it was 18 or 19), and by that time, I had fully maxed out three skills, and put one or two levels into another one or two traits. Oh, before I forget, I did want to briefly mention the customisation of the clothing/facial features of Michael Thorton. Firstly, you have to be male, you have to be called Michael Thorton. Secondly, there aren't really many choices for the customisation at all, and it's more “do you want this or this”, rather than setting any “tones” or anything like Oblivion or parts of Mass Effect's customisation. Also, there aren't any “unlockable features” as you play through the game, so any hats/glasses/hairstyles you've got available to you at the beginning are the only choices you'll have in the game, though you can change between them as often as you want when in your safehouse.

As for the character creation, you can pick from either a “Soldier” class, a “Spy” class, or an “Engineer” class, sort to speak, initially focusing your AP points more on weapons, stealth/”CQC” and gadgets respectively. However, there are actually three other options. There is a “Freelancer” class, which basically gives you a clean slate to add your initial AP points into some skills, or a “Newbie/Desk-Job” class, which, meant for a second playthrough, or otherwise RPG-experienced players, doesn't give you any initial AP points to start with, making the initial few missions (as I'm currently experiencing) slightly more difficult. The third, however, can only be unlocked when completing the game as the “Newbie” class, and this is the exact opposite, it seems, being called the “Adept” class. As I haven't experienced it, yet, I can only assume that you'll be able to start off with more AP points to spread across the game, making it easier, I assume. As well as the class choices, there is also an difficulty setting, with “Easy”, “Medium”, and “Hard”. Although I would normally start on “Easy”, I decided to try “Normal” first (as with Splinter Cell: Conviction). That's what the review is based, although my current “Newbie” class is on Hard, and I can't say that, at least at the moment, that I'm noticing a significant difference, though the difficulty has slightly increased, I admit. In conclusion, as far as gameplay is concerned, this is definitely closer to Mass Effect than its sequel or any other RPG that I can currently think of. Combat is real time and a little “disjointed” in the same way as ME, and the mini-games are used in much the same way, even if the games themselves are different. The same can be said for the exploration, there can be a fair bit of it at times, and additional items can be found in much the same way. Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed reading this, and that it'll influence your decision in buying the game. Leave your feedback somewhere and it'll be much appreciated. Thanks for reading.