Alpha Protocol

I’ve played Alpha Protocol four times. It’s a pretty good litmus test to determine if you have the right priorities when looking at video games: do you credulously grovel to some dubious measure of popular opinion like Metacritic, or do you like Alpha Protocol? When Matthew Perry recommends one of the best games of all time and IGN can barely find a reason to, the entire idea of a mainstream industry for critical opinions about video games is revealed in one shining moment to be nothing more than a bad joke.

Alpha Protocol is a masterpiece. Burn Metacritic to the ground.

True, it seems that it was buggier on the Xbox 360. I played in Windows. Apparently there were a lot of combat and AI issues. But I’ve seen games with far worse combat and endless lists of bugs receive accolades–Skyrim, for example. I encountered about 3 bugs in my first playthrough of AP, two of which were easily circumvented by loading a recent autosave, and the third a quest flag that I didn’t think I should have triggered, where I had played with surgical precision but was criticized for a gung-ho attitude. These bugs may have been irritating, but really weren’t that bad. I think Sega might have forgotten to hand out the customary bribes.

I’m happy to admit that AP has design issues and other faults, and I’ll list a number of them. I think they’re all pardonable when you look at what the game offers.

Bad parts and the excuses made on their behalf
I found the combat acceptable, but it has some issues. There’s a velcro-cover system that’s finicky to the point where you’re probably better off not using it. The weapons are unbalanced, and you can destroy bosses with the pistols, which are also the best weapons for stealth. I found it the sort of game where the combat system wasn’t really good enough to get invested in, and preferred to play on Easy and breeze through for the most part, but this was mostly because I found the rewiring and other minigames frustrating. They scaled up both with difficulty and the number of skill points the player had, to the point of being physically impossible depending on whether a gamepad was used instead of mouse and keyboard. The gamepad is irritatingly slow when hacking, but the mouse and keyboard controls are terrible everywhere. There’s also a crippling slowdown if you go to buy weapons, so it’s hard to call it a great port.

One of my major gripes was with objectives that could have been marked better. It’s very irritating when you go through one door and find out that you’ve become incapable of turning around and checking out another door you saw, especially when a character in the story could die as a result, and especially when you’re forced to rely on autosaved checkpoints instead of manual or quicksaves.

The lack of quicksaving is cruel to a person like me, since I often take a short-term approach to perfectionism when given the chance. If regular perfectionism is to min-max your character’s stats, I could go either way, and probably won’t bother if it seems tedious. But if I’ve realized that it’s theoretically possible to kill three guys with one bullet, I’m going to quickload fifty times until I do it. It’s not that I need the extra ammo or that I’m trying for an achievement; it’s a question of elegance.

In the end, while I do wish a few things were done differently along the way, I think it’s for the best that Alpha Protocol forces checkpoints. You’re not supposed to expect perfection in an Alpha Protocol run. It’s a very short game where some choices are made at the cost of others. I would sometimes reload a checkpoint to avoid something overtly disastrous, but for the most part it’s best to stop worrying and revel in the chaos, especially when you know you’re going to play the game several more times from the beginning. The shortness of the game is a luxury: your follow-up playthroughs should probably only take five or six hours, and they can be a dramatically different five or six hours every time, if you’re willing to change your style. I do wish you didn’t have to redo annoying parts when you don’t want to, but again, playing on Easy helps. They also let you fast-forward through cutscenes.

It would be better if you had a little more to go on when making choices in conversation. The time limit is interesting and tense, but the keywords and short phrases drive me nuts in games, because it happens all the time where they don’t really match up to what actually comes out of the player character’s mouth. Back in the days of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, games gave you entire rows of text that were usually what the character would say, verbatim, when you chose it. The system worked. I never got frustrated about miscommunication. But since then we’ve taken a step back. I would be perfectly capable of reading a short sentence within a time limit. Whenever I ran out of time, it was because I was going back and forth on a couple options I couldn’t make sense of. What is it going to mean if I select “Dossier”? Nobody wants to be surprised by the words of their own mouthpiece.

I do, however, appreciate some of Alpha Protocol’s personality-based dialogue choices. If you imagine it as Thorton blurting out the first thing that comes into his head when you decide to be “Suave”, even if it’s not suave at all, it’s pretty funny. The bad delivery and reaction to a joke can be funnier than a joke itself. But in other moments and in other games where you’re not trying to be really clever really fast, when you’re carefully formulating an argument in Mass Effect or Deus Ex: Human Revolution, there’s really no excuse to not know exactly what you’re making a character say before they say it.

