Alpha Protocol Retrospective

PC Gamer’s Reinstall column looks back at Obsidian’s Alpha Protocol, and ponders what exactly made this mess of a game so special and memorable. While the points regarding Alpha Protocol’s, and Deus Ex’s for that matter, mechanical shortcomings are arguable at best and go against what makes shooter-RPG hybrids what they are, the rest of it reads much better. A spoiler-filled excerpt:

After Saudi Arabia, and the reveal of the conspiracy that leaves Thornton a rogue agent attempting to bring down the corrupt Halbech corporation, everything changes pace. Thornton is no longer following the agency’s guidance, and instead builds his contacts by delving into each location’s murky underworld. Do you bribe a Triad leader, securing his short term co-operation at the cost of a more long term friendship? Do you play along with a psychotic and possibly delusional CIA operative in order to secure his explosives expertise? Do you befriend the Russian informant, or smash his face in with a bottle? These are all interesting questions and, while the overall plot is broadly fixed, individual story arcs can resolve in a multitude of ways.

This globetrotting second act ups the mission variety, too. There’s still plenty of infiltration to be done, but each mission is a different length and intensity. There are some real highlights, from taking out a hit list of Triad lieutenants across the streets of Taipei, to bugging a small CIA listening post in Rome.

Other missions are simply dialogue and choices. Another, also set in Rome, requires Thornton to steal evidence from an NSA outpost. He goes in disguised as an IT guy, armed with a passphrase that should get him through the door. But the NSA agent doesn’t respond to the phrase the way he should, causing your handler to question whether something is wrong. Do you hold your nerve and possibly walk into a trap, or take action at the cost of a potentially useful lead? Alpha Protocol’s most memorable moments are all clichéd spy fiction scenarios, but made more powerful by the branching dialogue. It’s a system that rewards exploration, too. By completing dossiers you can unlock special conversation options that can alter your relationships.

Early on, you’re taught that befriending people isn’t always the best tactic, and that angering contacts can be a powerful tool. For the most part, that just means that whatever you do, there’s always a way to progress. But the fine details feel important. Major characters can be killed or spared, and some can even be persuaded to switch allegiances. On paper it’s an elegant system, although—this being Alpha Protocol—the execution doesn’t always work.

Unfortunately, the ending feels rushed. The final act threatens the imminent arrival of WWIII—a scenario that never felt earned based on my broadly competent handling of previous missions. The conspiracies start to collide, from Halbech’s corruption of Thornton’s bosses, to the treachery of journalist Scarlet Lake and the manipulations of your primary handler, Mina—something you never get the chance to resolve, even if you end up riding off into the sunset together. Some of this works. The revelation of Scarlet as the assassin you were chasing in Taipei has a nice payoff, and checks another important spy cliché off the list. But everything else feels like it needs more time to breathe. The final revelations come quickly, reducing their impact, and are paired with a final mission that features multiple, terrible boss fights.

Something I feel compelled to mention, that’s missing from the article, is the sheer variety of possible outcomes that depend on your choices throughout the game. Two people can go through it and when they get to describe how things turned out, it may seem like they’re talking about two different games. While the arrival there may indeed feel rushed, the final mission itself is a masterpiece, in my opinion. Which goes back to the article’s point that you don’t get to resolve the issues with your handler. Depending on your actions, you do, and in my case, it was probably one of the most satisfying moments in the whole game.

And as a final note, for the love of all that is holy, if you’re going to play Alpha Protocol – play it with a controller. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it made me go from uninstalling the game after 15 minutes due to ludicrous controls and unavoidable mouse acceleration, to enjoying my every minute with it.

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Val Hull
Val Hull

Resident role-playing RPG game expert. Knows where trolls and paladins come from. You must fight for your right to gather your party before venturing forth.

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