Alpha Protocol Playtest: The Text Tree RPG

By Spencer . May 28, 2010 . 7:05pm

ap1

What do you get when you mix Mass Effect with a bad James Bond film? Alpha Protocol.

 

Obsidian Entertainment is calling Alpha Protocol an espionage RPG, but it’s more of a third person shooter. The “RPG” part refers to a gigantic dialogue tree that feels like a homage to the LIPS system from Sakura Wars. As cocky secret agent Michael Thorton you have seconds to pick a tone during conversations either aggressive, professional or perverted. The game calls the last one “suave”, but when you pick it Thorton usually hits on the person he’s talking too. Most RPGs with conversation choices have some kind of morality system at their core. Alpha Protocol does not. You can be businesslike in one mission and a trigger happy spy in the next. I played around with Thorton’s personality quite a bit and being inconsistent can help him get what he wants – cash by extorting a criminal in one scene and a clean record in the eyes of his government employers in the next. Choices are set up in morally gray situations so you never feel too bad about any decision.

 

ap2

 

When I saw a preview of Alpha Protocol one of the developers from Sega emphasized the concept of “many middles”. In one of the early choices you can force an arms dealer to talk, giving Thorton information, or kill him. Mike’s higher ups won’t like the latter choice, but you’ll cut off weapons for a terrorist group. Most of the game’s choices are more subtle. You level up reputation or destroy relationships with each emotional stance. The game keeps track of everything with +1 and – 1 stats shown to players and Alpha Protocol tangents from there. While I liked Obsidian’s touch of over the top character design (quirkiness separates the cast of Alpha Protocol from say 24), no matter how the story twisted I didn’t feel for the characters. Perhaps, Obsidian made Alpha Protocol too flexible and ended up with hollow shells waiting for you to input a command. The way the plot can change is still interesting and since Alpha Protocol is a short game it’s designed to be played again and again…

 

… if the action part was more entertaining.

 

The visual novel-like section is only half of Alpha Protocol. Gunning down bad guys is the rest of the game. Each mission starts in a safe house, a high tech base, where you gear up. Mike has a variety of weapons and spy tools to play with including a handgun, grenades, shotgun, assault rifle, and an EMP pulse device. The best weapon may surprise you. It’s Mike’s fists. Alpha Protocol, for reasons I can’t understand, uses an accuracy stat to “calculate” whether a shot hits or not. You can have an opponent lined up in your crosshairs and miss. Maybe Obsidian thought this was a balance to Mike’s superhuman time slowing powers or brief moments of invincibility (both are special skills), but forcing players to miss makes Alpha Protocol’s missions frustrating.

 

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Even though enemies carry guns, fists still work because they act erratically. Computer controlled characters may stand there waiting for you to run up to them or start walking in circles when they see you. Think of Duck Hunt with spies and no light gun. Since the AI lacks the “I” there’s no reason to be stealthy. During gunfights you can take cover, but sometimes bullets magically pass through objects so you can still get hit. Another reason why sprinting and punching is just as effective. While spies everywhere will frown on this, rushing in with guns blazing or better put feet flying is usually the best strategy.

 

Obsidian also squeezed in some hacking mini-games during missions too. Players need to pick locks by gently holding the shoulder buttons. To turn off alarms, Mike has to scan through a sea of code (read: flickering numbers in letters) and match digits by dragging them with the analog sticks. These sound neat, but the hacking parts don’t change. You’ll do the same follow the maze to unlock the door bit over and over.

 

If you really want to experience the flexible scenario you have to go through Alpha Protocol more than once. But, Alpha Protocol, as it is, is so rough in terms of it’s broken shooting (I played it as a brawler with shooting mini-games) and character development (Thorton is best when he’s an outright jerk – that’s not good) it’s hard to get through a single run.


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  • Aoshi00

    I didn’t know what to think of this game either from the trailers, but when I saw the Mass Effect-like branching conversation system I was intrigued (they were hard choices because the consequences carry over thruout the whole game, even into the 2nd game). Pity to hear the shooting is subpar.. I guess the most fun thing is to pick all the suave choices and see the jerk abuse people lol… Is there a love sim aspect like in ME too, get hot and heavy w/ the female antagonist or something?

  • Ereek

    Thank you very much for the impression, Spencer. I think I’ll wait on getting this until it’s cheaper, but the decision system sounds interesting.

  • Hraesvelgr

    These sound neat, but the hacking parts don’t change. You’ll do the same follow the maze to unlock the door bit over and over.

    This is why I don’t really like the minigames that have started popping up in WRPGs for things like lockpicking, etc. They’re all very novel the first couple of times, but they lose their novelty when you have to do them 50+ times throughout the game and each time is the same as the first.

    • Ereek

      I understand what you’re saying and definitely agree. For example, Oblivion’s lockpicking was annoying.

