Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Letters on: Alpha Protocol - Part 3  


Games: For tonight, here's the third installment of the letters between myself and @SparkyClarkson on Obsidian's underappreciated espionage RPG, Alpha Protocol

 Miss the first installment? You can read it here. The second is right here

And now, here's what we had to say on the continuing misadventures of Mike Thorton...


Hey Brad,

Since we came to Taipei from different starting points, I’m eager to discuss changes in the way this segment played out. I think, however, that any discussion of Taipei has to start with Steven Heck, who is in many ways the best character in the game.

Where's my funnel? This guy's thirsty for bleach!

Heck’s a case where the writers absolutely made the most of the idea that in espionage nothing is as it appears. He apparently lives in a dump and sounds like someone who has been haunting alt.conspiracy since 1994. So, clearly not an actual spy, right? But our first moments in Taipei involve using a secret passage to get from an apparently dumpy apartment to a hi-tech lair. What’s more, some of the things Heck says, like belonging to a part of the CIA so secret nobody knows it exists and being sent out to do his own thing, exactly match the story that the player has been playing so far. It’s just ambiguous enough that we’re in the same place as everyone else - unsure whether Heck really is the world’s best spy, or just a deluded individual who has convinced himself he is.

Heck hit it off with my Mike right away, as they share a mutual interest in hurting people, a hobby Mike got to indulge while doing Hong Shi’s dirty work and slaughtering the Chinese security forces in the subway.

I hate that mission because it shows the game’s writing at its worst. They build up Omen Deng to be this super-dangerous threat, and then they give you this mission where he A) shoves Mike into a maintenance tunnel rather than killing him, then B) immediately sends dozens of minions to kill him, followed by C) letting those minions complete the deal for the precious data rather than showing up himself. And this in a situation where he’s convinced that Mike is coming to murder his beloved father figure! Ugh.

I much preferred the Hotel and Taipei’s final mission. Since I had good relationships with Heck and Scarlet, both of them showed up to give me a hand infiltrating the hotel, which gave that mission a bit of the feeling of an Ocean’s Eleven-style caper. The level itself is sort of railroad-y and unremarkable, but the narrative things going on there were neat.

The final mission had something similar going for it, even though it provided yet another chapter in the idiotic adventures of Omen Deng. My history with Albatross and my decision not to murder every G22 agent in the warehouse earned me some assistance from the four-eyed spies, and I also managed to swing some backup from Hong Shi. It felt a bit like a grand alliance going to war (in what may be the game’s prettiest level), and this time all the action points in the memorial building actually showed up on the first try, which was nice.

So Taipei ends up being a mixed bag. The main and side plots here fell flat for me, but Heck and the two missions I mentioned are some of the game’s high points. It will be interesting to see how all of this alters my Rome experience when I head there next.


Hey Sparky,

Good call starting the discussion off with Steven (not Steve) Heck.

If HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic was A> human, B> a paranoid conspiracy theorist, and C> a murder-happy espionage agent, he’d definitely be a vague approximation of what players are treated to when dealing with this loose screw.  I mean, seriously…  How many other games can boast a character who’s concerned with the psycho-social effect of strawberries and who’s also assassinated someone by ramming a mountain bike through their chest?

It’s actually ironic that one of the best characters in the game makes his home in Taipei, because you’re exactly right when you say that this cluster of missions is a mixed bag.  For me, this part of the world shows both the best and the worst of what Alpha Protocol has to offer.  

Can I flirt with Scarlet without making Mina (or Heck) angry?

On the plus side, not only is every interaction with Heck pure gold, the hotel mission you referred to is great because you get to start things off with a four-way videoconference call between Thorton, Heck, Scarlet and Mina. 

I love it when the game takes the time to illustrate the planning and intelligence aspects of being a spy, so this chat before things went down was delicious.  What made it shine was the tension between everyone on the call.  Playing as White Hat Thorton, I’m trying to keep on everyone’s good side (in addition to trying to get a little ‘personal recon’ with each of the game’s love interests) so trying to give answers that satisfy each team member without pissing off the others reminded me greatly of several situations I’ve been in myself.  More or less, anyway... There are definitely fewer guns in my anecdotes.

On the other hand, not everything is peachy in Taipei.  In terms of level design, most of the sections are quite boring and come off as the sort of generic room/hallway scheme that you might find in any other standard shooting game.  This section also has much more action than Rome did, so it only highlights both how difficult it is to play stealthily and how janky the straight combat can be.  Although I haven’t gotten to Russia yet, I recall those areas being at least a bit more interesting than these were…  Taipei might not be as bad as Saudi Arabia, but I think I would rank it as the second-worst if we were to look only at the mechanical aspects and level design.

When we started this letters series, one of the points we were trying to hit was to highlight the differences between playing Good Thorton and Bad Thorton, but it sounds as though we’ve ended up on a similar path – although I know it’s possible to develop bad relationships with the supporting characters (thanks, GameFAQS!) I also had help from Hong Shi and the G22 faction, in addition to Heck and the rest of the cast. 

I wonder if that's a function of the game trying to redirect divergent players towards similarly-structured sequences, or whether it’s both you and I making the same choices because they’re the most entertaining and interesting?  This might warrant a third playthrough!

Anyway, I’m off to Russia…  I’ll make sure to stop off at that banya you recommended. No tipping, right?


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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