Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Letters on: Alpha Protocol  

Games: Way, way, waaaay back in... 2010, both @SparkyClarkson and I reviewed Obsidian's espionage-based action RPG, Alpha Protocol

(For reference, this is what he said, and this is what I said.)

Despite getting a fairly savage reception at the time (and that's putting it mildly) it's gone on to become something of a cult favorite to those willing to look past its many mechanical failings thanks to some brilliant things going on in its conceptual side. 

Sparky was kind enough to invite me to participate in a letters series focusing on this under-appreciated title, and here's our opening salvo.

Hey Brad,
Glad you decided to join me for a playthrough of Alpha Protocol - the game where your weapon is choice, so long as that choice doesn't involve your gender, race, sexual orientation, or actual weapons.

That came out a little harsher than I intended. But it’s confusing to be handed a game that advertises choice and then mandates that you wake up as Grumpy McWhitebro, the hero of a thousand more or less identical faces. You never know where these choices come from, though. Did Sega’s reps thump the desk and insist we get Mr. McWhitebro, or did Obsidian positively make that choice to cut down on the magnitude of their task?

They’ve set themselves a pretty stiff challenge, after all. Come into a world of tactical espionage and play as the kind of spy you want to be. The touchstones here are the James Bond suave type, hyper-competent Jason Bourne professional, and the Jack Bauer mad dog. And, with some limited exceptions, the conversation system seems to be very well realized. I got a few unpleasant surprises in Mike Thorton’s dialogues, but nothing so awful as to stand out.

Of course, the game was also supposed to offer some variety when it came to tactical approach, but that didn’t really work out. The stealth tree skills are so useful that it’s madness to focus on anything else, and the only weapon that really works with stealth is the pistols, not to mention that the chain-shot is the best attack ability in the game. So really, you’re stuck with only one build.

Similarly, there aren’t actually a lot of different paths through the encounters, at least not yet. I mean, the graybox is just a tutorial level, but most of the Saudi areas admit of only one route through major areas. And that path is enforced in aggressively silly ways, blocked off by low boxes Thorton should easily be able to clamber over, “rough” terrain that wouldn’t stop me, and the total absence of a disguise system (C’mon Mike, these guys are all wearing balaclavas! Take the hint!). The choice to rely on action-button athleticism rather than a truly traversable world is the one that sits worst with me, and dealing with these low barriers that you just can’t vault over because nobody planned it is a constant frustration for my stealth-oriented play.

But, it’s incredibly difficult to design levels that are rewarding for many different playstyles, which is part of why the Deus Ex lineage is so revered. Perhaps less well-recognized is that it’s incredibly difficult to create a story that fits all playstyles. The three touchstone spies I discussed may all have the initials J.B., but that’s about where the similarity between the worlds they inhabit and the dangers they confront ends. A confrontation between, say, Bauer and Auric Goldfinger would be a dramatic disaster (also a bloodbath). Bond would be totally nonplussed by Bourne’s CIA - a whole agency full of people he can’t have sex with. Bourne might get on reasonably well in Bauer’s world, except that he appears to be pathologically incapable of working in a team.

Stories have to fit their central characters, and when a player gets to choose what kind of character the protagonist is, the whole constellation of secondary characters and plots has to go along and somehow fit in.
The advantage that the Bond-style character (for certain values of “James Bond”) has is that he can grease the wheels by playing off ill-fitting parts of the story as a laugh. That’s important, because spy-operative fiction is, for the most part, completely ridiculous. Consider the opening of The Spy Who Loved Me, a fusion of downhill skiing and a gunfight that ends with a fantastic BASE jump. The action is exhilarating; it’s still the best pre-credits teaser in the series, and possibly ever. It’s also totally goofy and absurd, and for proof of this one need look no further than later in the movie where merely describing what went down completely detonates a should-be-serious scene where Bond justifies killing the lover of Russian agent Triple-X (groan).

But Bond movies, at least until they reached Daniel Craig’s amoral psychopath Bond, have tended to understand and accept their absurdity in a way that the po-faced Bourne and Bauer adventures never do. The squinty-eyed masculinity of those characters would fall apart in the face of a Bond-style semi-farce.
So, it’s interesting how buttoned-down this introductory segment is. Nasri's a bit crazy-looking, and there's a little bit of weird humor courtesy of Darcy, but for the most part the plot and characters all feel like they belong in a serious-minded spy story of the Bourne-Bauer ilk. There's no hint at this point of how wacky things are going to get.

