Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Alpha Protocol Xbox 360 Review

Alpha Protocol Xbox 360 Review-
Choose Your Own Adventure

Alpha Protocol is a 3rd person Action RPG developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by SEGA. The game has you assume the role of Michael Thorton, a newly recruited secret agent working for the top secret organization known as the Alpha Protocol.

Note: This Alpha Protocol Xbox 360 Review can also be found HERE.
It may be easier to read at that link, as the text box is much wider. If reading it here presents no problems, then please continue on with the Alpha Protocol Xbox 360 Review and enjoy! :)

The game starts out with you running through the ever so common training mission, followed by an operation in Saudi Arabia, which serves as an introduction to the games' mechanics, as well as the set up to the games' story, as the events in Saudi Arabia set things in motion, and how everything plays out from there truly is up to you, the player, as every important decision is made by you, and in Alpha Protocol, decisions really do matter. This idea will be expanded upon later in the review.
First and foremost, one of the things the player will notice upon starting up the game is that the visuals are a mixed bag. The game runs on a modified Unreal III engine, and so, you can expect to encounter the ubiquitous texture pop in that plagues Unreal III engine powered games. Many of the environmental textures are lower resolution than one would perhaps expect, and things just generally look a bit soft, although there are certain set pieces, namely indoors, that look mostly up to par. Some of the character models look a bit...off, although the majority look reasonably well modeled.

There are some framerate issues present during moments of high activity, although these only occurred during my second, action oriented playthrough of the game. I did not see very much of this during the first playthrough, as I played a stealth character and thus ran into little frantic action. In addition, the animations are stilted and very odd looking. Whether or not these issues detract from the experience is up to the player.

The sound design is quite good and leaves very little to be desired. Gun sounds are appropriate and punchy, silenced shots sound very accurate, and the music is always fitting to the situation, although this aspect of the design is quite often downplayed. Subtle, but effective, is how I would describe it. The absolute standout, however, is the voice acting. Absolutely dead on for each and every character. Every line is delivered in a convincing and well timed manner, whether it be comedic or highly dramatic. The voice acting is paired with some fairly decent lip synching, which is a plus as poor lip synching can be quite the distraction, and detract from an otherwise stellar vocal performance, as evidenced by the recent Alan Wake.

The game plays like an RPG dressed as a third person spy action game. Basically, take a spy thriller like Splinter Cell, and make it an RPG. The action plays out in real time, but it's largely based on stats rather than just player skill. The action will involve taking cover, shooting, melee attacks, and stealth, and which elements you engage in the most depend on how you build your character. It's possible to do them all, but it's much more effective to choose a playstyle and then build a character that is suited to that style of play. This is the way to maximize your effectiveness and limit frustration.

Alpha Protocol takes this action based rpg combat and blends it with deep storytelling, player customization, character leveling, weapon and armor customization, loot drops (enemies drop ammo and items), and a player input dependent conversation system (very similar to the system employed in the Mass Effect games). If you're not familiar with such a style, what you have to look forward to is rather than being a passive observer during cutscene conversations, the game will ask you input on how your character responds the the npc's. The game will present you with choices in response tone (angry, sarcastic, friendly, professional, etc) and you then watch your character respond in that style. The conversation system has a time limit built into it, to add to the pressure that the player feels when making a decision on what to say next. If you do not decide in time (a few seconds), the game will do it for you. Along with this is a like/dislike mechanic. Depending on how you treat them, different characters will either come to like, dislike, care for, hate, trust or mistrust you, and your relations with them (including some sexual in nature) will have various effects on the story.

