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Review: Alpha Protocol

10:00 AM on 05.28.2010   |   Jim Sterling

Review: Alpha Protocol photo

Your weapon is choice. That's what Alpha Protocol proudly declares in this spy RPG with more than a shade of Mass Effect about it. Developed by the fine folk at Obsidian, Alpha Protocol has been a most promising prospect since it was first revealed, and the mixture of choice-laden RPG with secret agent shenanigans made for quite the irresistible cocktail. 

Of course, having good ideas and having a good game are two different concepts that are rarely brought together, which leads us to the all important question -- is Alpha Protocol a choice worth making, or is it less James Bond and more Inspector Clouseau? Read on to find out.

Alpha Protocol (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Sega
Released: June 1
MSRP: $59.99

If you want to save time, let's get this out in the open right now -- Alpha Protocol isn't very good. In fact, it's absolutely dreadful and it should not have been released in the state it's in. It looks and feels every bit like a game that has been subjected to patches, fixes and panicked over-development, yet still managed to hit its (perpetually postponed) deadline without being finished. Alpha Protocol is a mess, and that's putting it kindly.

The game is split fairly evenly between token RPG efforts and third-person action, although it's clear that this is far more of an action game than it is a roleplaying one. As Agent Mike Thorton, you join the ranks of the Alpha Protocol, a clichéd clandestine organization that specializes in deniable ops. The game is designed for multiple playthroughs, as the story can change with every choice you make. In this regard, Obsidian has certainly done something right. How you speak to characters, who you choose to kill, and how you perform your missions can all have an effect on the game, and for once they're effects that you can actually feel throughout the course of the game, with long-standing repercussions for your decisions. 

Alpha Protocol is innovative in that you never quite know how your words and actions will alter the situation, and unlike other games, where the conversations can be influenced with charisma stats, the interactions of this particular title are determined entirely by whether you choose to be aggressive, professional, or humorous. Intuitively getting a feel for the situation and the temperament of NPCs takes precedence over shallow and meaningless dialog choices perpetuated by other RPGs. In the background, Alpha Protocol is still taking you through formulaic and preordained conversations, but the illusion of a natural choice and flowing conversation is crafted surprisingly well. In terms of the way a story is told, Alpha Protocol is a success.

However, Alpha Protocol's story never gets very interesting, rendering all the clever narrative tricks rather worthless. The characters aren't compelling in the least, the narrative is convoluted and feels completely alienated from the overall experience, and Agent Thorton himself is a rather dull character who doesn't seem to change all that much regardless of your dialog choices. Frankly, he comes across as a moronic dick no matter how you "choose" to play him. Great news for moronic dicks everywhere, but bad news for anybody else. 

With a narrative and characters that have all the dimensions of a sheet of paper, the game really needs to rely on its thrilling spy action to remain interesting. That reliance is soon revealed to be a terrible, terrible mistake. It's difficult to describe just how bad the game is, because it's one of those things so unbelievably abominable that one has to experience it for oneself. However, since playing this game is not recommended, I'll certainly try and evoke the putridity of the gameplay in text.

First of all, enemy AI is an astonishing shambles, almost to the point of being impressive. Opponents run around with seemingly no direction whatsoever, apart from the ones who will charge directly into your bullets because they want to punch you in the face. No joke, one in three enemies want to do nothing but punch you in the face. He won't fire his gun, he'll just sprint towards you, dodging from left to right like a headless chicken, then he'll punch you in the face -- once -- and slowly back away, shooting you. It makes absolutely no sense, and yet it seems to have been deliberately programmed into the game's AI because that's all the enemy soldiers ever want to do. That is, when they're not conjuring up endless grenades to spam with alarming regularity. 

There is a cover system, but it doesn't work. Most of the time the enemies will just shoot through the cover and kill you, and it's also impossible to tell what works as cover and what doesn't. Some surfaces can't be hidden behind, but you won't know until you try, soaking up extra damage in the process. Once you do find cover, you then have to hope Thorton will actually stick to it, and later you'll hope that he unsticks when you want to move on. It's very much a "touch and go" situation as to whether or not Thorton will behave the way you want him to. In other words, Thorton will decide when he wants to pretend he's in a competent third-person-shooter, not you. 

