The Espionage RPG

When Alpha Protocol (2010) was announced, I was totally psyched. Following the success of Mass Effect 2, another shooter-RPG, I had great expectations of this “Espionage RPG” from the makers of Knight of the Old Republic II and Neverwinter Nights 2. Alas, Obsidian Entertainment’s first foray into original IP territory left many disappointed.

YAYS

  • CHOICE was the main marketing buzzword Obsidian used. Indeed there is much choice and this is not restricted to just character customization; the main attraction’s the different plot choices players get to make. Each choice has its own repercussion and with a prologue, 3 main missions you can play in any order and 1 final mission, the number of combinations and possible outcomes are staggering.

  • The DIALOGUE SYSTEM in Alpha Protocol was one I found particularly appealing. It solves the age-old problem of  NPCs standing around and looking mentally challenged while players take their time to choose dialogue options. In Alpha Protocol, players have to choose 1 of the 3 archetypal (James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer) responses given a certain time. This results in a flowing conversation that looks nothing short of a scene from a movie.

  • PACING could be an issue sometimes, especially in RPGs. In Alpha Protocol’s cycle of preparation and mission, there is hardly a dull moment. The number of plot choices available, including the order which you attempt missions, ensures new surprises in each replay.

  • The CHARACTERS and factions in Alpha Protocol are aplenty. Players who enjoyed reading text and lore from the books in various games will enjoy collecting, supplementing and completing the various dossiers for the characters and factions.

MEHS

  • The ENVIRONMENT INTERACTION in Alpha Protocol left much to be desired. Between the cover system that decides when it wants to work and the ability to only drop off a ledge or leap across a gap at a very specific spot and after playing Assassin’s Creed, the inflexibility of environment interactions brink on frustration.

  • DEPTH AND BALANCE felt severely compromised in Obsidian’s pursuit of breadth. The weapon system seems to suffer from the same fate as Mass Effect’s. There are many choice and parts but you’d ultimately end up simply choosing the 1 best part, rendering the others pretty much just clutter. There are different ammo type but throughout my 2 playthroughs, I’ve never changed them, other than tranqs for the pistol. Speaking of tranqs, the game presents 3 main playstyles (stealth, gadget, gun-slinger) but doesn’t really allow you to perform non-lethal solutions if you focus sole in one; my gun-slinger killed lots of innocents, my handler wasn’t amused. On top of that, some playstyles and resultant skill set seem less useful than others. Having played as a stealth guy and the aforementioned gun-slinger, I can’t really see how the gadget-oriented spy is going to be much useful and/or fun, while the pistol skill just seems too overpowered.

  • BUGS were the primary complains of most players. While Obsidian isn’t known for their technical prowess, lack of polish and game-stopping bugs reared their ugly heads even after the 2nd and final patch. I played the game after applying some recommended tweaks to the Unreal Engine from the user forums so I can’t comment on the game performance vanilla post-patch. For a game that relies on quick-loading after death, minimal effort seems to be put into ensuring the game isn’t broken after a quick-load. After a while, I simply do a full load from last checkpoint.

  • CHARACTERS though plentiful, seem to suffer from the lack of development. Given the playtime and the number of characters introduced, players hardly get to know them before they die or the plot moves on. The dossiers help flesh out the characters somewhat but there are signs where details aren’t completely explained or explored.

Personally, I came away from 2 playthroughs with mixed reactions. Going back to finish the 2nd playthrough after completing Assassin’s Creed (2008) didn’t do it any favours as there was bound to be comparison between the level of polish. People who’re expecting a Mass Effect 2 in spy clothing will feel let down so will those who are expecting a solid shooter. At best, Alpha Protocol is a visual novel with shooting bits and I can see it having a cult following who’d replay the game countless times and trade interesting tidbits they’ve found.

If I’ve learnt anything at work, it’s that no single party should be held responsible for the failure or success of a product. Could it be over-ambition, inexperience with the Unreal Engine, poor management or lack of testing? I won’t even begin to imagine I know what went wrong and should be giving advice on how Obsidian should have made things better.

It was announced that SEGA would not be publishing a sequel, this is most unfortunate as if anything, Alpha Protocol was an interesting experience and something great might come out of it if the developers built upon the lessons learnt and kept what worked from the first game. After all, BioWare didn’t get it all right in the first Mass Effect; some may call it simplifying but the streamlining in Mass Effect 2 is what made it such a delight.

I love Obsidian Entertainment and had done so since their Black Isle Studios days. Alpha Protocol would serve as a lesson on how unforgiving and how much the gamers today expect from developers. Obsidian is oft said to be the poor-man’s BioWare but there are those who recognize what Obsidian can offer.

They’ve since moved on to release New Vegas (yet another game in my backlog) that has received success both critically and in sales. That’s to be expected as they are the original Fallout guys after all. The next title we’re expecting is Dungeon Siege 3 and according to the diagram above, we should be be treated to Obsidian’s story and Square Enix’s cut-scenes. I’m not sure who holds the rights to Alpha Protocol but hopefully some time down the road, Obsidian can return to make a sequel that’d do the spirit behind Alpha Protocol some justice.

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