It is absolutely vital that you do not go into this game expecting a third person shooter, as, despite appearances to the contrary (at least for those who have not followed the game closely, or are not familiar with the works of Obsidian Entertainment), this is absolutely, at its core, a role playing game. This entails a few things. For one, your shooting skill is not determined by player skill buy by character stats. These skill points (called action points, or AP for short) are earned via leveling up, which, like most role playing games, occurs via earning experience points (exp) which are earned through various actions (killing or disabling an enemy, completing mission objectives, picking a lock, hacking, etc). Your success at completing various actions in game is based upon these stats. This includes things like, for example, sneaking by an enemy, avoiding being detected by a camera, picking a lock, and shooting,

Actions being stat based means that, despite the fact that your reticule is centered on an enemies' head, if your stats for that particular weapon class are not upgraded, you will often miss, or do little damage. You cannot expect to come out of the gate shooting and scoring headshots at will from mission one. It's just not going to happen. To save yourself even further trouble, I highly suggest picking a particular weapon class and sticking with it, as to level up the shooting ability for more than one gun type means a major hit to other things, like toughness (health, endurance and damage absorption), technical aptitude (how well your character uses skills and gadgets, adding gadget slots, etc), sabotage (hacking, lock picking, disarming, etc), stealth (sneaking around undetected) etc. Despite appearances, this game is not a third person shooter, and playing it as such will lead only to failure and frustration.

Being an RPG, another aspect of how Alpha Protocol plays out is that the way the story plays out is largely, and I do mean largely, up to you. I have played through the game twice, and nether playthrough resembled the other in the slightest in terms of story and outcome. Who lives, who dies, who is a boss fight, who is an ally and who is a foe, all of it is dependent upon your actions and choices. The game does a remarkable job presenting you with choices. Save a close friend and let many die, or save many and sacrifice your friend. Kill an enemy and lose out on possible intel, but prevent possible future problems, or allow them to live and hope it doesn't backfire (or, for the more sinister player, blackmail them first). Adding to the truly difficult nature of some of these decisions is the aforementioned time limit. The game really keeps you on your toes and makes you feel the pressure an agent of this caliber and involved in such delicate and urgent matter would feel.

As previously mentioned, the amount of choice, including tough moral decisions (including many not so obvious, 'gray area' type decisions), is another role playing aspect of the game. This aspect works tremendously well, and it results in a very immersive experience. If the game grabs you, you will become Agent Michael Thorton, and you will hate to have to make some of the choices the game presents you with. As is standard for the RPG genre, the story is very deep, and the cast of characters is quite large. In fact, there is so much story and so many characters that it is literally impossible to see it all play out in one playthrough.

As I said earlier, I have now finished the game twice and both playthroughs played out very, very differently. I do not exaggerate when I say that I would be confident in saying that it could take from 10-15 playthroughs to see every possible outcome. It very much resembles the old choose your own adventure books you may recall reading as a kid. The depth and level of detail is bolstered by the very large amount of intel that can be procured throughout the game. Reading this intel will give you a deeper understanding into the minds and backgrounds of the individuals and factions with whom you will interact.

As stated earlier, another role playing staple present in this game is character customization, although, unlike the other elements, this one is rather disappointing in that the amount of choice present is quite slim. You will be able to choose from no more than 6-10 skin tones, eye colors, hair styles, facial hair choices, clothing choices, etc. I was rather letdown when I realized that I could not approximate my longish hair style in the game. In fact, all of the few hairstyles available were close cropped. Nothing even medium in length, and no hair color choices. This is not a dealbreaker by any means, but it is a disappointment, especially for an RPG.

The weapon and armor customization fares much better, as you have a multitude of choices available to you throughout the game. Scopes, magazines, stocks, ammunition types, different armors with varying stats, add ons for each armor (up to 4 slots), etc are all present. The aesthetics won't wow you, but the amount of variability in terms of stats will. You can tune a character's equipment in such a way as to really compliment you statistical build, and, with proper care, like any RPG, you can take an initially weak and unimpressive character and make them into, for lack of a better term, a badass.