The storytelling here feels fairly by-the-numbers, too. The act of betrayal that ends the chapter felt kind of tired and expected, even on my first time through. There's just not enough of a relationship between Mike and the Alpha Protocol team to make that twist really sting. It was a pretty brave choice to lay out all these characters and then chop them out of the story, but ultimately it took so much time to introduce everyone that I didn't really get attached to anyone.

Still, clearing the slate this way makes the rest of the game feel more like an undiscovered country. By the time you reach your next destination, the major tropes (the double-cross, the femme fatale) have all been put into play, with only about a fifth of the game done. That gives Obsidian a lot of elbow room.
Speaking of the next destination, the heat in Saudi Arabia has gotten to me, so I'm sending Mike off to chill in Moscow.

P.S. A warning for readers who are now interested in giving Alpha Protocol a whirl: It is super-janky. Textures poptart (that is, they pop in after two minutes), the AI is stupid and also possesses pinpoint aim with grenades, and action points sometimes fail to show up, so you have to reload a checkpoint (or even soft-boot). Make peace with that before you begin, and you’ll be much more likely to enjoy the experience.


Hey Sparky,

Thanks much for inviting me on this return journey into the life and times of Mike Thorton.

Between my work at Gamecritics and the stuff I play for fun, there’s no end of things to keep up with, and I’m not sure I would have ever given AP another spin. There’s just so little free time. Your request gave me a good reason to replay it, though, and I’m glad for that. While I originally reviewed Alpha Protocol back in 2010 and largely enjoyed it, my appreciation for the game has only grown since then.

Since we’re starting this dialogue at the beginning (and really, what better place to start?) you’re entirely right about the player not having much choice in crafting their very own Thorton.

Other games manage to tell a specific story while leaving things a little more open for protagonists of varying sorts, but in this specific case, I don’t mind too much. Although the dialogue and writing are well in hand, it’s clear that the dev team had certain… challenges with the action side. I mean, huge red flags are raised when you first see Thorton’s corncob-hiding crouch-walk, and it only gets sketchier from there, amirite?

It’s just a fact that AP’s action barely hangs together when played with the optimal stealth & pistols build (AKA the only serviceable build?) so I’m not going to be too bothered that they didn’t rewrite and re-record as much of the game as they would have had to in order to allow for something as divergent as a female lead – although I would have been thrilled with a FemThorton, trying to cover all those bases probably would have taken away so many resources that the action side would have received even less attention than it did.

Apart from Thorton himself, it would have been nice to see combat be more flexible to at least allow for a more rewarding tactical experience, as you suggested. It’s certainly tough to feel like an international superagent when Mike can’t drop down a small ledge or hop over a cinderblock. However, there are so many games that do deliver solid action and little else that in light of what AP does get right, I can let it go. Granted, the pistols’ ability to deliver multiple headshots in slow-mo bullet time goes a long way towards making that allowance possible, but still. 

In any event, within the first hour of play it’s quite clear that Obsidian is crafting an espionage experience unlike any other I’ve played – rather than giving the concept lip service with some kill-heavy stuff like laser-watches and cars hiding missiles behind their headlights, AP carves its own territory by frequently giving the player lengthy discussion scenes and quite a bit of info to read. I’m not ordinarily keen on such stuff since it’s often misused as a poor substitute for actual development (hello, Skyrim!) but given that the game wants you to truly be a spy, it makes a lot of sense to do some actual intelligence work before hitting the field. Reading dossiers, figuring out how to get desired responses out of people based on their personalities, and gathering intel before each mission here feels appropriate and engaging.

I was especially pleased to find multiple levels of complexity happening in nearly every scene of the game, including the tutorial. AP wastes no time in embracing the espionage motif, since great performances in the Gadgets, Combat and Stealth trainings right at the beginning each lead to optional events… what better way to illustrate that there’s more underneath the surface than to have your instructor pull you aside after your evaluation and ask you to retrieve some files, hush-hush and off-the-record?

(BTW, trust no one.)

Unfortunately, AP puts its worst foot forward by starting with the Saudi Arabia missions. 

Although I didn’t find them too bad this second time around (probably because I now know how the game works and also because I know what’s coming) I’ve spoken to plenty of people who quit AP before getting through this section. It’s a shame, because things genuinely do get better afterwards, but you’re right --  this opening misses obvious things like the lack of disguise options, the artificiality of traversing the areas, and an obvious linearity that undercuts the sort of choices that are the focus of the game’s larger premise. It’s strange to see that there’s so much going on at a higher level, only to have these base issues ignored right out of the gate – if players use Saudi Arabia to gauge how the rest of the game will play out, I can hardly blame them for bailing.

