Alpha Protocol, the espionage RPG developed by Obsidian Entertainment – that’s the game I’ll be convincing you to play — to enjoy, even — in this week’s For the Love of the Games, the monthly column in which I give you X number of reasons why you should play an under-appreciated, overlooked, or outright bad game, simply for the sake of game appreciation.
Oh, Obsidian. I’ve never had such an abusive relationship with a studio, but I just can’t let you go. I know you only hurt me because you love me so. But seriously, as much as I adore you, I look forward to the day when we can get the story on why all of your games are so broken. And Alpha Protocol is, you know – broken.
In my time with AP, I encountered some of the most bewildering bugs I’ve ever seen in a game, from entire rooms of enemy guards simply not spawning (allowing me to simply waltz through entire chunks of the game) to seeing an optional objective for a side-mission mysteriously complete itself before I even triggered it as an option. The AI is maniacally inconsistent: one moment I could take down a guard without alerting his partner standing five feet away; other times, guards would develop super-human levels of awareness, even spotting me through solid walls.
As a fan of Obsidian, AP was, sadly, just as broken as I expected it would be. Like most of their endeavors, Obsidian’s reach exceeded their grasp, and the result is like the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl you always thought you wanted… until you realized that the “manic” part is probably not as much fun as you thought it would be, and all the cute quirkiness in the world can’t make up for her inability to keep a job, clean up after herself, or not break everything she touches. And she steals things, lies for no reason and cheats on you all the time… and she’s always sniffling… Yeah, Alpha Protocol is like that — an ambitious project loaded with brilliant design and writing… but she’s just plain crazy.
Yeah, just like that.
… Let’s get to the list.
The Closest You’ll Get to an Espionage Sim
We both know you’ll never be a spy. How do I know? Because you’re reading a list article about a video game right now. And I’m writing the thing. Trust me, espionage or being any kind of professional bad-ass simply isn’t in the deck for us. But that’s OK, because that’s where Alpha Protocol comes in.
First, let’s get something out of the way: what does “espionage” really mean? It’s more than skulking through shadowy enemy compounds and using invisible octo-camouflage to sneak past patrolling guards and silently shoot them in the face. The marketing leading to the release of Alpha Protocol focused heavily on the player’s choice to be Bond, Borne or Bauer, but let’s face it, all three of those guys basically do the same thing: shoot/punch dudes in their faces. Hell, Bond isn’t even sneaky about it.
Being a game of the video variety, you’ll be doing a lot of shooting and punching dudes in Alpha Protocol. But you’ll also be doing more interesting things, like engaging in the subtle but exciting art of conversation!
Espionage agents in real life don’t spend their careers racking up body-counts and Kung-Fu-fighting their way out of heavily-guarded compounds. Granted, I’m no authority on the subject, but I’m willing to bet it would make the news if the intelligence officers of the world were committing small-scale genocide on a weekly basis while sleeping with supermodels and racing Alpha-Romeos through historic European neighborhoods.
What most “spies” do is gather information and make contacts. They do a lot of talking. Not so coincidentally, talking is something you’ll also be doing a lot of in AP. In fact, entire missions in the game are nothing but conversations with other characters.
You do all of this talking to make and turn assets — human resources to aid your operation by providing support or information. These can include witting or unwitting enemy operatives, contacts made during or prior to a mission, or foreign agents with whom you cut some sort of deal.
Whether you’re exploiting a weak leak in an enemy’s ranks, pitting two enemy factions against each other so as to weaken them both, getting chummy with the local criminal element so they can leverage the many cops on their payroll, getting a known psychopath into a fancy hotel to create a distraction, or getting that reporter to give up a source who has access to sensitive information, most of your important choices in Alpha Protocol involve talking and, more importantly, what you actually say and how you say it.
