Monday, July 1, 2013
Games: As promised , here's the second installment of the letters between myself and @SparkyClarkson on Obsidian's underappreciated espionage RPG, Alpha Protocol.
I don’t know how swank the Rome apartment is, but I have to say the Moscow flat is pretty classy. I’m not sure I’m a huge fan of decorating the dining room with Nasri’s glass eye, but I guess when you shoot a guy in the face you want to keep a part of that face around as a memento. Or something.
Thorton’s mission here seems pretty straightforward -- find out who trafficked those missiles through the city -- but the characters he encounters are a bizarre mix. On the one hand, we have Grigori, Albatross, and Surkov, who could fit easily into almost any serious spy drama ever made. On the other hand, we have Sis, SIE, and Brayko, who are absurd. SIE is the least ridiculous, even though she’s a Bond-style vamp in the mold of Xenia Onatopp. I’ve been playing Mike using aggressive answers leavened with professional ones, which seemed to appeal to her.
Sis and Brayko are bigger problems, because they show off the worst aspects of Alpha Protocol’s incongruous boss fights. Sis shows up with a bunch of hi-tech operatives, but instead of advanced rifles and night-vision goggles she’s equipped with two revolvers and a hoodie. At least the hoodie is made of kevlar, if her resistance to being shot in the face is any indication. The awful fight with Brayko is even more bizarre - perhaps all that cocaine has formed a protective shield? And no matter how many bullets you sink into their faces, afterwards these bosses are still ready for a conversation! “Ah, you beat me! Now I shall converse with you and possibly escape!”- it feels very JRPG-ish (and not in a good way).
Alpha Protocol feels like it’s making more sense when it provides confrontations like the fight against Championchik (Surkov’s bodyguard). He’s a boxer, and he wants to fight hand-to-hand. A Bond would take up the challenge and end up mauled but victorious. A Bauer would just shoot him in the face, which Alpha Protocol lets you do.
This seems really simple, but I’m fond of it because for the most part Alpha Protocol separates characterization from the combat mechanics, so that you have long stealth/combat sequences punctuated by short character moments. Mass Effect gave me a similar feeling, and in both cases the character stuff is so much better than the combat gameplay (I love that some of these missions are just talking) that the shooty bits can feel like a chore.
That’s such a missed opportunity, because action, at its best, is characterization. Consider what Jason Bourne’s elegant, brutal takedown of the cops in the park in The Bourne Identity reveals about him, or taking the nearest parallel to this scene, what Indy shooting the swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark says about him. The fight against Championchik turns a combat moment into a character moment, which makes this one of the best encounters in the game. That’s missing from most of Alpha Protocol’s boss encounters, to its detriment.
Well, I’m going to clear out of town and leave Brayko to his fun. Won’t you join me in Taipei?
I’m not going to lie, the Rome safehouse is fabulous.
Being something of a foodie myself, I love the kitchen. Then toss in a hot tub and a rooftop balcony for sipping espresso? Heavenly. I also thought that some of the small details were nice touches – I assume the messages of encouragement from Mina and Darcy were there as a consequence of cultivating a positive relationship with them both. I would be curious to see if these touches change if they disliked me, or if they would be different had I chosen Rome later in the game…
But we’re not here to talk about quality time on Mediterranean getaways, are we?
Out of the three mission clusters Mike Thorton can choose immediately after completing Saudi Arabia, I’ve got to say that Rome just might be my favorite. It starts out with our intrepid hero not having much of a plan, and I can’t recall many games that routinely send their protagonists out on fishing trips for information. It seems like a very logical, believable first step after being burned by his own agency, and I appreciate that.
My first move was to tap a local CIA listening post in order to scan transmissions and keep an ear out for anything that pertains to Mike’s situation. Mina, my handler, expressed concern for the American citizens staffing the place. I complied, and went non-lethal. This little twist reinforced the feeling of Mike being on the run, but not abandoning his ideals and his devotion to his country.