The game is supposedly able to be played one of three ways -- using stealth, using brute force, and using gadgets. Stealth is no good because the enemy AI is so unpredictable and spotty, not to mention the useless camera and poor graphics make spotting enemies ahead of time difficult, and the complete lack of hiding places negates the idea of sneaking around. The gadgets are a cool idea, but nothing too innovative, and playing strictly as a gadget-based character mostly means throwing grenades around. That leaves you with a combat-oriented character, but combat is so crap that it's not really very fun. 

It seems as if Obsidian tried to mix RPG combat with real-time shooting action, and it doesn't really work (what a surprise!). All it means is that sometimes the guns will miss even if the reticule is dead on target. You can stay still and watch the reticule close in an enemy for a critical shot, but the opponents are running around like the aforementioned decapitated poultry, so good luck with that. Steadying one's aim is next to impossible with the insane characters who are either running towards you, running in circles, or running nowhere, with Thorton stuck in the middle of this chimp's tea party surrounded by grenade spam and broken cover systems.

A big deal is made of the close quarters combat, but I don't know why because it's terrible. It consists simply of mashing one button and hoping for the best, especially as there's no targeting system for melee attacks and Thorton will frequently just punch the air in front of an enemy's face while they shoot the crap out of him. Unfortunately, it's almost essential to keep upgrading Thorton's melee skills because of those enemies who are obsessed with punching him. 

When not dealing with a ruined combat system, players can have the action completely broken up by an overabundance of lockpicking and hacking minigames. You'll be pleased to know that they are the worst lockpicking and hacking minigames ever developed. The lockpicking, for example, forces players to gently squeeze one trigger/shoulder button to put a very tiny lock in place, then push the other trigger to set it. They need to do this multiple times with an absurdly strict time limit in place and it is twice as frustrating as it sounds. Sometimes the locks won't work, either, meaning you have to cancel out of the minigame and get back into it to reset things. At first the lockpicking is not so bad, but as the game goes on, you have more locks and less time on the clock. 

Hacking is very much the same situation. Too much to do, and not enough time to do it in. Code cracking involves a grid full of rapidly changing symbols, except for two codes hidden within that remain the same, almost like a wordsearch. Players have to move two code overlays across the grid, but if they're too slow, the codes move elsewhere on the grid and need to be found again. Not only that, but the overlays move across the grid so slowly that even if you find the codes in time, there's no guarantee you'll get the overlay in place before it moves. All of this must be done before an overall time limit runs out. As with lockpicking, this already convoluted system becomes stricter and more difficult as time goes on, to the point where most sane players will give up entirely and ignore all hacking. 

As if that wasn't enough, there's another form of hacking, mostly used for door locks and alarms. In this system, players must match corresponding numbers by following a short maze between the two figures. The maze paths can intertwine meaning that quick eyes and swift action are required. Out of all the minigames, this one isn't half bad, but don't worry, they find a way to screw it all up. Basically, the game thinks it's frightfully clever to increase the amount of numbers that need matching without adequately increasing the time limit. As soon as you see an alarm with ten numbers that need matching, just forget it, because it's not doable. The time limit is simply too short and the controls are too slugging and slow to deal with it. Not only that, but you can't rush the game because any mismatched number will shorten the already too short time limit.

In fairness, there are stats you can level up to make these minigames less abysmal and easier to d eal with, but Alpha Protocol masquerades as a game about choice, and if you choose not to max these stats out, you will basically be screwed over later on. You're never warned just how abundant these minigames are, with a new lock to pick or computer to hack appearing literally every five minutes, usually in clusters. Basically, if you want to enjoy Alpha Protocol at all, you need to max those stats or face hours upon hours of locked doors and untouchable computers that will reward your efforts with nothing but misery and rage. Choice is an illusion. 

