Sunday, July 21, 2013
Games: At last, here's the fifth and final installment of the letters between myself and @SparkyClarkson on Obsidian's underappreciated espionage RPG, Alpha Protocol.
Miss the previous installments? You can read the first here. The second is right here, and here are the third and the fourth.
And now, our closing statements on the cross-continental misadventures of Mike Thorton...
So, at last, we come to the end of Alpha Protocol, and it is terrible.
It doesn’t seem that bad at first. The level begins with a number of “conversation” missions, and even at this late point the conversations keep Mike’s relationships growing. My Mike kept things professional with Mina and Scarlet, knowing he was a target. Then he walked into the airport and gave himself up to Darcy.
This leads into the conversation with Leland we’ve been having interspersed between missions the whole game. Leland offers Mike a job, apparently unaware that Mike’s whole purpose in visiting is to put a bullet between his eyes. One sharp refusal later, Mike is in the queue for termination, chatting a bit with Marburg on the way. Timely intervention by Steven Heck saves the day, and Mike is off to get his revenge.
Alas, Mike’s final romp through the Graybox and surrounding areas is an abyss of crappy level design and terrible boss encounters, infested with bugs.
The big reveal of Scarlet’s role turns into a loose end for me because the game mistakes curiosity for a positive choice. The building blew up behind me as I was just trying to figure out the lay of the land, sealing off Scarlet’s cell (although I didn’t realize that’s what I had missed until much later). This is why making a compelling game is so difficult - bad level design can make your story worse.
I rescued Mina, a relatively easy task since the soldiers were nonchalantly patrolling the interior of a building that was in the process of exploding, then moved on to fight Parker. This is a highly variable fight. I remember that the first time I played it, Parker shot Marburg in the back and I finished the job. This time Marburg was absent, and I had to take down a bunch of turrets (I hacked them, but this did nothing) and soldiers. Then I had to do it again, because the game bugged out the first time and didn’t let me into the little room where Parker was hiding.
Should I feel something in response to killing Parker? The plain fact is that I haven’t seen this guy since forever and I didn’t really care about him then. This is part of the problem with this whole part of the game. We have a relationship with Leland, because we’ve been talking to him regularly throughout the game, but Parker? Darcy? Westridge? I can barely remember those guys. The boss fights feel rather weightless as a consequence.
Speaking of Darcy, the fight against him is awful, and the subsequent fight against a helicopter is even worse. By this point the game has started to feel like the worst Gears of War clone ever created, an impression it does nothing to dispel in a final fight where I had to dodge rockets being launched by Leland.
Again, this is bad design hurting the story. The whole point of Leland’s character is that he never gets his hands dirty personally, that he doesn’t understand the realities of the conflicts he’s starting. No matter how much danger he was in, Leland wouldn’t want to pick up a rocket launcher, and wouldn’t know how to use one if he did. Leland should be hiding in that little office and sending out waves of troops. That fight would still suck, but at least it would be true to the character.
In the end, Leland tried to make a deal again, but Mike just beat the crap out of him and then shot him in the face, because that’s what Mike does. Then the game had to go ruin things by including a strange coda with Marburg (it didn’t let me shoot him!) before Mike sailed off into the sunset with Mina.
You’ll notice I didn’t say anything about G22 in all of that. Another weakness of this mission is that it doesn’t share the “grand alliance” feeling of the Taipei missions. Albatross and SIE turned up as options for my handler, but rather than taking all the help he can get, Mike apparently brushes them off.
That’s a huge mistake, because the story of Alpha Protocol is not “Mike Thorton went around the world semi-defeating Halbech and then went back to the Graybox to Kill All The Dudes.” The story is “Mike Thorton went around the world making allies who helped strengthen him, and enemies who would oppose him, in the final push against the real danger.” Alpha Protocol is a game about relationships, and it really needed to honor and incorporate them in the final mission in order to make that feel like a culmination of the story.
Alpha Protocol’s last mission fails in so many ways. It’s a big, shooty level full of bosses that leans on the game’s worst mechanics without sufficiently engaging its conversation system. The finale doesn’t really have much story of its own, and it too easily gives up the strands of alliance that could connect it back to Mike’s previous missions. It centers on NPCs who are far in the past, and doesn’t pay enough attention to Mike’s ongoing relationships. The level design blocks off elements of story rather than drawing the player towards them. In all, I found it a bitter disappointment.
Alpha Protocol is one of the most ambitious attempts to reach the Western RPG ideal of mutability - a game as a virtual DM that presents a partially fixed story that flexes to fit the player’s choices. Unfortunately, that ambition was not matched by Obsidian’s ability to execute on gameplay. The game’s shooty finale is abysmal, but it’s part and parcel of a stodgy insistence on RPG tropes that simply weren’t a good fit. The Graybox showdown is to the rest of the game as the boss fights against Omen, Marburg, and Brayko are to the mission cities that precede them.
