Alpha Protocol (Mass Effect 1-2)

Alpha Protocol is Mass Effect 2.  No, not that Mass Effect 2; Alpha Protocol is the other Mass Effect 2.  The one that we all expected after the original Mass Effect, before BioWare took a sledgehammer to genre conventions and broke all the rules of what an RPG “should” be.  Or should I say, schooled us all on what and RPG “should” be?  Either way, Alpha Protocol is Mass Effect 1-2.  Depending on your perspective, Alpha Protocol is either an artifact of the past or a fondly imagined vision of where the sure-to-be influential road paved by Mass Effect 2 could have taken us.

Personally, I count myself in the latter camp. I see Alpha Protocol as a sort of pre-emptive nostalgia; an odd “what if?” scenario in the world of modern game design.  It’s like developers Obsidian Entertainment set out to make a game informed by years of game design that never happened.  An ambitious goal, if not necessarily a deliberate one.  If only it worked.

To be fair, the design is present and competent.  If Alpha Protocol‘s goal is to make me feel like a spy, then it succeeds.  Guided by my handler, I make my way through a fancy, Taipei  hotel that’s overrun with security and secret police, quietly dispatching foes with quick, non-lethal take-downs.  Somewhere downstairs, one of my contacts is creating a very loud, very hard-to-ignore distraction.  Another asset is seducing a VIP for his room keycard, which I use to get into his room and hack his personal laptop for valuable intel.  The mission is made easier by the light security, a consequence of the many guards on the payroll of the local Triad, sent to take some “time off” thanks to favor owed to me by their boss.

Like a spy, I’m making and turning assets, manipulating powerful and influential people to help me achieve my goals.  I tell them what they want to hear, perform some favors, pass some money and/or information around, and they’re like chess pieces in my hand.  Arms dealers, diplomats, gangsters, assassins, mercenaries, agents, terrorists — all means to an end.  Shady?  Certainly…it takes little “moral flexibility” to be a good spy.  But I am a good spy; I have lines I won’t cross and make sure as few people get hurt as possible.  Nevertheless, as a spy, my sights have to be set on the big picture.

Unfortunately, outside my titillated imagination, within the confines of a video game world — a world that runs on mechanics, code and technical facts — the illusion begins to break down.

I don’t mind that Alpha Protocol is an RPG.  Mass Effect was an RPG and I didn’t mind it.  But I didn’t like it, either.  Mechanically speaking, Mass Effect wasn’t a very good RPG.  Outside of the dialogue and branching story lines — the real roleplaying — it tried to be a shooter, but still maintain BioWare’s RPG roots, and it mostly failed.

Many of Mass Effect’s primary mechanics — shooting, cover, special abilities — fell somewhere in-between ‘shooter’ and ‘RPG.’  Combat was real-time, somewhat dictated by dice rolls but not completely; there was a lot of loot but none of it really mattered; and it all tried to be very “realistic,” relative to its world and rules.  Unfortunately, those rules didn’t allow for traditional RPG mechanics.  It didn’t just look like a shooter; it was struggling to be one, but was ultimately too timid.

Alpha Protocol may look like a shooter but it isn’t making any attempt to actually be one.  Alpha Protocol is a straight-up RPG — the other side of the Mass Effect coin.  To see how the game embraces its RPG-ness, you need to look only at the ‘evasion’ skill.

An enemy spots you, the dice roll, and if they land in your favor, you turn invisible for a brief amount of time.  At sight it seems silly; such a mechanic would never fly in the Mass Effect world without the aid of ‘biotics’ (magic) or advanced technology.  Yet, rogues in fantasy RPGs pull this trick all the time, unaided by magic, and we never question it.   But because Alpha Protocol looks like a shooter, the ‘evasion’ skill looks out of place.

I can’t discuss the clash between Alpha Protocol’s look and feel without mentioning the shooting, which seems entirely based on dice-rolls.  Again, I must wonder why we so readily accept sword fighting based on rolls of an invisible pair of dice, but not shooting?  Maybe it’s because I can empty an entire clip into a terrorist at point-blank range and miss every shot.

Alpha Protocol’s technical limitations don’t help maintain the illusion, either.  Obsidian Entertainment has a history of their reach exceeding their grasp, and their latest venture is no exception.  Texture pop-in is rampant.  I once had a side-objective complete itself before I ever started the mission that triggers it.  On several occasions, enemies spotted me from behind a solid wall.  The enemy AI is extremely erratic and inconsistent; sometimes I could perform a stealth take-down on one guy without alerting the other guy standing four feet away.  Other times, enemies were downright telepathic (see: seeing through walls).

However, the worst offender was a very specific bug that I encountered three times throughout the game: completely absent bad guys.  I would walk into a particularly big room, clearly crafted for difficulty; a lot of nooks and crannies to hid in, a lot of halls, ledges and lofts for enemies to patrol, and a lot of hard-to-get-to items.  Only, nobody was home.

The guards never spawned, so I could just waltz through at my leisure.  Once emerging on the other side and passing a new checkpoint, I could load that checkpoint, go back to the room and find it crawling with enemies.  When big chunks of the game simply don’t happen, something is very broken.

I want to see Obsidian take another shot at Alpha Protocol.  Unfortunately, we now know that will never happen (according to publisher Sega).  Like so many games, Alpha Protocol is filled with great ideas and moments of brilliance that are tempered with poor execution and a plethora of technical flaws.

But here’s the thing: I want to play that road-not-traveled set by Mass Effect.  Mass Effect 2 is a fantastic game and I don’t want it any other way.  But I want that other game, too; the mechanically-pure new wave of RPG that the Mass Effect series could have ushered just as easily.  Alpha Protocol is the first and last entry in a sub-genre that never was.  It’s the could’ve-been inheritor to a legacy that exists only in speculation.  For that experience alone, I recommend it whole-heartedly.

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