Posted 28 May 2010 - 11:58 PM
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With the coincidental recent release of Remedy's Alan Wake, another reputable developer is looking to finally release a title many feel is long overdue. Obsidian Entertainment, of Neverwinter Nights 2 and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II fame, is looking to bring their RPG experience into the modern world of international conspiracies and covert ops with their latest title, Alpha Protocol.
Alpha Protocol puts the gamer in the sneaking suit of Michael Thornton, a globe trotting operative whose skills and talents are put to use by an agency where the game gets it name from. Missions under Alpha Protocol are those that the government can easily disavow should things get messy and reach the front page. This level of secrecy is not only bad news for the Mr. Thornton's targets, but also Michael himself as he will soon learn after this mission to the Middle East.
Aiding Mr. Thornton are the standard-issue customizable weapons that any gamer tends to expect these days. Depending on Michael's current relationship with the local black market, he can have access to a variety of enhancements that offer RPG-level stat changes. These include add-ons like scopes, barrels, and ammo clips. Although Michael is only limited to a realistic payload of two weapons in the field, it can be any combination of pistols, submachine guns, shotguns and assault rifles. The game places a huge emphasis on "steady hand" realism where medium to long distance firing yields poor results unless the player holds his aim until the reticule centers on the target.
Obsidian looked to design Alpha Protocol with improvisation in mind, giving the player many ways to attack a situation. There are some areas where sneaking just will not cut it without the aid of a gadget or two, and the game offers a decent selection of them, from sound distractions to non-fatal devices that can knock out nearby enemies. There are also health items, incendiary grenades, and explosive bombs.
There are tons of opportunities hack computers, pick locks and bypass security systems when Mr. Thornton is not busy taking down guards or rival soldiers. These are presented as minigames, where the challenge level depends on the player's tech proficiency. Hacking involves matching up letters and number within an eye-straining data stream, lock picking requires steady fingers on the controller's trigger buttons, and electronic bypasses involve tracing wire lines on a circuit board. While some of these diversions are optional opportunities to gain information, supplies and money, many of these mini games are required to progress through the missions.
The action/adventure portion of Alpha Protocol's game employs the pre-Resident-Evil-4 centered third person perspective. This gives the game a rather antiquated feel where using the camera can be tricky in tight spots. The camera does switch to an over-the-shoulder perspective when closing in for precision aiming, but there is no option to swap shoulders, a feature that has now become a standard in action-oriented titles today.
Reminiscent of many other Western RPGs, Alpha Protocol allows the player to choose one of four career backgrounds: Soldier excels in firearms and endurance, but is poor at sneaking; Field Agent is for stealth fans where having just a pistol can go a long way; Tech Specialist has an easier time with hacking and can effectively use gadgets; Freelancer allows the player to customize their character by letting them spend AP (Advancement Points) as they see fit.
After completing all the missions in Saudi Arabia, the user gets to specialize further in 3 of the 9 skills. Normally the player can max up to 10 rank upgrades per skill. The 3 specialized skills can go up to 15 ranks. The majority of the rank upgrades grant helpful stat-building traits and special abilities. The special abilities are user-activated powers that lasts a short period of time but are extremely useful. For example, the special ability for the pistol allows the user to slow down time and "pre-aim" multiple targets, which can grant the player as many as 5 fatal headshots in an instant. Sure, it is unrealistic (not unlike the equally unbelievable Mark-and-Execute feature in Splinter Cell: Conviction) but it does not take away from the fun factor, . To prevent exploits, there's a cooldown period that locks out an ability for a certain duration. For instance, the ability to get a second wind after reaching 0 health has a reasonable cooldown period of 900 seconds.
The game's Perks further adds to the RPG element, rewarding the player with character-building stats that complement the user's existing skill set. A single playthrough can yield over 50 Perks. Some of them include:
* "Perfect Pitch": This is earned when 50 gadgets are thrown carefully and awards the player 100 experience points.
* "Experienced": This gives +5 Endurance and is earned by completing two operations without relying on agency backing.
* "Black Belt": This adds +1 to CQC strike damage and can be found by defeating 50 enemies with hand-to-hand strikes.
* "One-Track Mind": Using one type of response over and over again earns this perk and increases damage resistance by +5%.