So, once you are briefed on your mission, and you have beefed up your character to their potential for their given level, you take on one of the given missions, which, as is common for role playing games, can be done in any order. The missions are split up into territories (the previously mentioned Saudi Arabia, as well as Rome, Moscow, and Taipei), and you can attack any given mission at any time, traveling at will between territories if you so desire. You can also do them in the order ascribed to you by the game. The choice, as is often the case in Alpha Protocol, is yours to make. However, in line with the more action oriented nature of this RPG, you do not meet up with NPC's that assign you side quests during gameplay missions. The missions are assigned to you ahead of time, with a few being earned upon completion of one of the default ones. Also, the game differs from more traditional RPG's in that every mission must be completed in order to finish the game.

Speaking of finishing the game, there are two issues that bear mention. The game can be completed, depending on how you play it, in 12-20 hours on a first playthrough. This would be quite lengthy for an action game, which it resembles in many ways, but for an RPG, it's rather short, as convention dictates that role playing games be 30-100 hours in length. The last mission appeared in my mission list at what I thought was perhaps the halfway mark. I recall staring at my screen in disbelief when I saw this. For a game with an action game background, this would be a fairly lengthy game, but for someone with an RPG background, it's somewhat short.

Another, related issue is the lamentable fact that the game is devoid of a new game plus feature, which, for those unfamiliar with the concept, simply means the ability, upon completion of the game, to restart from the beginning but being able to maintain your character progress (level, abilities, weapons, items etc). The fact that this other rpg staple was not included is also disappointing. The somewhat short length and lack of a new game plus feature combined to actually make me angry with the game, and almost a week passed between the completion of my first playthrough and the onset of my second.

The game is also plagued with some mechanic issues. In addition to the aforementioned animation issues (stilted, wonky animation that sometimes glitches), you will encounter issues with the AI, the cover system, and some random glitches. The AI has pathing issues, as you will see them get stuck on eachother and environmental objects. Once this happens they will usually run in place, although they will often just stand still doing.....well, nothing. Similarly, you will sometimes see the AI just stand out in the open doing nothing, allowing you to shoot them with no return fire to worry about. The AI also displays very scripted behaviour. They will do one of three things: Shoot from afar out in the open, shoot from afar from behind cover, or run at you while juking side to side (seriously) and then when in striking range, they will either melee you once and retreat (whereupon they will initiate one of the two shooting routines) or they will actually try and melee you to death. Apart from throwing grenades and such at you, they will do nothing else.

The cover system is wonky. Many times you will try to stick to cover (the A button) and it will not work, leaving you standing out in the open when you want to be in cover. Sometimes you will pull the left trigger to aim, and your character will not respond, forcing you to move left or right and try again, at which point it will respond. Trying to unstick from cover requires you to simply walk away from the cover, which is fantastic....when it works. Somewhere around 10% of the time, you will get stuck for a second or two. These issues will present themselves more or less frequently depending on what type of character you build and how you play the game. My first time through, I played a stealth character, and used lots of cover, so these issues occurred semi frequently. My second playthrough, I played a full on assault, ''tank'' character, and I took cover on a very infrequent basis.

In terms of glitches, in addition to the aforementioned occasional freezing of the AI out in the open, you will, rarely, see an AI character glide across the ground/floor. This happens to you as well. You need only press a directional input to stop it, but it certainly is disconcerting,e specially the first time. I myself have not had any game freezes, but they have been reported by the community. I also have not experienced my character getting stuck in an object, including the ground, but I have read a few reports of this occurring. These glitches and AI issues did not detract from my experience in any significant manner, but this is largely a personal matter, and some may be terribly put off by such things. I tend to be rather forgiving when it comes to graphics and AI issues, glitches, etc, if the core game is fun and engaging, but many gamers are not, and therefore they bear mention.

The controls work well. Not once did I ever find myself cursing the controls or finding things overly complicated to pull off, so I see nothing to really elaborate on here. I do not foresee anyone experiences significant issues with the control, unless of course they would classify the cover issues as control problems rather than cover mechanic problems. If that is the case for you, then I have already covered that anyways, so we may move on.