Sounds manipulative, right? Well, yeah. Espionage is all about manipulating people and events. That’s pretty much what our intelligence agencies get paid to do: pull strings, put pieces in place and exploit them later for their government’s benefit. This is also something that we do in EVERY VIDEO GAME EVER. But in Alpha Protocol, being manipulative is good. So good that you can just put your conscience to rest and….
Indulge Your Inner-Megalomaniacal Puppet Master
By the endgame of Alpha Protocol, I’d convinced my enemy’s right-hand guy to be more selfish (making him less loyal to his boss – which benefited me), gained the support of a private espionage agency, made an ally of a powerful terrorist leader (who, though framed for what I was sent to kill him for, was still a pretty bad guy… but hey, the needs of the many and whatnot), and gained the support of a deep undercover operative to provide me with valuable information. And that’s all to say nothing of the people and organizations whose weaknesses, secrets and relationships I exploited throughout the game.
Similarly, by the end of Mass Effect 1 and 2, I’d gained the support of most of the potential allies and factions in the game, mostly by just telling people what they wanted to hear — I manipulated them, which was not exactly in line with my usual paragon-of-truth-and-justice persona.
It’s an extension of the whole ludo-narrative dissonance argument. In the same way a “hero” in a game can mass-murder his way to victory, he can also lie and deceive with no moral or ethical consequence.
How freeing Alpha Protocol is, then, since that’s exactly what you’re meant to do. Alpha Protocol doesn’t change the basic dialogue tree model in any way; it just naturalizes the way most players use it — to deceive and manipulate, exactly the way a good spy should. It wouldn’t be completely out-there to say that Alpha Protocol was L.A. Noire before L.A. Noire. There’s no revolutionary facial animation tech, but you’re still reading other people’s personalities, quirks and beliefs, then exploiting them for your benefit.
I’ve covered a lot about how the game uses dialogue, but now I know you’re thinking, “That’s great, but doesn’t the rest of the game suck?” Well, “suck” is in the eye of the beholder, but whether you like it or not, Alpha Protocol is simply worth playing just to see….
The Genre That Never Was
Alpha Protocol took a big hit for being, essentially, an RPG. Players tend to rebel when traditional RPG mechanics are applied to real-time combat – especially in a shooter. It’s easy to accept the fact that invisible dice determine your damage when you’re taking turns in combat and watching numbers scroll up the screen, but when a dice-roll determines the effectiveness of an attack when you’re targeting reticle is pointed right at a guy’s head and you clearly shot him right in his stupid ugly jerk-face, combat feels a little bit more disjointed.
Mass Effect 2 avoided this by just making its shooting bits a shooter. BioWare kept the actual role-playing intact; the player still creates a character and guides a narrative, making choices and facing consequences. But when the weird-looking aliens pull their guns out, it’s time to just focus on the pointing and shooting. It’s a lesson learned from the missteps of the original Mass Effect.
Mass Effect kind of tried to have it both ways, a timid combination of shooting and a traditional RPG numbers game. The shooting, based not quite on dice rolls but still on numbers (skills, loot stats and modifiers), never felt quite right; the loot, such as it was, never felt like it changed much; the passive abilities, which made such incremental modifications to stats, which themselves made such incremental changes to how you actually played, never felt tangible or specialized.
If Mass Effect 2 was a narrative RPG and a mechanical shooter and the original ME was an in-between, then Alpha Protocol is the other extreme – an RPG through-and-through, wearing the clothes of a third-person action game.
As much as aiming and staying in cover are important, your skills in shooting and evasion determine actual success. This was a problem for people, who laughed at the player’s “evasion” skill being triggered based on a dice roll, giving him a chance to turn invisible when spotted by an enemy. Funny how no one seems to give a shit when a rogue does the exact same thing in a fantasy RPG.
Alpha Protocol is of a genre that never got a chance. Troika’s Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is the closest comparison I can make (and that’s another game I’ll be trying to convince you to play later on), but for now, play Alpha Protocol as a relic of an alternate timeline — the could-have-been inheritor to a genre that never was.
Originally written for Digital Hippos