Making general progress, hacking as much tech as possible, killing effectively, and developing relationships with the NPCs all work to both unlock Perks and gain experience toward new levels. It is when Michael levels up that a player is given more AP to spend.
Unfortunately, these stats do not transfer over after a completed playthrough. While Alpha Protocol does not have a New Game+, it does offer a Veteran class which starts off the player at Level 3 for all 9 skills, which amounts to 120 AP points to start with versus the 31 AP given in the four aforementioned Agent History skill sets. As an added incentive, Veteran class also opens up a small set of new dialogue options. The only catch to unlock Veteran class, however, is that the user needs to beat the game on The Recruit setting first, which starts the player off with zero AP.
When designing the game's conversation system, Obsidian tailored the three responses around the three "J.B.s": James Bond for "suave", Jason Bourne for "professional", and Jack Bauer for "aggressive". There is the obvious challenge in trying to figure out how to influence an NPC. It can be surprising how far a character can be pushed to giving Michael large sums of money through extortion, or how a potential love interest might appreciate the hard-to-get approach. Impressing a shadow organization can help in making the next mission easier, as they pre-plant weapons and equipment in the field or reduce the amount of security. Befriending certain insiders also opens up the selection of black market weapons. And should the player fail to vocally persuade some of the ladies into bed before the end of the game, they should still be rest assured that some gals can still help out in earning some Perks during the playthrough. These rewards can be extra endurance or shorter cooldown times for "special abilities."
The repercussions of one's choices are not only due to the dialogue responses, but also how one acts in the field. This can range from the superficial to the more meaningful decisions that affect the game's ending. In a situation where Mr. Thornton has multiple missions to choose from, a character might express flattery be being the first person Michael decided to see first. Choosing to email insider info to a specific person will determine whether you get a hefty reward from the black market or getting a smaller finder's fee and winning the affections of an attractive reporter. There are also a couple points during the game where Michael has to make a crucial decision on the next objective at the sacrifice of another goal, as the time sensitivity of the mission prevents him from doing both. On a side note, extra credit should also be given to industry veteran Chris Avallone and his team of writers for crafting a script that is context-sensitive toward the order in which the player travels to the three cities made available after Saudi Arabia.
Perfectionist gamers thinking they can reload the game after getting an undesired NPC reaction will want to watch for the "saving in progress" notification before attempting to restart a scene. Obsidian did a great job in saturating the game with auto-saves, limiting the possibility of do-overs.
Alpha Protocol's most glaring deficiency is its outdated visuals which, at its worst, looks like a really good original Xbox title. Moreover, some background models take a couple extra seconds to render after Michael enters a new area. There are also focal length issues where Obsidian tried to creatively employ an effect where the background and foreground alternates degrees of dulling and focus. It's a nice cinematic trick, but can be a hinderance when the player is aiming at a certain target only to find that the game has not put that particular distance into focus. Lastly, while the character models are more detailed than the game's other visuals, the player will notice occasional moments of screen tearing, especially if the scene calls for closes ups of Michael and NPCs.
Speaking of characters, the majority of the voice acting is quite convincing. While many of the characters might sound unemotional, one can argue that many of these folks are supposed to be all-business, considering their line of work. There are definitely a couple more flamboyant characters like the heavy-artillery-wielding Russian SIE or the sketchy Steven Heck, voiced by none other than Nolan North. The music has its moments as well, with many of the standout tracks coming from the Taiwanese missions having Chinese string instruments alternate with Asian-inspired drum and percussion textures.
Alpha Protocol does take a couple hours to hit its stride, but once the player learns to get creative with their earned skills and gadgets, it become easy to master the later missions, regardless of what city is chosen last. Obsidian has delivered a title with relatively deep character-building without the time commitment of a traditional RPG. The fast-paced action scenes makes Alpha Protocol all the more inviting to replay after the credits roll the first time around. Moreover, the majority of the achievements are story-related and it can take as little as 3 or 4 playthoughs to discover all the outcomes. While it is not exactly "Metal Gear with experience points," it does bring some very intriguing and compelling storytelling devices to the table - something that this reviewer is convinced will see again in a Tom Clancy-esque universe years from now. If Obsidian is not interested in a follow up, perhaps a company like Ubisoft might be.