Blog 449: Alpha Protocol

a.ka. (Mostly) How Mass Effect 2 Should Have Been

It’s blatantly obvious from the outset that this game was heavily influenced by Mass Effect 2. The conversational style, the camerawork… But it is so much stronger in almost every way.

Especially after the terrible flop of The Club, Alpha Protocol veritably glowed. Mouselook worked and I could aim.

Spoilers are avoided — suffice to say, it’s a conspriacy thriller. A very fine one.

They Told Me…

That Alpha Protocol was good, but not £35-brand-new good. I had been waiting for it to reach bargain-bin levels for some time, when this free-games-for-signing-up malarkey appeared.

What people neglected to mention is that it’s like a little bite-sized third-person version of Deus Ex.

This man would be an MJ12 Commando if he didn't go down really really easily. MJ12 are actually name-checked elsewhere, but then again, they WERE are real fake conspiracy hoax... Or were they?

The format is, after the secret base prologue type bit, that you have a safe house from which you embark on missions. Unlike Deus Ex, missions are generally not open-plan sprawls with both randoms and enemies in them — but the types of missions vary, from infiltration dungeon crawls to just navigating an important conversation.

The action-orientated missions are where the Deus Ex lineage comes in — you can go in guns blazing, sneak around, or try to find an alternative route. Though the missions are altogether much smaller than Deus Ex, there is still usually plenty of room to improvise.

My tactic tended to be sneak as much as I could (using sub-sonic suppressed assault rifle rounds to head-shot from as long a distance as possible), then if all went to shit, I tore the place up. Which was more often than I’d have liked, but thanks to investing lots of Action Points in Stealth I made sneaking that much easier (the rest pretty much all went into Assault Rifles, making shooting much easier).

Although missions are very snappy, they still take the time to deliver lavish environments.

Not Just a Cover Shooter

It’s a cover shooter with RPG elements — but the RPG elements are pretty deep, and even the cover system has a lot of fun to it. Things like being able to blind-fire with SMGs: you don’t poke your head over, so you don’t get a crosshair and it’s hard to aim, but you also don’t get instantly shot to bits. Things like being able to roll between cover for fun… I never actually rolled during a firefight. Things like being able to just not use cover sometimes. Hell, you get experience points for all the enemies you evaded as well as those you fought.

Then there is the weapon customisation — guns can have barrels, sights, magazines and accessories added, and then you can fill them with different kinds of ammunition. Armour can have mods too. While Mass Effect had so much equipment that it was effectively meaningless, and Mass Effect 2 had so little equipment it was… effectively meaningless…, AP strikes a fine balance of giving you a selection without completely gimping you into having to buy DLC.

Then again, I did just save up for an expensive burst-fire assault rifle near the beginning and never replaced it (did swap out some parts occasionally, mind you). I suppose I should do a shotgun-driven playthrough next.

It’s almost like somebody took ME2 and added… all the stuff that turns a series of shooting galleries into an actual game. This is like the logical development and refinement of Mass Effect‘s RPG elements — rather than the slate-wipe-and-start-again echoing emptiness of Mass Effect 2.

On the downside, you can’t customise your face beyond adding… Well, okay, I added a goatee and half-rimmed glasses and he kind of looks a bit like me (if I was a totally buff super-spy and my beard came up a little further) so I’m actually all right with this.

When I saw these customisation options, I knew I had found my home.

Talk to Me

The dialogue system in Alpha Protocol is a little bit different from what I’m used to. The standard dialogue engine way is to pause the game while you make a response to something. The world waits with baited breath for your momentous decision.

Alpha Protocol doesn’t have explicit responses. In an extension of the Mass Effect style of giving a cut-down vague idea of what you’re going to say rather than raw lines of dialogue to choose from, AP gives you a choice of an attitude to take — suave, professional, casual, whatever. The conversation flows from there.

But you have to choose quickly. There is a count-down timer before the game just selects the default choice — if you don’t pick a response, the game keeps on going and the conversation continues to flow. If you do pick a different choice, the game continues to flow anyway. It’s very swish.

As soon as I saw this frame, I knew I had found my home.

Mini-games

Alpha Protocol has a fair approach to hacking, lock-picking and alarm disarming mini-games. All three are limited by time pressure — if the clock runs out, the alarm will usually go off. Unfortunately, I tended not to start hacking until I had cleaned the place out, so having the alarm go off wasn’t exactly a punishment.

The computer hacking game was initially an absolute nightmare — you have place two character strings on top of their counterparts in a sea of ever-changing letters. In the introduction, you get infinite attempts to get through a computer, and boy did I need them all. After that… It gets easier. A slightly blockier font might have helped ease the eye-pain.

While I can see the lockpicking and computer hacking games working fine on a console, I can imagine the alarm disarming game being an absolute nightmare. The game involves clicking boxes in the right order — but to find out which box to click, you have to follow each of the wires through a ridiculous maze. I used the free-floating mouse cursor to trace them most of the time, and sitting right up at the screen and being able to lean forward also helped.

Luckily, you can bypass all of these minigames at the cost of an EMP charge. I only used about two in the entire game, though, because I am a masochist.

Fuck's. Sake.

Overall

Alpha Protocol is a very good game.

Is it missing anything? Sure. Deus Ex made the world seem more alive with newspapers, datacubes — although AP has the news reporters on TV at the safehouses, missions themselves are devoid of such immersive content barring the odd computer with a few e-mails. The world is also very static — Deus Ex had loads of mobile objects that, even if useless, still made the world feel more alive.

Does any of that stop Alpha Protocol from being a brilliant game? No. Any concerns I have with this game are minor niggles.

If Deus Ex: Human Revolution comes out anything like this, then I will have little to complain about. As long as it doesn’t couple good gameplay with lore-rape, mind you.

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