There are sometimes typical hiccups in the logic and story. If you side with one faction in a mission, the other becomes the antagonist for no other reason except that the story needs one. It also suffers from a dissonance problem many games suffer in cutscenes when control is briefly wrested from the player. It’s not as bad as this problem is in the Tomb Raider reboot, or in numerous other games, but if I’m beating a boss to death with my fists, the game shouldn’t go into a cutscene where I’m shooting at the boss from behind cover and he’s able to run away. I wasn’t doing that!

Lockpicking is kind of fun when you figure out the trick to it. But it’s irritating when every cheap shed door seems to be wired to some alarm that goes off if you fail to get it open on the first try. There should be times where you can’t get the door open before a patrolling guard makes his way back around, and more sophisticated security in some places, but the alarms feel a bit lazy. Also, and I’m just poking fun here, I don’t think you can bypass a computer’s login screen by setting off an electromagnetic pulse. Nice try, though.

If many are the type to form an impression quickly and then cherry-pick afterwards to support their original conclusions, it may help to explain why a lot of people have a negative opinion of AP, because the early segments are probably the most tedious and least original parts of the game. I’d expect more nuance from a “professional critic”, but it’s true that early on, you’re mostly just killing terrorists, and you have too few skill points to get a good feel for how guns and things like stealth builds are really supposed to perform. It’s easy to think that the guns are all simply not great.

Reactivity and other cool things
I’ve played through a lot of games, usually old Bioware titles, thinking about how much different it might have been if I had made one choice instead of another, but when it actually came time to start a new file, I found out that there was only ever really one path with minor variations, and that if a character had something they wanted to tell me, by God, they would get it done regardless of anything I said or did. I would often lose enthusiasm upon seeing that things weren’t any different, giving up early into the second playthrough. I refer to the games that have this illusion of reactivity as a collection called the Jaded Empire, or the “I’m too Jaded for a second playthrough” Empire. Get it? Jade Empire. It’s a pun. Thanks, I think I’m really clever, too.

While it’s largely unfeasible for games to split into completely distinct futures depending on your actions, and unless you’re a child, you probably understand this and have tempered your expectations a little, the fact is that some games have enough reactivity to warrant another run, and others don’t. But it’s incredibly rare that a game warrants this purely on the basis of its story. The Mass Effect games only tend to have a few interesting alternative outcomes based on past decisions, which are compounded the farther one goes from the start, as Mass Effect choices are imported into ME2 and then ME3. But Mass Effect 3 is still only really worth replaying because it has one of the best Action RPG combat systems seen to date, and a Vanguard fights a lot differently from an Infiltrator.

But Alpha Protocol is actually the one-of-a-kind title that is more rewarding the second time around. Naturally, it still has a central path that the story follows, with information that needs to be learned and locations that must be travelled to, but the side-stories and villains and allies of the story differ remarkably based on the choices made. Little differences in later playthroughs have made me laugh hard. The game is designed around this variety, streamlined for easy replayability. Players won’t meander around a sandbox picking up collectibles, but they can even choose what tone to take when responding to emails they receive from other characters. You won’t waste too much time, and you can quickly start over.

The new character backgrounds are especially fascinating. In New Game+, a new challenge is unlocked where players can play the role of a naive rookie who starts with zero trained skills. You get new dialogue options. Going from playing as a task-minded professional to a naive fool is hilarious, and the great voice-acting makes it all the more worthwhile. If you beat the game as a rookie, you unlock the veteran character for a third playthrough, who gets extra skill points and dialogue options about how much of a badass he is. This is genius.

You’re also rewarded for playing any stupid way you want via the perk system. Deciding on a build and playing it consistently is important as with all RPGs, but it’s nice that if you save your skill points for non-weapon skills, you can still get a shotgun damage boost perk from using the shotgun often, for example.

The ridiculous of some parts of the game takes me right back to Saints Row 2, and the absurdity of being completely unable to tell who’s a good guy or a bad guy and who’s a double-double agent is just like any season of 24, and piecing this information together is something else that can only really be done across a few playthroughs. The characters are fantastic and have some crazy secrets, and it’s always worth the time to get to know them.

In the past, I’ve tended to think of unlockable characters as the thing most likely to get me to replay a game, which is great when it comes to something like Castlevania. But I think in a genre like this, never getting the whole picture of the story is really important, and probably central to some of the unique power games have for storytelling. The interactive format can create powerful mysteries that might go unanswered for the rest of the hero’s lifetime, but then turn around and exploit this by giving the player another lifetime. Opportunity cost creates a sense of value where there was none, and AP is a very valuable game. If it takes more than four playthroughs to feel like I fully understand everyone and to make informed decisions about who should live and who should die, I’ll keep on playing.

This game is amazing, and whatever flaws it has, it is a mandatory experience for anyone whose tastes are similar to the reviewer’s. Things like frequent crashes or graphical issues do not even begin to make a dent on this score, because the soul of this game contains something eternal. It approaches perfection.

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