In a more concrete sense, I appreciated that the design of the house I was infiltrating felt fairly realistic – there weren’t any excessively long, empty hallways and the overall space was quite small compared to most levels in games. Appropriately, there were only a small handful of people to be dealt with in the building, and it was easy to subdue them and go about my business undetected.
Speaking of the undetected, this was the first point in Alpha Protocol when I got to use the mid-level stealth power that turns Thorton invisible. Literally invisible.
As we mentioned earlier, playing stealth is really the best way to get through the game, but there’s no question that the developers went in some strange directions with it. I mean, Mike is able to utterly vanish from sight for no discernible reason. Although I’m not the kind of person who demands realism in all my games, this ability pushes suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. I mean, what, he disappears through sheer force of will? There’s no question that it’s an incredibly useful skill, but come on… throw me a bone here, Obsidian.
In any event, Mike gets in and out with a minimum of fuss. Although there are a couple of guards to be dealt with, I liked how the game veered sharply away from large amounts of combat for combat’s sake, like so many other games would do. Although this type of design is quite unusual, it makes a lot of sense and I respect the developers for not cramming gunplay in where it doesn’t belong. This same restraint is only reinforced in the next few sections.
For example, my next objective was to tap into an NSA listening post. The mission is to get in and out without raising any suspicion, and it’s over in just a minute or two. The entire scene consists only of dialog choices, and I love that one of the very first options is to eliminate the guard on duty before he’s able to say a word, if that’s what’s desired.
Since I’m playing as White Hat Super Nice Guy Thorton, my intent was to play things cool, but I had a slip-up. Things didn’t go as planned and I couldn’t have my cover blown under any circumstances, so I had to put a bullet into the guy asking questions. However, I can’t take full responsibility. The game was a little unclear as to whether I had accomplished my mission or not, and I didn’t want to leave if my goals were not met. It turns out that all I had to do was walk out the door, but the lack of clarity tripped me up.
Oh well, collateral damage is unavoidable, I guess. I’ll track down that guy’s family after my mission is over and send some flowers.
The next section was all about conducting surveillance at a party, and again, it’s a time when Alpha Protocol shows itself as unafraid to break from the expected norm.
Rather than making my way through the level as I’ve been doing up until this point, Mike is ghosting around in the bushes outside and identifying targets from a distance with a special sniper scope. It’s a short section, but it’s all about simply observing and getting info from Mike’s handler. At the end I was faced with the choice to pull the trigger on someone who may or may not be related to the people I’m tracking down, but I decided to let my target go, and the entire mission was violence-free. Pretty refreshing. Also, verrrrry espionagey.
While many game directors might be feeling pressured to get the player “back into the action” at this point, Alpha Protocol keeps its trigger finger at rest and continues along with two more dialogue-only scenes, one with the vaguely super-villain-like Marburg and then one with his personal assistant who’s blowing the whistle on his shady deeds in Rome. If you’ve taken the time to find and read the dossiers on these people, it’s possible to gain both of their confidences… It’s not too surprising in the latter, but it certainly is in the former. It’s clear that Marburg is not your friend, but it is possible to establish professional respect. It’s not incredibly deep, but it is a solid piece of character writing and another way the game reinforces the idea that Thorton’s best weapons are his Super Spy Brain and his way with people.
At this point Mike dusts off his pistol in preparation for some action, and much like the rest of Rome, it’s not the standard thing you'd expect. When investigating a suspicious warehouse, I stumbled into the middle of a confrontation between two rival groups. Bullets were flying everywhere, but I had the choice to either engage and take them all out while they were busy with each other, or simply keep my head down and go about my business. I'm probably sounding like a broken record, but I just adore the way that Alpha Protocol manages to put an interesting spin on so many parts that could have easily been cookie-cutter productions.
I’ve blathered on for far too long already, but I couldn’t sign off without saying a quick word of reverence for Madison, the first “love interest” whose relationship can be consummated. After a rocky start things seemed to be on the upswing, but let’s just say that it didn’t end well… The developers have a habit of putting Mike in between a rock and a hard place, and it’s tough for love to bloom in such circumstances. That said, I did get the Rome-Mance achievement, though…
See you in Taipei!
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!