Alpha Protocol's RPG elements aren't half as bad as the combat and general gameplay. Thorton can be customized in a number of cool ways, from his personal history to his various skills and proficiencies. Gaining skills in different guns won't just increase his damage with them, but they will confer unique special abilities, accuracy upgrades, and critical hit chances. Thorton's actions during the game will also result in special perks that will stick with him throughout the game. Damage bonuses, health upgrades and more can all be won simply by talking to somebody in a certain way, or choosing to spare and end different lives. If Alpha Protocol has managed to do one thing in a new and impressive way, it's weaving an RPG experience throughout an action game, rather than keeping the two elements completely distinct from one another. It's just a shame that such clever and thoughtful development is wasted in this complete travesty of a videogame. 

As with any good RPG, there are all sorts of special skills and buffs that can be unlocked while leveling up Thorton. It's a shame that very few of them are actually useful, though. Generally, you'll find one or maybe two special skills and stick with them, especially since selecting gadgets and skills requires pausing the game to bring up a radial menu in order to select what you want and then going back into the game and pressing a different button to use it. Most games, better games, just let you automatically activate a skill from the radial menu itself, but Alpha Protocol isn't a good game, so you have this pointless little process to go through instead. 

Speaking of pointless processes, the mission selection is a complete pain in the backside. After every mission, Thorton has to go back to his safehouse and engage in rambling conversations before he can do anything. There are all kinds of time wasting activities, such as reading emails and buying weapons, but all these actions are accessed via pointless wandering from one destination to the next. Running upstairs to your computer to read vapid emails from dicks in between every mission just isn't fun. But then, nothing else about Alpha Protocol is fun so at least it's keeping with the theme. 

The game's graphical presentation does a good job of matching the atrocious quality of the gameplay, with textures that frequently pop in and out, all manner of visual glitches such as floating objects or unresponsive targeting, and just good old fashioned bad animations and sub-par effects typifying the game's commitment to being bad. This is all topped off with mediocre voice acting, mediocre sound effects, and mediocre music. Essentially, Alpha Protocol looks exactly how it plays -- like a bad budget game that isn't even worth $20, let alone the $59.99 asking price. 

Generally speaking, writing a bad review is never fun, and only a sadist would derive pleasure from crucifying a videogame in public. However, when a game comes out that's so bad only the willfully ignorant could deny its awfulness, harsh and cruel criticism is thoroughly deserved. Because there's no excuse for pap like this. There's no justifiable reason you could have for essentially conning people out of their hard earned money for a game so badly cobbled together. There are games in their beta stage that are more complete, better designed, and more worth paying for than this mistake. 

It's disgusting that a game in this forsaken a state is asking for a single thin dime, let alone sixty bucks. Even if it was free I wouldn't recommend it. Alpha Protocol, to its slim credit, has its basis in noble and ambitious ideas, and those ideas are even well executed on the whole. However, while the ambitious stuff hits the mark, the bog standard gameplay has suffered beyond measure. You can build the most magnificent castle in the world, but if the foundations are made out of wet feces, everything's going to crumble and fall apart before your very eyes. Alpha Protocol is a castle that's collapsed in crap. Proof that even the most accomplished of visions are worthless if the fundamentals aren't in place. 

Obsidian and Sega, like the US government portrayed in this very game, are better off denying all involvement in this failed operation. 

2.0 -- Bad (2s are a disaster. Any good they might have had are quickly swallowed up by glitches, poor design choices or a plethora of other issues. The desperate or the gullible may find a glimmer of fun hidden somewhere in the pit.)

Continue reading: More Xbox 360 stories

344 comments | showing # 1 to 50
next 50 comments

Stu576's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:02
PenKaizen's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:03
<3 you Jim.
Phantom Spaceman's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:03
Phantom Spaceman
shock value
IroN1c's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:04
Wow. Just rented the game and already played an hour of it - doesn't seem too bad right now. After this review I'm eager to find out if the rest is really that bad.
Hit-Girl's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:05
2? Eep!
janoDX's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:07
Now someone else say that hes bs because he reviewed the game on xbox 360...
PappaDukes's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:07

(good review BTW Jim)
Wintersocks's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:09
I guess different strokes for different folks., Eh? Too bad you didn't enjoy it, but that wont stop me.