      Though, admittedly, I really liked Fallout 3′s hacking. It was a fast and easy puzzle-solving game.

  • Aoshi00

    I just watched the review on GT, it seems like the gameplay is really bad and the only thing good is the story and well acted dialogue…

    Thornton: “Exactly how many diseases can I get walking in this?”
    “Enough to make you useless to a woman” :)

    I guess it’s like Velvet Assassin, I really like the Nazi setting and have a female spy as the protagonist, but heard the game was horrible and almost unplayable :(…

  • fuzzy_hobo

    I really want to like this game…Obsidian has some great minds in their development team, but all of their releases are technically flawed. Guess I’ll wait till it’s really cheap. Now I’m worried about New Vegas.

  • DDanny

    I don’t see why people are complaining about the shooting part.
    Yes, stats actually matter here like any RPG. You get things like damage,accuracy, recoil and flexibility. And you can change those stats by investing points into the weapon skill tree or by buying/upgrading the weapon with mod parts. You start as weak and get stronger as the game goes on, again like any other RPG.
    As for the AI, I’m playing the 360 version, and the enemies don’t seem that dumb. I’m using fists too, and whenever I charge at them I always get shot like hell.
    The hacking/turning off alarms part can be skipped as long as you use a certain item which you can buy infinite amounts for a veery cheap price.
    As for the story branches, I’m quite surprised at the big amount. You’ll have to play the game a lot of times if you want to see them all. It changes based on things like who you helped/killed, mission order, and how characters react to you. And it affects most missions of the game.

  • DDanny

    Also, I don’t see how being a jerk is better for Thorton. By being friendly or acting the way the other party likes, you’ll be able to get them as allies, allowing them to help you later during missions. Much better than just killing them at the spot by being a jerk.

    • Aoshi00

      Yea, I read other reviews, it seems that your action do have consequences like in Mass Effect, like choosing diplomacy or confrontation leading the different results. but the gameplay mechanic sounds unpolished and rough around the edges (perfectly aimed gunshots don’t register). Seems like the story is its strongest point, will try this when it’s $20 or something.. this is like Matt Hazard, I want to play it for the story, but the gameplay being subpar.

  • cowcow

    I can’t help but think that maybe thesepeople reviewing haven’t gone through the whole game and got every weapon? Because there were certain things I read months ago on some crazy weapons that you had to upgrade and level up like an RPG in terms of one that can clear a whole room and another that acts like Fallout 3′s VATs system only faster, and another that let’s you see through walls. If you have low level stats on artillery I guess the A.I. is more demanding and harder to kill?
    Because I think this game is supposed to be RPG first then 3rd Person shooting 2nd. Maybe thats why it seems frustrating since people are used to Mass Effect Uncharted 2 and Gears of War simplicity of aiming and instant shooting gratification.
    Having played PS3′s Bourne Conspiracy, I know the feeling of hard to aim shooters but I think the point in this game is to build your character and gain abilities so you’re not just going through the obvious shoot and kill motions of a generic TPS. So in that sense they make it hard for you at first until you level up and pick the right weapons.
    Also if that isnt true are they saying PS2′s Spy Fiction is even better than this?

    • Aoshi00

      I find Gametrailers’s video reviews to be quite trustworthy and reliable, and I agree w/ them most of the time. I’m pretty sure they finish the games before making reviews too. When a game centers around shooting and the shooting part is broken, I would have to say it’s a pretty big flaw. Of course one could choose to not listen and spend $60 full price to find out at their own risk. When you shoot someone in a shooter and the shot connects, that’s not instant gratification, that’s how it’s supposed to work. And when that shot does not connect, I think they call that a bug. Check out the GT video review and see what you think.http://www.gametrailers.com/video/review-alpha-

      • DDanny

        Shots connecting or not depends on the accuracy stat, which like I said before you can upgrade by modding the weapon/spending points.
        Really, I don’t know why people are so annoyed about that.
        People complain about Mass Effect 2 not being enough RPG, and then you have something like Alpha Protocol and they complain again.

        • Aoshi00

          I thought Mass Effect was a great RPG and Alpha Protocol is definitely borrowing from that. I think the problem people have w/ AP is that its gameplay mechanic is broken, like Velvet Assassin. So you find what the gametrailers review said to be not true? From the video, the enemies are being shot right in the face in the cross hair and the shots kept missing. Those guys are pretty good at their shooters and I find it hard to believe the faults lie in them “not understanding how to play the game properly”. They never complained about the shooting part in ME or Fallout 3 (which have stats too) not working before either . Do you recommend others to spend $60 to get this right now?

      • cowcow

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  • bonafide

    The game is really enjoyable, regardless of what Spencer said. Although it has its flaws, Alpha Protocol really got me hooked. About the fists being the best weapon, I strongly disagree. It’s useful against one normal enemy, but for bosses and big groups it’s definitely not the way to go.

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