His name’s Michael Thorton and he used to be a spy, until one mission in Saudi Arabia. When you’re burned you’ve got nothing; no cash, no credit, no job history. You’re stuck with whatever mission they left you with: revenge. You’ll do whatever work comes your way to pay the bills, rely on anyone who’s still talking to you: an Al-Samaad terrorist leader, a psychotic CIA agent, or maybe just a mole inside the organisation that burned you, if you can trust them.
Bottom line: as long as you’re burned, they’re coming for you.
Well, that was how Alpha Protocol played for me at any rate.
It is not, as much as I would like it to be, Burn Notice: The Game. What it is, however, is a game with far more choice and development than I had expected, at least in the story.
Michael Thorton’s background is hard to categorically state, owing to the number of possible ones you can choose, so for the purpose of this review, let me break down the sort of character I was playing. My Thorton was a hardened freelancer, he’d spent a good few years flitting across the globe and doing the sort of bureaucratic spy-work that would bore the more romantic soul to tears. He wanted action and excitement, not to be stuck behind a desk, and when Alpha Protocol came knocking he jumped at the opportunity.
Then the conversation began, and I found myself instantly drawn to the most jokey of the three stance options. Alpha protocol gives you three ways to direct your conversations: suave, professional or Olyphant. Depending on who you are talking to, mixing up between the stances will affect how you are perceived, and how much they like you will affect how willing they are to help you on your revenge mission.
My Burn Notice Thorton, complete with sunglasses, was very keen on being liked. Of course it turns out that, like real life, being overly suave just comes across as being a slimy creep, so most of my friendship points came from being merciful. Although if you want to do it properly, Alpha Protocol has some of the most useful documents I’ve read inside a game.
RPGs like to stick books and things inside the game world for the completionist or the true fan. Alpha Protocol has eschewed the giant tomes of fluff that games such as Dragon Age put forward, instead opting for a series of intel files that, though short and to the point, can actually be useful in the game. In the early stages of the game, having read through a character’s file will give you clues on how best to talk to them, whether they like the direct and business-like approach or an aggressive and cold style, whatever. In later stages, however, owning a file with a certain fact in it can give you new dialogue options entirely, the magical fourth choice, which is rarely a bad thing.
And you’ll want to get as much intel as you can. There are two types of intel, and while the readable files are fine and dandy, the one you will be adamant to acquire is the sort that applies to missions.
Missions in Alpha Protocol will tend to have varying snatches of intel available for sale on the Clearinghouse, the game’s general store. Buying a specific piece of intel for a mission will alter the mission to some degree, from luring away the more observant and combat ready guards to providing a map of the whole mission. They are cheap, sometimes hilariously so, and that’s for the best because you will always want to max out on intel before you head into battle. It opens up new opportunities for one thing, so that you don’t have to go in guns blazing as other reviews suggest.
I’ve taken my time getting to this point because this is probably where the review will differ from the others you’ve read. I have made the mistake of looking at a few other reviews of this game, and it has made me wonder if I was playing a different game. First point: I spent almost the entirety of this game sneaking and being stealthy.
The stealth in this game is odd. Pumping points into the stealth tree does very little to actually improve your stealth skill, it provides a small decrease in your visibility to enemies but that’s about it, what it does do is provide you with tools for when you either cock up or know that you will cock up. As you progress you’ll unlock skills that let you see an enemy position through walls (which is the most useful skill in the game), turn invisible for prolonged periods (leading to an abundance of hilarious face-stabs) and the ultimate in game saving skills, a short burst of invisibility that fires as soon as an enemy spots you.
For the most part, stealth is incredibly easy. Enemy patrol routes rarely overlap, giving you a pretty large window to sneak in and take out your target, and the enemy AI is so stupid that you will rarely find it hard to spot an opening. Unless you mess up and an alarm goes off.
Except in very select missions, an alarm going off does nothing except make the remaining guards more alert. It rarely increases the amount of guards or fails missions (even when the briefing says that it will), it just turns the enemies into superhumanly observant frustrations. As soon as an alarm goes off anywhere in the stage the guards will know exactly where you are, filing in at you like mighty morphing power lemmings, until you either kill them all or deactivate the alarm and hide for a while.
Disabling the alarm brings up one of three minigames. Depending on your tolerance for minigames, you will either enjoy or hate them. Alarms and keypads require you to isolate specific circuits in order, which is not particularly hard so long as you take your time. Lock-picking is also quite easy, although learning that the point required to lock each pin is slightly below where your eye says it is will take a bit of time to grab. It’s the hacking that will annoy you, however. Trying to find two strings of numbers inside a screen of randomly shifting numbers. One string moving in such a stuttered fashion that even if you find its match you’re as likely to miss it as not due to the controls. It’s like doing a Dutch word-search in the dark.
Thankfully, every single minigame can be skipped by ramming an EMP grenade into the offending piece of machinery. This is even true of lock-picking, which did give me pause, but not as much as the realisation that even lock picking is timed. Whoever is taking the time to attach an electronic wifi timer to a padlock is clearly not in their right mind. Safes I understand, as I do with some doors, but padlocks? Come on!