Wishful thinking, I know. Sega would never have supported such a game, and Obsidian seem to see themselves as RPG guys first and foremost. Yet what Alpha Protocol is striving for is so great, and its flaws are so significant, one can’t help but wonder what might have been.
You know, before I get into the meat of this letter, I really want to thank you for inviting me to participate in this correspondence. Although my original review of Alpha Protocol wasn’t exactly going with praise, there was an admiration there.
As time has gone on, that admiration has only grown, and now that we’ve completed this recent playthrough and talked about it, I like the title now more than I ever did. Strangely, a large part of this increase in affection has to do with the final mission – the very same mission which you found so miserable, I found to be quite satisfying.
To start things off by keeping it real, the level design and combat is at the same low level it always is, but the saving grace is that by this point in the game, my Mike Thorton had maxed out his Pistol skills, had Brilliance at his disposal, and was packing the best gear that was available.
Most of the encounters were complete pushovers thanks to the godlike slow-mo-firing-six-shots-at-once ability and enough health packs to resuscitate an entire battalion’s worth of injury. Even the bosses went down in seconds (except the helicopter you mentioned, which inexplicably manages to take six or seven missile strikes before going down) so I didn’t have too much difficulty in getting past the generally poor quality of the fights.
While there was little satisfaction to be gained from the gunplay, it’s the rest of the mission that really solidified things for me. While you and I are on the same page about the missed opportunity of Mike not being able to assemble his entire team when mounting his assault on the Graybox, I actually did have something that echoed it in a scaled-back way.
Although it seems like our missions began with Leland trying to recruit our characters for Halbech (and really, I need to go and YouTube what happens if you decide to accept his offer) that’s where we diverge, for the most part.
From there, I was quite pleased to finally get the romance scene with SIE that I had been after. This sequence of events and the way it played out was far more graphic than I was expecting, although I suppose I should mention that I was actively pursuing this option, so it was not unwelcome. I’ve heard from people who weren’t SIE fans that the scene can also come off in a very different light, but really, who’s not a SIE fan?
In any event, in my previous time through the game, I was confused about which way to go at several points, and as a result, I missed rescuing Mina and failed to make contact with Scarlet. Since I was consulting a FAQ this time around, I made sure not to accidentally miss them, and this extra effort paid off.
Since White Hat Mike had been playing nice with the ladies along the way, they were both happy to see him. After Scarlet revealed her secret, she and I teamed up for the rest of the level, and having an on-the-ground backup with her skills was greatly appreciated. Things with Mina went just as swimmingly, and not only did she provide me with a brief scene’s worth of assistance, she was around at the end before credits rolled. I always felt guilty as hell for unintentionally leaving her behind, so finally correcting this was great.
However, those weren’t the only places where this mission changed for me. Like you, when I encountered Marburg he respected me enough (and I had enough information on him from his dossiers) that I was able to convince him that his continued support of Halbech wasn’t in his best interests, so he acted on the wisdom of my words by leaving Leland high and dry.
It was a similar situation with Parker. After supplying him with some facts that he wasn’t aware of, the man’s cold, calculating nature led him to switch sides. Rather than being someone to take down, he ignored me, swiped data from the Graybox servers and left town.
From there, it was just a hop, skip, and a quick reload to taking Leland down. I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised to see him as the final boss – I had to fight a completely different character last time, so this final scene with him wheedling and pleading felt more appropriate. Although I did not put a bullet in his head, I did smack him around a bit before deciding to take him into custody, so things wrapped up as I think they should have.
In general I totally agree with your criticisms – the story stumbles in several places, the combat is never anywhere as good as it should be, and there are times when the focus seems placed on the absolute wrong thing. However, more elements clicked into place for me during this second time through the Graybox, and I did feel as though the work I had done throughout the game really paid off at the end, especially in regard to Parker.
That particular scene largely recapped my “good” deeds and non-combat intelligence work in each country, so being able to connect the dots into the result I got was gratifying. I was also happy to see that three of my teammates did manage to help out, and that due diligence paid off with Marburg. When all was said and done it was far from optimal, but there was definitely a value to managing the relationships and spending time preparing for conversations. Unlike so many other titles, Alpha Protocol's key moments happen thanks to the time spent with the main character's finger off the trigger.
If nothing else, it just (again) highlights what a shame it was that Alpha Protocol came out in a shaky state to begin with, and rubs salt in the wound of knowing that it doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a sequel. Despite all of the problems, I found it to be interesting and appealing on many, many levels, and with a little bit of design rework and a few more dollars pumped into QA, I have no doubt that a sequel following the same lines would really have been something else.
Unfortunately we both know that it was not to be, but I’m hoping that an increased awareness of this title will inspire a young developer with stars in their eyes to someday carry on the torch that Obsidian and Alpha Protocol lit. There are definitely valuable lessons to be learned here, and to this day, I still haven’t played anything that scratches the espionage itch the way this game does.