While that section is probably the worst of the entire adventure in terms of level design and combat, now that we’ve both wrapped it up, there’s loads of interesting situations, double-crossing and intrigue to come. It only gets better from here.

You go ahead and check out Moscow. I think I’m going to head to Rome… I remember the safehouse there being pretty posh, and I’m thinking Mike’s in the mood for some Mediterranean food.


Look for the next installment of this series coming soon. And by the way, if you'd like to play along with us through this second look, copies are averaging about $4 the last time I checked... That's a pretty superb value for an interesting, informative experience, if you ask me! Hop aboard and share your comments with us!


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3 comments: to “ Letters on: Alpha Protocol

  • Anonymous


    You can fix the jankiness through some game settings tweaks (talking ini changing). It's fairly well documented on google and it definitely fixed my issues with the game. Worth it if you really care to play this game.


    I'll definitely be following this as it goes on. One non-spoilery thing that catches a lot of people off-guard about the game is that the tutorial mission, and specifically the outro discussion with Westridge (aka the gruff Carl Weathers stand-in), has some profound implications for the rest of the game.

    A lot of the game's famed reactivity (the only other games that come close are The Witcher series and the original Deus Ex, and that's only really reactive in the first third or so of the plot) stems from what you choose when Westridge asks you why you signed on to Alpha Protocol.* Various characters through the game will perceive you in light of you say there and react accordingly when you act in line or in contradiction of that. The most satisfying major storyline in the game hinges upon it, in fact. It's also why the inter-act dialogue with the oily bad guy is so good so often. I've rarely felt as satisfied as I did when I first took Leland down.

    Regarding the three JBs, as the game was (not inaccurately) marketed with, you're correct to note the dissonance between the setting and the Bond approach. Hell, the whole game is thoroughly weird in that respect - the intrigue and realpolitik of the plot are pure Bourne, but outside the confines of the Alpha Protocol base of operations the character design is thoroughly Roger Moore-era Bond, garish, outlandish and exaggerated.

    But to the credit of the designers, the Bond trappings never overwhelm the hard-nosed core of the game. If you do play as a straight-up Bond character (the game establishes Thorton as a mercurial natural manipulator but it's always funnest to play straight through with one stance) the game doesn't let it go unnoticed, nor does it flatter the player. At its heart the game is a serious political espionage tale, and the best thing about playing as a Bond is seeing how a Bourne-like story would play out with a smarmy Roger Moore joker at its center. Suffice to say you end up looking more like an extremely dangerous and distressingly flippant lunatic than anything else (which is why Archer tends to come up a lot in discussions, though it's never as funny as that show is). Developing a sour relationship with Mina Tang provides a great payoff at the end of the game, at the very least.

    So I guess to close out this very long comment, I would say this: You will be presented with opportunities to shift Thorton's approach around in order to get "better" outcomes in any given situationj, but I believe that you will derive greatest enjoyment from your game if you stick to your guns, no matter what. If you're an all-business Bourne-esque professional, don't become a jocular cad or vein-throbbing asshole just to please someone, let them come to hate you. It will pay off.

    * The one thing that really confused me (and still confuses me) is that Alpha Protocol is... both a clandestine Le Carre-esque organization AND a term for going off the grid as a rogue agent? It's really confusing. "You've been cut lose from Alpha Protocol! The only thing left to do... is to enact Alpha Protocol."**

    ** I have a lot of respect for Chris Avellone but in AP, KOTOR2 and his F:NV DLCs (and of course, Torment) he displays a habit of packing his work so tight with concepts and detail that things congeal and become confusing very quickly.


    I recall playing an early build of AP at PAX 2009: the demo was held in a nondescript room near registration, and even though it was invite-only, I had seen enough promotional materials beforehand to talk my way in. There were about a dozen people inside, seated at computers, playing the Saudi levels.

    After thirty minutes, we were asked to complete a survey about our experience. A lot of people didn't like the minigames (hacking, lockpicking, etc.); the techs had to explain how each one worked at least five times. Detection worked in wonkier ways than in the final version. I remember throwing a grenade across a courtyard to draw enemy attention. However, as soon as it went off, the guards instantly turned and rushed at me.

    They fixed that detection issue, at least, but Saudi remains one of the most boring segments of the game, probably because they needed something straightforward they could show to the executives/general public.

    My favorite moment was **minor spoiler** when I received a perk for watching the whole Al-Samad video clip in the Greybox. **end spoiler** Everyone else rushed off to their first mission, but I felt like I found something that no one else in that room did.