Above example: a clever, logical and well thought out comment, untypical of usual review threads. Let the shitstorm begin. Oh yeah Jim? have fun :)
obie191970's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:10
I heard that it is much better on the PS3. :P
Jim Sterling's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:11
Jim Sterling
"I guess different strokes for different folks., Eh? Too bad you didn't enjoy it, but that wont stop me."

hardock spiffy's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:11
hardock spiffy
you'll get your wish of getting your review featured on metacritic.
HombreGato's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:12
You're wrong
Doc lulz's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:12
Doc lulz
I'd say inb4 the shit storm, but I am pretty sure no-one gives a damn about this game anyway.
Good show Jim
Marc Allen's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:12
Marc Allen
I had my hopes about this one, but lately ive been doubting it being in my GameQ on GameFly, and this review just sunk it. Game sounds absolutely horrid, ill give it a try in a few months, when hopefully they have patched the game.

The whole enemies *wanting* to punch you in the face in a firefight is absolutely hilarious, im sure someone with some imagination could turn that broken combat system into a hilarious online show or something.
Jim Sterling's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:13
Jim Sterling
btw, if you think I am just trying to stand out from the crowd, be aware that my thoughts are not unique:
RTsharpshooter's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:17
That's $65 saved. Now I can get RDR.
Lil Jorsche's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:18
Lil Jorsche
Wow, it seems like this game has been in development forever. Now that its out its seems to have come up short. I never planned on purchasing it full price, yet I'm still a little disappointed.

Side Note: For any other review I read, I can work my way through the article before I look at the score. But when it comes to Jim Sterling reviews I instantly scroll to the bottom and look at the score.
Phantom Spaceman's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:19
Phantom Spaceman
I'm looking forward to the first Jim review with a negative score.
Dave Tobin's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:20
Dave Tobin
The general reviews seem to be in the 60s to 70s from what I've seen so far online. A score of 2 is shocking. Can anyone else think of a game that's scored this low in this generation?
jawshoeuh's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:21

Great review.

This game never looked very good to me. I remember reading an exclusive preview a looooong time ago in some magazine and thinking the ideas sounded pretty sweet, but since then it's just been delayed and delayed and delayed and all the screens and stuff I've seen have looked pretty bad.

Shame it turned out so weak sauce. I bet it will still find an audience.
Sexualchocolate's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:22
Have been following your Twitter comments on this game and was eagerly awaiting the review, I needed a giggle this afternoon.

As always mr Sterling, this didn't disappoint.

I give this review a 9.
Uzzy's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:22
Eh, other reviewers are giving it much better scores, and given that it's an Obsidian game, I can take a few technical flaws to enjoy the dialogue and story. I mean, technical flaws in an Obsidian game is kinda a given!
Daxelman's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:23
PappaDukes's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:23
@RTsharpshppter - Oh man, that was a close call! RDR is going to bring you so much pleasure. Fantastic game.
EggmaniMN's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:24
Jim Sterling - So, uh, you want to be compared to the guy who got stuck at the fishing part of Nier and quit, deciding that he couldn't review it because he's too dumb to get through that part despite there being a really big icon showing where he should have been?

It's definitely not a 2. A 2 is like...Flintstones Bedrock Bowling or something.
Pinstripe's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:25
Jim Sterling, you are a fucking troll. Quit your job because evidently you aren't up to it.
able_to_think's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:25
They had to know the game was shit and were probably begging Sega to give them more time to fix it. I know that no dev likes to release a bad game. It's something that they pored years of their life into making and seeing it fail must feel awful. They know that It's the responsibility of reviewers to protect the consumer and tell them when the game is bad but it still must suck that years of their hard work and and creativity were given a 2.

Not blaming you Jim, you're just doing your job and you backed up your opinions solidly in the review we can't ask for anything more.
Jim Sterling's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:25
Jim Sterling
"It's definitely not a 2."

I am glad you understand Destructoid's rating system more than the guy who, y'know, *created* Destructoid's rating system.
Matthew Blevins's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:27
Matthew Blevins
Is it bad that this is just making me excited to see a Zero Punctuation review of this game?
Mikular's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:27
Holy crap. That was a genuine pleasure to read, from sadistic point of view. You tore this thing apart! Don't blame you, it did look kind of pish, but wow. Hope that was as fun to write as it was to read, excellent review good sir.
El Edito's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:27
El Edito
I watched the trailer the other day and knew it wouldnt end well.

