Have you ever watched a Bond film and thought “that’s what I want to do”? Well, you might change your mind after you play Alpha Protocol. Not because the game is specifically bad, but because you’ll get a feel of what being a spy in the field is actually like.
Alpha Protocol is an action role-playing stealth game. What a mouthful, but accurate. It was released in 2010, and for a four year old game it feels…older. That’s not a bad thing, mind you. Most gamers would say their favorites are from a generation of consoles that are no longer distributed, but those games are chosen quite often out of nostalgia. On the one hand those games were the best of their time, but on the other hand they fall short compared to some modern innovations. The point here is that Alpha Protocol feels like one of those games. Something you loved for what it was back when you played it the first time, but over the years it has lost its edge.
To start, Alpha Protocol is truly a spy story. You are Michael Thorton, a new recruit in the Alpha Protocol program, and your job is to serve your country and stop the bad guys. Sounds simple enough given this is the idea behind more than few games. However, you are a spy. Your job is to get things done with minimal exposure. Whether you kill everyone in your way or just leave them with a tortuous headache, no one should know you’re there. Stealth is a great game mechanic, and Alpha Protocol does a great job of using it. Except for the bugs.
Let me talk about those for a moment because most of the issues I had with this game stem from bugged stealth mechanics. There were times when I would be crouched behind a wall, completely out of sight and fully buffed in sound dampening, and taking a few steps alerted a guard more than ten feet away. This would then alert every guard on the map. And if I should come out of cover and actually be seen, one guard would be enough to expose my location to every guard who would then proceed to start shooting. It’s easy enough to rid yourself of guards and turn off an alarm, but in a minute I’ll tell you why this was such a problem.
This game is good. It’s hard to call it great, and at times it isn’t all that fun, but it’s good. Agent Thorton is betrayed on his first assignment for Alpha Protocol and is set on a path to make things right. Here is where my favorite aspect of the game comes in. Choice. As Thorton you get to choose what happens. How you interact with others can determine how they respond to you and your actions. Gaining friendship has advantages, but so does rivalry. Who you get on your side can change the outcome; deciding who to ally with and who to piss off, that’s the trick. This game requires you to pay attention. Between gathered intelligence, dossier information, and other tidbits you collect along the way there is an abundance of knowledge. Knowing where you’re going, why you’re going there, and who you’re facing will make things far easier. The game doesn’t do all the thinking for you. The missions you choose to do, and the order you choose to do them in, also has impact.
That’s all great, but how do you actually play? It’s simple enough. There is combat, stealth, hacking, and collecting. In combat you can put points into different weapons: shotguns, SMGs, assault rifles, pistols, and hands. There are also gadgets; from grenades, to flash bangs, to health kits, you can carry a minimal set into missions and use them for different situations. Stealth, while not a requirement in mission, is a good way to get all that you want. Hacking is dealt with in three ways: computers, keypads, and safes. Hacking a computer requires finding a series of non-moving letters and numbers amongst a stream of flashing figures. A keypad is simply hacked by matching numbers is ascending order to their circuit. A safe is a lock picking screen where you move pins into position and click them in place. Collecting is just what it sounds like. Make sure you explore every room because information, money, and security systems may be hiding anywhere (which is useful when you are lacking cash to buy that armor you want). You will spend the majority of the game working on these skills, getting used to being in cover and sneaking into position, only to reach “boss” fights and the final mission.
Remember when I said how bugged the stealth system was? Here is where that becomes important. Boss fights, including most of the final mission, are tough. Add in the fact that stealth becomes useless and they get tougher. Here, fight a helicopter that can shoot you through cover, never loses target lock, and you have to fire one RPG at a time at it and those RPGs are scattered across the map. On top of that, here are five men who are going to shoot you, chase you, and know where you are because the helicopter never loses target lock. And if one enemy knows where you are, they all do. It’s infuriating.
I will say that I had fun with this game. The story pulls you in, and you feel like a true spy when things go right. The stealth is fantastic, when it works. The characters are ranging, and often have unexpected stories. I plan to try it again, make some different choices and see what happens, but I do like where my initial instincts lead. And that’s good. This isn’t a game that says “here, make a choice” and then gives you a cookie cutter ending. Who you decide to be will change the path, and that’s nice to see.
There are other things I could cover. How bad targeting is, how wonky movement can be, how bad pathing is for NPCs, how many boss fights I won because of glitches…
If I were to recommend this game it would be lightly. If you like stealth games and spy stories try it out. If you don’t, skip it. Alpha Protocol requires dedication. It asks you to sit down, pay attention, and accept that things will not always go the way you want. You may do a bit of reloading, but know that the only save option is auto saves.
With all that said, you can always use brute force, and then stealth doesn’t matter so much. It will take more time, you’ll face more enemies, and you may lose out on some of the finer points, but at least you’ll know why all the guards are after you.