Friday, September 23, 2011

Alpha Protocol: Espionage and Beards

Just when I was wondering what game I should write about today, I found out that Steam is selling Alpha Protocol for all of two US dollars. Two bucks for a game that came out a little over a year ago. I recall hearing a lot of mixed opinions on the game when it came out. Not mixed as in there were some people that liked it and others that didn't, but mixed as in there are parts of the game that work and parts that don't. Still, I can't really say no to a two dollar game, even if it is flawed, broken, or terrible, so I consider the possibility of finding any redeeming qualities a plus. As it turns out, the descriptions of the game that I had heard were quite accurate, but the game is definitely worth the my money and time.

Undoubtedly the strongest feature is the story and RPG elements, which doesn't really come as a surprise considering the game's pedigree. Alpha Protocol was developed by Obsidian Entertainment, a company founded by many people responsible for many classic PC RPGs, such as Planescape: Torment, that later had a lot of success with Fallout: New Vegas. The role-playing elements, as in the story, the way it can be affected, and the sense of consequence to choices, are a step above what can be found in most other games. Sadly, Obsidian was not quite up to the task of making a good stealth action game.

The easiest game to compare it to is actually the first Mass Effect, which was also an RPG with a relatively unique, for the genre, world and premise that was held back due to sloppy action controls. Of course, the action in Alpha Protocol is quite a bit worse than Mass Effect's, which was just sort of bland. There are a lot good ideas, but the execution of the stealth and combat just lacks the polish that could make it good. The difference between the way different types of weapons play, with the addition of weapon mods and skills, but the awkward controls dampen the whole experience.

Part of this problem probably stems from my playing the game on PC with a mouse and keyboard when the game was clearly designed for a controller. For example, in the hacking mini-game there is a screen full of flashing letters and numbers, and the goal is to identify the two series of characters that do not change and place the matching string over them. I'm sure this is totally natural with two analog sticks, one for reach string, but having WASD control one and the mouse the other is downright stupid. It is so bad that if I go back to play the game some more, I will probably do so on an Xbox 360 controller. I mean, it is a PC game with key mapped to recenter aim. What the fuck?

The other mini-games, for picking locks and disabling alarms aren't quite so bad, and the variety is nice for breaking things up. Maybe I have just been spoiled from all the Deus Ex: Human Revolution I have been playing lately, but Alpha Protocol's stealth options just seem primitive by comparison. I respect the Mass Effect-like skill and experience system, but the action just isn't very fun, and that is a hard thing to overlook, even if the story is good and the character customization is deep.

Agent Hipster reporting for duty.
My biggest complaint about the Mass Effect series's dialogue system is how binary all the choices feel. It seems that most people decide going in whether they would like to be Space Jesus or Space Dickwad, and that annoys me because it removes the interesting part of making choices. When I played through these types of games I prefer to make the choices as I go, deciding on what would make the most sense for my character in that context, and that worked out okay in Mass Effect, but the dialogue system in Alpha Protocol actually works a lot better for my play style.

Essentially, the player is given three different attitudes with which to respond to any given situation. At first it really bothered me that there is a limited amount of time to choose the attitude, but the more I played the more I liked it. Unlike Mass Effect, in which the people Shepard talks to wait around forever while the player looks over the possible responses and chooses one, Alpha Protocol's dialogue will continue on no matter what, so the player needs to make snap decisions one how to approach conversation. For me, this ended up being a lot more natural, not just because the dialogue was able to be quickly paced, but because it forces gut reactions to things as they happen. It just works out to be really interesting.

The story itself is also pretty interesting, and there are a lot entertaining characters that make me want to dig deeper into the game, and I like that the way the player treats each character has consequences. In the case of the handlers, winning their favor or disapproval nets different perks, so sometimes it can be beneficial to piss off the people the main character works with. The concept of a big espionage RPG is really interesting, and the story is probably the part of the game that best lives up to that concept. Another surprising strong point is the music, which was actually composed by electronic musician BT.

I have to like any game that allows the player to dress in what I call "sneaking casual" attire.
Alpha Protocol does a lot interesting things, some of them well and others poorly. One thing that the game is indisputably the best at, out of any game I have ever seen, is beards. Beards just haven't gotten a lot of good representation in games, with many games omitting them entirely. Most games that do include beards only do so as an option to slap on a shitty texture, or worse yet, a goatee. In the case of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the beard option seemed to only control the degree to which the character has a serious skin condition. The look and animation to the beards in Alpha Protocol are incredibly realistic and the best in the business. Hey, every game has to be good at something, but sadly this one is better at beards than espionage action.

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