It looks like ass.
VGFreak1225's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:28
Shame. Not that I was looking forward to it, but shame nonetheless.


{url=]Like Too Human?[/url] Or Darkest of Days? You can hype up crap all you want. Whether its high-profile crap, or crap that no one gives a crap for, crap is still crap.
VGFreak1225's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:30
@Matthew Blevins
Nope. The best ZPs are based on the worst games. I'm looking forward to it too.
TheStripe's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:31
It's like too human only worse.

(Did I just say that? Is that possible?)
Slothrop's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:31
This does not bode well for Fallout: New Vegas.
jawshoeuh's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:32
And the Sterling haters have arrived!
ekm29's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:32
More games need to get scores this bad. Too many sites will give even the worst games (like this one apparently) a 5 at the least.
Jim Sterling's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:34
Jim Sterling
"Jim Sterling, you are a fucking troll. Quit your job because evidently you aren't up to it."

Dree74's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:35
who didnt see this coming?
nekobun's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:35
I wish it weren't as terrible as it sounds; the concept probably could be salvaged with plenty of time to work on a sequel, or at least a transplantation of the good stuff, like the dialogue options, into better characters and gameplay. At this rate, I don't think enough suckers will buy it to justify one.
Aurain's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:35
To be fair, This game has looked awful since the first time it was ever unveiled.
Dree74's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:37
so, the delay in 2008 and delay in 2009 was indeed becasue they knew that it wasn't quite fun as they expected.
Leon Field's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:37
Leon Field
Well I can't say I agree with the review as a whole. I've been playing it today and enjoy many aspects of it.

Some of the animation is sloppy, and stealth could be better but other then that I'm still enjoying the experience.
Meowmicks's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:39
I'm not gonna lie - I was hoping hard for this one. Obsidian is one of the 3 biggest Western RPG developers, and frankly I hoped that they had the sense to keep it in development until they got it right. I understand that this is a new IP, and there's a lot of risk with doing something new. That said, they would have been better off keeping this as a secondary project while they worked with an existing property. Where the fuck is my KOTOR 3?
pl0x kthanxbai's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:39
pl0x kthanxbai
"btw, if you think I am just trying to stand out from the crowd, be aware that my thoughts are not unique:"

@Jim Sterling

well you cant really blame us for thinking that

*cough* *AC2* *FF13* *cough*

anyways it looks like it is a really crappy game, but waiting for more reviews is still advisable
EggmaniMN's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:41
VGFreak - it doesn't matter what else he's reviewed. Just because I find someone to be a total dumbass, that doesn't mean that I'm going to disagree with literally everything they've ever come up with. I guess you could think that if you were also a total dumbass but whatever.

Too Human was also definitely not a 2 though.

And as for Jim - you're still saying that you fully support someone so unprofessional as to be unable to finish a game and then say that that means it MUST be terrible because he's too blind to see mission markers.

And wow, you came up with the awful scoring here? That really does explain a lot. It's too bad that everyone else that posts reviews on this site and uses your scoring scheme uses it like every other normal site and not like you, which is probably why everything you post ends up way lower than it should be in comparison.
LackofPants's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:42
"This does not bode well for Fallout: New Vegas."

I don't agree with that.

KotOR 2 is brilliant, but rushed(due to publishers entirely, not due to failures by Obsidian). NWN 2 is great, also, and it has two solid expansions in addition to that.

I wonder why they allowed such a crappy product to be made. Maybe it was publisher problems, again. Forced by SEGA into making it really fast and then after their time line was met they moved on to building New Vegas. It's a shame because they have some amazing writing at Obsidian. They just need to get their business act together.
Jim Sterling's Avatar - Comment posted on 05/28/2010 10:44
Jim Sterling

This is what I saw when I tried to read your last comment:


Ya'll need to stop acting like religious fundamentalists about this shit.
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