I would like to take a step back for a moment. I’m thinking that it is the alarm state that causes other reviews to state that this game is a glorified shooting gallery, because if you set off an alarm it can become this very easily. In my stealth-centric playthrough, however, alarms were largely few and far between, and almost always because of my own cack-handed idiocy rather than a bit of computerised cheating. I suppose that doesn’t really excuse the shooting aspect of the game however, seeing as it becomes your only course of action during an alarm.
I can describe this very easily. Alpha Protocol has RPG Gunplay Syndrome. It gives you the illusion of having a twitch gaming mentality for gun battles, but the fact is that your shooting is governed by stat points, meaning that no matter how accurate your aim is you are going to miss. With the assault rifle or the SMG this isn’t much of an issue, you fire so many bullets that accuracy is irrelevant, although your assault rifle accuracy is remarkably good even with no points in the tree. Pistols are a joke, however.
Burn Notice Thorton specialised in stealth, pistols and kung fu. He maxed out stealth and pistols, and after all that work his gun was still a useless hunk of metal. It was woefully inaccurate at anything but point blank, piss weak, and even headshots were becoming pointless in the later missions. This was even made worse by the fact that you can unlock a skill which allows you to aim perfectly in blind-fire mode while also charging up a critical hit.
Allow a moment for that to sink in. If you aim with a pistol your accuracy is appalling. Hiding behind a wall, however, with no view of the target will net you a pinpoint perfect shot.
Utterly ridiculous. There were moments where I forsook shooting altogether and chose instead to charge heroically at the guards with my kung fu prowess. More often than not this worked out better, especially once I had unlocked the hilarious flying knee attack.
The martial arts are fun but also yo-yo between overpowered and totally useless. Against your standard guard they are arguably overpowered, although getting in close to a guard that is alert can be very difficult. Get close enough, however, and you will beat him into the dirt with even the lowest amount of development of said skill. Against bosses, however, it suddenly becomes useless.
In fact, boss fights in Alpha Protocol are rubbish anyway. There are, again, two types of boss fight: vehicles and annoyingly prolonged gun battles, and the latter is much more prevalent. To be fair, the main reason I found boss fights annoying is because they forced me to use guns, and that meant the pistol, and that meant RAGE. The boss’ armour regenerates so fast that even if you get enough shots to connect to remove their armour, by the time you’ve reloaded to chip away at their health the armour will have regenerated. This was easily overcome by using the pistol’s “chain shot” skill, which lets you queue up a number of shots with perfect accuracy, but then that just reminds you how terrible the standard accuracy is.
And using martial arts is pointless. Two particular bosses will shoot at you for a while before rushing in to engage in a bit of hand-to-hand. These would be perfect for martial arts combat, except for their ungodly blocking reflexes. Every single punch will be blocked, only to be returned upon you tenfold when your combo ends and, in the split second it takes for your new one to start, they jump in fists flying. And if you can block I never found out how.
Despite all this, however, I really enjoyed Alpha Protocol. I enjoyed the sneaking, especially the callous brutality of one of the stealth take-downs, and the nonchalant neck stabs if you feel particularly vicious. I loved the conversation tree and the branching storyline. There are moments where you can see how your choices have changed things, boss fights that don’t happen or missions that change tact purely on your previous actions. The way people react to you based on your reputation both in how you handle missions and how you have talked to others. Loved it.
The actual story itself it a bit conventional, betrayed by your employers on behalf of an evil corporation, but the way it is delivered, both by the actors and the characters they portray, is compelling and enjoyable if bordering on cheesy at times. My only complaint regarding the story, in fact, is the inclusion of flash forward scenes with the game’s big bad. Not only do they feel superfluous, but if you change your Thorton’s appearance during the game it will be reflected in the flash forward, and it will do this for each flash forward. This meant that, if you strung my flash forwards into one continuous cutscene, my Thorton would have gone from clean shaven to fully bearded in the space of twenty minutes.
Alpha Protocol, then, pretty much embodies what I think of Obsidian as a developer. They have some great ideas but they just don’t manage to deliver on them. Everything about what Alpha Protocol should have been was utterly fantastic, and that shines through in the story and the delivery. Yes, the conversation system was “inspired” by the one in Mass Effect, but Obsidian have streamlined it so that conversation flow naturally, there is rarely an immersion damaging break where both parties stare at each other while you click through a menu.
But this is probably not going to be enough for everyone. People don’t just want a good story, they want a good game, and Alpha Protocol just doesn’t feel finished. Outside of the story sections, the choice just isn’t quite there. Stealth is all well and good but if you make a mistake, and you will, the shooting just doesn’t feel as enjoyable as it should. The fact that one weapon is utterly useless doesn’t help either.
Despite all this though, all the problems and the shortcoming and the niggling sources of frustration, I like this game. I don’t like it for what it could have been, I like it for what it is: a compelling spy story with twists, turns and likeable characters. And Nolan North isn’t the protagonist, thank God. Had I played the game as primarily a gunslinger then, I concede, it may have left a sour taste, but the stealth was so rewarding, when I wasn’t ruining it with my cack-handed idiocy, that the utter failure of a pistol wasn’t too much of an issue.
Alpha Protocol may not win any awards, but it’s by no means a Bad Game. A little disappointing at times, but not bad.