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In a crowded marketplace, it is essential to separate yourself from the pack to garner any type of fiscal reward or recognition. Alpha Protocol leaps onto the genre-splicing bandwagon and dresses itself in a shiny new spy theme that not enough games experiment with. Having received several accolades in the past as a promising new IP, many have wondered about the menacing delays and secrecy surrounding the final days of the game’s development. Apparently nothing has changed between its preview build and retail release, and that is not necessarily a good thing.
The game is devoid of any polish or attention to detail. Most of the textures rendered jump back and forth between high resolution and blurry, low resolution with the occasional downward spike in frame rate whenever you are dealing with more than two enemies on screen. Character designs are generic at best with no real unique, defining qualities that capture the player’s attention. The whole game plays out like a two-part episode of NCIS; you are Mike Thorton, soldier extraordinaire who must enlist the help of ageing veteran leader, cocky white male number two, and a quasi-attractive computer hacker lady in order to save the world from something. None of these characters come off as particularly believable or memorable.
Animations suffer from a lack of thoughtfulness as well. Enemies walk with a peculiar hitch in their step and turn like they have been running at high speeds. Watching Mike move while crouching is unintentionally hilarious; meanwhile, facial animations fluctuate randomly during conversations which are more distracting than immersive. The story is ripe with clichés and relies on overly simplistic explanations and exotic locations like Saudi Arabia and Rome in an attempt to inject some kind of life into the game. Voice acting is lazy in an unrehearsed sort of way with little conviction or personality. From a presentation standpoint, Alpha Protocol is simply not a finished product. It is also important to note that there is also an infuriating bug in the game where turning on the television in your safehouse before starting certain missions will cause the game to freeze up. Eventually you learn to just stay away from the damn television.
Alpha welcomes many comparisons to games like Mass Effect with its RPG-shooter hybrid gameplay that focuses on interactive conversations to generate a unique play through, but the scope is much narrower resulting in a more casual experience with little to no exploration beyond the linear missions. Alpha is more about action than role-playing, but provides just enough character building to create a rewarding experience for completing a mission in your own way. Creating your character is easy to do and it’s fun to experiment with different builds. As you gain experience for completing objectives you level up granting you skill points that can be used to purchase upgraded abilities from a number of categories. You can make a weapons specialist capable of destroying anything that moves or you can opt to put away the guns altogether and sneak your way in and out of dangerous locales. The shooting feels as familiar as other stand alone shooters like Uncharted and the game even manages to implement some fairly competent hand to hand fighting as well. Once you complete the first portion of the game, you will be able to choose a specialization such as “spy” or “commando” that augments the skills you already use. You can also remove skill points from categories if you find that being a tech wizard isn’t all that enjoyable in the land of espionage.
Your conversations also play a vital role in your career. Depending on what responses you choose will change the way people react to you. If you get along great with your handlers, some perks become available like stat buffs or added cash. Conversations also affect your reputation in the world so people who haven’t even met you will form preconceived ideas about you. The problem with this system is that, unlike Mass Effect, the conversations are not particularly interesting and the choices are limited. Also a departure from Mass Effect is the fact that every conversation is timed so you can’t think about your choices for very long. This creates quite a few bad first impressions that sometimes haunt you later in the game.
In the end, Alpha Protocol is a poor man’s Mass Effect with little personality and more than a few technical shortcomings. The game does succeed at being a generally enjoyable experience with the potential for replay value due to all the game’s variables and options. What is most frustrating is that Alpha could have achieved much more but settled for mediocrity. It never lives up to its potential and thwarts the player’s attempts to take it seriously. Due to forces we as gamers do not understand, Alpha was rushed out onto the market before it could be definitively finished and could have greatly benefited from some beta protocol, but the end result is a solid rental and a continued distrust of the Sega brand.