Alpha Protocol is a mixed bag. It is replete with technical issues, but also chock full of fun, depth, and an engaging gameplay and narrative experience. The game feels as though Obsidian were either rushed or short on resources, and you get the distinct impression that there's an absolute jewel of a game that could be uncovered with six months or so of polishing. The definition of a diamond in the rough. So when it comes to an overall score and individual player satisfaction, it basically boils down to whether you experience more of the diamond or more of the rough. Which it is you experience more if is dependent upon a few things.

For one, as I said earlier, you absolutely must play this like an RPG. Do not, for example, expect to sneak through an enemy camp undetected if you have not put points into your stealth skill. Do not think you can wield an assault rifle if you have specialized in pistols. Do not forget that combat in an RPG shooter is not point and shoot, but rather, build, use skills in combination with gadgets, pint and shoot.

Don't think you can spread points around willy nilly, either. Focus on your specializations, and work within them. Use successive playthroughs to see how differently you can play the game. Do not be afraid to leave entire skill tree sections devoid of even a single point. In both playthroughs, I specialized in assault rifles, and I literally left pistols, shotguns and submachine guns blank. Rather than be mediocre with four weapon classes, I decided to be competent (first playthrough) or great (second) with one, and put those extra points into stealth (first playthrough), toughness (second playthrough), technical aptitude (both playthroughs), etc.

Another factor that will influence how much you enjoy the game, and your assessment of its quality, is your tolerance for glitches, mediocre graphics, and technical issues. If you put gameplay first and can look past these things, seeing the game for what it is, then you should be just fine with this game, provided you enjoy the core experience.

If you build your character properly and play to their strengths, while avoiding their weaknesses; if you don't require top of the line visuals and you can look past some technical issues, then what awaits you is an extremely well told, deep story featuring a great cast of characters and some excellent role playing and action focused, real time rpg combat. The game could have been longer (a sentiment which speaks to the game's quality, as we all have played games that we wish would end) and it's not going to win any awards in terms of visuals or polish, but damn, if it grabs you, it grabs you. Very gripping narrative, hugely evocative in terms of pressure when it comes to decision making (moral and otherwise) and a lot of fun, played as a stealth game or otherwise.

As for which I enjoyed better, playing as a stealth character or a run and gun death machine, I'd say both had their advantages and highlights, and I can honestly say I cannot pick one over the other. I thought I would have a definite favourite, but I truly do not. The stealth playthrough was several hours longer, a bit more difficult, and more engaging, but also more frustrating and sometimes tedious, whereas the run and gun playthrough was more immediate in terms of response and effect, but not as engaging, and more derivative, as it more closely resembles a third person shooter at that point, whereas the stealth gameplay was very fresh for me (not having ever really played through an entire stealth game).

Alpha Protocol is a victim of its image problems (many gamers thought it was an action game) and what I assume was probably not the most conducive development environment in terms of pushing out a fully realized, polished game. It's also full of fantastic features and elements, and if you can look past the flaws, and play it the way it is meant to be played, there's a tremendous amount of fun to be had, and, if you're like me, you'll want to keep playing it to see how else it can turn out in the end.

This is a very tough game to assign a numerical score, and no matter what you score it, it's bound to draw contention. It's a fantastic rpg, but it's short and not terribly polished. It's got one of the best video game narratives I have ever witnessed, and excellent conversation and morality systems. It's well paced, and deep, but the flaws can detract from an otherwise immersive experience. For myself, being a forgiving gamer who focuses on core gameplay and fun factor, having now played this twice and already itching to give it another go, I want to score it highly but I must be mindful of the very real flaws. If there is ever a sequel, which, based on sales, is looking doubtful at this point, the potential for a so called AAA game is huge. As it stands, this is an excellent game that wasn't quite polished to excellent game standards. Consequently, I feel that an 8/10 is merited.

Overall Score: 8/10
Hope you enjoyed my Alpha Protocol Xbox 360 Review and found it to be informative and fair.


  1. Well, you already know my thoughts on this game.

    RPG element: great

    everything else: not so much

  2. That's mostly true but since the game is an RPG I guess it's great then ;)


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