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Alpha Protocol
Score: 72%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ RPG

Graphics & Sound:
Alpha Protocol is a game that looks great on paper, and seems like any fan of recent Action/RPG games, namely Mass Effect, would love to have on their shelf. Unfortunatly, the game falls far short of its goal and ultimatly ends up feeling like it is trying to do too many things and does none of them well.

While the game box boasts the Unreal Technology's badge on its back, the overall feel of the world and environments just don't give off the same crisp, highly detailed and varied experience we have come to expect with games that use the Unreal Engine. While each of the game's different locations look drastically different from one another, which is good since they range from the Middle East to Moscow and Taipei, when in a particular part of the world, the locations quickly become a blend of the same assets over and over again. As you would expect, this makes the various locations feel monotonous and repetitive really fast, something the game's missions also suffer from, but more on that later.

Unfortunately, Alpha Protocol's audio doesn't do a whole lot to improve the game's presentation. While the background music tends to stay out of the way, there were several times when it seemed to overpower the dialogue, and since this game uses a timed dialogue system, being able to hear and decide what to say next is a must. The other part of the audio that ends up dragging down the experience is the bland acting that comes from pretty much every character. While there are a few that I really enjoyed, most lines simply felt phoned-in.

Alpha Protocol puts you in control of newly commissioned ultra-secret agent Michael Thorton. You've just been added to the roster as either a shooter, stealth-specialist, techie, freelancer or rookie (depending on which class you choose) and after a few brief training missions, you are thrown into the field to take down a terrorist organization who has just shot down an airplane with a piece of stolen military weaponry. As the story unfolds, you will be tasked to go to several other locations around the world, and as a very intriguing feature, your decisions, even down to which locations to tackle first, have consequences to the overall plot. For instance, when you come across an arms dealer and decide to buddy up with him, you will find he is a bit more lax when you try and buy new weapons from him, but doing so will cause other characters to not like you quite as much. Of course, going the other direction might cause those other characters to like you (and benefits arise from that), but you won't have that particular weapons cache available to you.

Actually, the most interesting aspect of Alpha Protocol seems to be the way your choices and conversations will sway the opinions of various characters. Before talking to characters, you can read up on them and learn how they feel about certain subjects, or how they react to certain types of statements. From there, while actually talking to the individual, you can sway their opinion of you by choosing different dialogue options; typically "Suave," "Agressive" and "Professional." As their opinions shift, they could warm up to you, or get mad at you, thus eliciting different end points in the conversations. On top of that, your conversations with others will affect how anyone listening in (like your handler) feels about you. A good example of this is flirting with one of your contacts, a Russian chick. Doing so will cause your handler to look a bit more disapprovingly at you, while shunning the contact will yield the opposite response. Like I said, this really is an interesting system, and if any part of the game is worth playing through (much less multiple times), it is to see how to manipulate the various characters.

Unfortunatly, pretty much every other aspect of the game feels only half-way complete. The game relies heavily on how you level up your character and upgrade the various skills. As a Soldier, you will find your proficiency in weapons to be unsurpassed (eventually anyway). The Field Agent class starts off with a heavy bend towards stealth, while the Tech Specialist is better at the arduous mini-games. The other two classes, Freelancer and Rookie, are very similar in that you start off as blank slates. The only difference is that a Freelancer has a set number of skill points to spread across the grid, while the Rookie starts off with nothing but the promise of unlocking a better class, Veteran, when replaying the game. The problem with this system is that I have a natural tendency to balance my character across skills, but in order to make steady and solid headway in Alpha Protocol, you pretty much need to go all-out in one of the three areas. Otherwise, you will find yourself in much more of a challenge than you should. This is partially because the game allows you a couple of paths to completing a mission; there is the brute-force, guns-blazing approach, and the stealthy, stay-in-the-shadows one. Unless you are good at either stealth or weapons, you are going to be in trouble.

Which brings me to Alpha Protocol's difficulty. Like I said above, unless you commit yourself early on to specialize highly in a particular area, you are going to find yourself having a lot more trouble than the game is worth. To make matters worse, specializing in anything necessarily means you will find yourself falling short in other categories. The worst of these is the Tech class since you will find yourself in plenty of mini-games to turn off alarms, lock-pick doors and hack computers, and even with high skills in the right areas, these mini-games are a pain.

Turning off alarms involve you tracing "circuits" back to their origins and selecting the correct roots in the correct order. As you advance the story, the number of nodes that you have to track increase. The computer hacking mini-game is just as Hollywood-ized and even more of a strain on the eyes. Here you have to match two strings of random characters to their counterparts on a grid. While that alone could be bad, all of the grid locations (except for the ones you are looking for) and cycling through tons of characters to make your job really a matter of finding the positions that are standing still and lining up the strings. The first "code script" is controlled by the Left Analog Stick, while the other one is moved around by the right one. When you line up the strings, you press the side's corrisponding trigger button and lock the codes in place. Because of time constraints though, you will have to keep both blocks of characters moving at the same time. Otherwise you will simply run out of time if you work on setting the first one and then the second. As a result, this mini-game ends up feeling like a flashback to Schizoid. The final mini-game involves finely-tuned control over your fingers as you apply slight pressure to the triggers in order to raise and lower cylinders in order to get your lock pick in. Of course, the later part of the game adds a ridiculous number of cylinders to manage and no extra time to do it in.

To make matters worse, other aspects of the game's difficulty ends up being a crap-soot. A.I. that prefers to swarm you rather than intelligently attack (but don't worry, their attacks almost always hit), and gun controls combined with your skills in weapons make shootout matches pretty unpredictable. In the end, these various aspects add to the overall feeling of Alpha Protocol trying to do too many things, and doing none of them well.

Game Mechanics:
As I mentioned earlier, Alpha Protocol's most intriguing mechanic is the way other characters' view of Thorton changes as you make choices. The main flaw I see in this is that there is no change to the actual character based on the conversational-decisions you make. In Mass Effect, the way you talked to characters might change their opinion of you (mainly in the love-interest side of things), but what it mainly did was push you closer to the Paragon or Renegade side of morality. This would in turn grant you better negotiating skills or open up new dialogue possibilities. Instead, Alpha Protocol only focuses on the reaction of others, and as a result, there doesn't really seem to be a reason to keep your character acting in a certain way. If you find out that a particular NPC reacts better to "Professional" statements, while another prefers "Sarcastic," there is no reason not to be completely professional to one and a snarky ass to the other. In the end, it makes the character feel less three-dimensional and merely reacting to the people he is talking to. I guess my biggest gripe with this mechanic is that there is no benefit to having your character completely role-play with a particular attitude, and that just takes away from the RPG side in my opinion.

In the end, it all comes down to Alpha Protocol spreading itself too thin and not developing any one system thoroughly enough. While I should, by all rights, love Alpha Protocol because it borrows so heavily from Mass Effect, it simply falls far short of the mark and only makes the game worth a rental if you want to see how it handles the few interesting mechanics it offers.

-J.R. Nip, GameVortex Communications
AKA Chris Meyer

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