Marked as ‘The First Espionage RPG’ by veteran developer Obsidian, the long-overdue Alpha Protocol has finally hit store shelves, albeit to very little fanfare. The game has its targeting reticules set squarely on high-profile releases such as Bioware’s seminal Mass Effect and Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell, but with relatively low production values, some technical issues and an opening that’s nothing short of disastrous, it would be all-too easy to switch off in a huff and go back to playing these more critically acclaimed titles. Those who show persistence will be in for a treat however, as the game reveals a genuine effort to weave a compelling tale once the introductive stages are conquered.
You play as Michael Thorton, a rogue government operative thrust into a world of intrigue, uncertainty and betrayal. Along the way he’ll encounter a host of characters that fulfil the usual roles; there’s the feisty reporter who helps dig up information on request, the unpredictable jokester with a passion for killing and the ever-present sidekick who lends strategic support via PDA. Each character can be handled differently depending on how you approach them in conversation, and while some will become enamoured with Mike for his honest and flirtatious responses, they might become hostile should a situation be handled poorly. The dialogue is initially dull and the voice acting is hit-and-miss, with Mike himself sounding about as monotonous as you would expect given his bland and generic features.
At the centre of the storytelling technique is the conversation wheel – something fans of Mass Effect will no doubt be familiar with. At pivotal points during an exchange, the face buttons will appear represented by a variety of responses such as Professional, Mocking and Aggressive. These keywords will change depending on the situation, presenting Execute and Spare options when the plot demands. You have mere seconds to react each time, meaning decisions made on the fly may be regretted given their far-reaching and unforeseen consequences. It helps to keep the pace snappy but the lack of complexity means you’re never quite certain of the context, resulting in a frustrating disconnect between player and protagonist that’s never truly overcome.
The story is suitably globetrotting and features a number of famous locations – such as Rome, Taipei and Moscow – yet their potential remains largely untapped given the abundance of tight corridors defined only by a change in texture and colour scheme. A shootout to the sounds of Turn Up The Radio and a battle aboard a gangster’s yacht reveal creativity and prevent the gameplay from getting too repetitious. These areas offer up a host of missions from their respective safehouses, allowing you to take a well-deserved breather from the action by checking your e-mails as well as kitting Mike out with new weapons, gadgets and armour.
The method of progression is generally the same regardless of location; you’ll sneak to the best of your ability until your cover is blown – and it will be – in which case it’s time to shoot your way to a target or freedom. The gunplay is clumsy at first and never reaches the heights of most other shooters, though it does improve enough to be serviceable once the necessary talents have been acquired. A press of the left analogue stick will make Thorton hunch over and mince in a quieter stealth position – it’s also utterly hilarious and kept us smiling for hours – and the ability to move between cover is as welcome as ever. Unfortunately, headshots won’t often result in an instant kill, though two to three direct hits will usually finish the job.
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