Alpha Protocol looked like an intriguing prospect in development, a contemporary espionage action RPG allowing players to travel the globe as a secret agent. It received rather mixed reviews on release, tending to “meh”, but when it showed up for less than £2 in a Steam sale a couple of months back it was hard to say no. Playing Alpha Protocol after Fallout: New Vegas and Deus Ex: Human Revolution was rather interesting, in a “compare and contrast” sort of way. You know what they say: first/third person Action RPGs are like buses, you wait all year for one that allows a variety of approaches to meet objectives, and then three come along at a suitable price in Steam at the same time. Give or take a few months. And they all feature a hacking minigame. And two of them are made by Obsidian.
I do like a spy novel, so the setting of Alpha Protocol is a big plus for me; there aren’t many games in the espionage genre, especially RPGs where you have a bit of freedom moving through the story. The key elements should be familiar enough to genre fans: rogue agents, private military contractors, assassination attempts, arms smuggling, double crossing, triple crossing, mysterious beautiful women, that sort of business. You play Mike Thorton, an agent desperately trying to recover the ‘N’ that somebody stole from his surname (and maybe some missiles or something). One of the key features touted beforehand was the conversation system, where you can generally take one of three approaches: Aggressive, Suave or Professional, which the developers broadly equate to Jack Bauer, James Bond or Jason Bourne. There’s obviously something about the initials “JB” and secret agents, lending additional credence to the theory that Justin Bieber is a psychological warfare project. This tends to work quite well, though the exact dialogue that results may not be quite what you expect; the “Suave” node in particular sometimes feels like it should actually be labelled “The ‘What Not To Do’ Example From A Corporate Briefing Video On Sexual Harassment In The Workplace”. Different approaches can lead to being Liked or Disliked by key NPCs, sometimes you can uncover in-game dossier information that may suggest the best approach to take, or you can always use your super-spy abilities to look up a walkthrough on GameFAQs. I’ve been on a bit of a John le Carré kick recently after seeing the film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and was slightly disappointed there’s no George Smiley-inspired approach (apart from the fact that he’d have to be renamed Jeorge Bsmiley to have to right initials), but I suppose it would be quite tricky to create compelling gameplay from listening attentively, carefully writing things down and polishing your spectacles on your tie.
Once you get on a mission, mechanically Alpha Protocol is incredibly similar to DXHR in many ways. Sneak around, crouching to make less noise, avoiding security cameras with sweeping green cones of vision (if you get spotted an alarm sounds, find the alarm panel and you can disable it via a minigame); creep up unnoticed behind a guard and you can tap one button to knock him unconscious or a different one to kill him. Computers holding vital intelligence can be hacked via another minigame. You have a choice of weapons from pistol, shotgun, submachine gun or assault rifle (though you can only carry two), getting into a stand-up firefight is usually a bad idea, but you can take cover behind scenery and jump and roll between bits of cover. Oh, and every now and again you’ll get into a really stupid boss fight.
Just as in DXHR you can specialise in Alpha Protocol as a stealthy master of hacking, able to slip undetected past human guards and cameras alike, delivering precise knock-out blows or tranquilliser rounds where force is unavoidable, and just as in DXHR the game thinks it’s hilarious to stick a superpowered boss at the end of certain levels who has to be shot. A lot. And you haven’t even got the option of a Typhoon explosive augmentation as a handy “I win” shortcut. It’s especially jarring, as at least in DXHR you were facing cybernetic super-soldiers who you could believe were nigh-invulnerable; unless I missed a vital bit of dossier info that revealed a key Alpha Protocol villain had an adamantium skeleton, there was no explanation as to how a middle-aged man could withstand three magazines of assault rifle ammunition emptied into his head at point blank range. One particular fight descends into absolute surrealism as a psychotic Russian mobster snorts coke to become a knife-wielding instant killing machine, leading to a Benny Hill chase around a disco as ultra-cheesy 80s rock blares out until he gets knackered, at which point you shoot him for a while, then repeat. It’s like a reel from Austin Powers got spliced into the middle of The Bourne Identity.
Though the games share several mechanics, freedom is a key difference. At the start of Alpha Protocol you run through a weapons training course with sandbag corridors and pop-up targets, and the rest of the game never quite shakes off that feeling. For one thing Elite Agent Thorton can’t jump, his rigorous training unfortunately not covering “stepping over knee-high obstructions”, and though the level design usually doesn’t emphasise this too much there are occasions when your progress is stymied by an ankle-high sandbag wall. Sometimes you find a sniper rifle, but rather than, say, picking it up and carrying it around, you press Space to start using it, and when finished you put it back down in the same place, like it’s a rifle range and the gun is chained down. There are no boxes to be piled up to reach vents or windows, you can’t punch through walls, and the buildings you’re sent to infiltrate are strangely lacking in conveniently human-sized air ducts that let you into critical areas completely bypassing all security. The levels feel a bit like movie sets, sometimes with two or three paths through them, but with decorative doors and painted backdrops to appear more open.
On the plus side, they’re movie sets in a variety of exotic locations. Where DXHR featured an awful lot of corridors, Alpha Protocol moves from desert compounds to embassies to train stations to museums to parks across the world. I felt a lot more involved in the story as well; though things are headed for an obvious showdown (there’s a slightly clunky flashback structure that I felt broke up the flow slightly without adding much) you seem to have quite a few important decisions on the way.
Overall, then, Deus Ex: Human Revolution had great mechanics but got bogged down a bit in repetitiveness towards the end without an especially compelling plot to drive it on, whereas Alpha Protocol wasn’t so strong in general gameplay, but had a more interesting story and kept the pace up throughout. Worth a try, especially if it’s on sale for less than £2 again sometime.