A game can get a lot of things right in terms of narrative flexibility and character development, but if the core minute-to-minute gameplay isn’t enjoyable, then that game is not going to leave a good impression upon me. Such is the case with Alpha Protocol, at least in the early going. I’m two missions past the tutorial, and this really does feel like an action-stealth game made by people who have no real idea how to make a game in this genre. It really puts the game in a negative light when compared to contemporary games with similar mechanics, especially Mass Effect 2 and Deus Ex: Human Revolutions, that are far more competently put together.
Even when running, Thornton, the player-character, feels sluggish. I’m constantly trying to take cover and failing to do so. It doesn’t work unless Thornton is right up against the wall already. Which is a strange control choice given that the button for cover is only used for a handful of other contextual movements, and so there’s no reason for the game to be confused about what I want to do. Speaking of those contextual movements, having the prompts for them always hovering in mid-air is a damn inelegant way to solve the problem of the player having problems locating these points. Even with a bunch of points in the assault rifle skill, it feels like I have to stand still and aim for an eternity in order to hit anything. My character is a soldier by background, recruited at least to some extent for his skills in combat. Beyond the basic problem of slowing down the gameplay, it’s absurd to have him be so incompetent with guns at the start of the game. It hasn’t made the game difficult, yet. Just annoying.
Everything about the interface is slow. There’s no mini-map in the HUD, and It takes three button-presses to access the area map, which sends a message to me as player that this isn’t a game that wants me thinking much about how I’m going to navigate a space, meaning I should expect it to be fairly linear and constrained, which is thus far accurate. Which is a real shame, since I’m coming off of Human Revolutions, a game which generated great moments by giving me a map and setting me loose in a large space. It makes me glad that I’m playing an action-focused character rather than a stealth one. I can hang back and pick enemies off slowly (still have to wait for that aim to stabilize of course). It takes at least three button presses to change ammo, or gadgets, or skills (more if you forget which d-pad button goes to what) which makes me really not want to experiment with the options the game is giving me. The control-wheels that Mass Effect 2 and Human Revolutions use to solve this problem is far more elegant (and they only ties up one button on this, leaving the d-pad available for other commands.)
I’m not one to really care about graphics except in extreme cases, and this is one of them. The game looks positively archaic. The environments are muddy and brown and flat. Bulky pieces of equipment will clip through the character models in cut-scenes. The number one highlight of awfulness is the option to give Thornton this long bushy beard that looks like it’s composed of half-a-dozen polygons with a semi-transparent texture painted on. As you rotate the character model you can see through different bits and pieces of it, creating this weird, hollow effect. It’s amazingly hideous.
Another serious deficiency in the game’s opening is that never got a proper introduction to the title agency of the game. Sure, I can do some reading to find out some information, but no one has come out and said “This is Alpha Protocol and this is what we do.” Compare this to the way the central institutions that the player character works for in Mass Effect and Dragon Age. It makes it a lot harder for me to feel like I have a place in the game’s world if I don’t really understand what the purpose of the institution he works for is.
The save-system is hideous. Or, more accurately, the lack of one. Checkpoints only, folks. And only one of them saved at a time. If a game takes this approach, the checkpoints have to be essentially perfect or they will cause frustration. Unsurprisingly, they are not. Between missions, Thornton goes to a safehouse where the player can buy equipment and level up and configure Thornton’s load-out. I did a bunch of this stuff, and then, since I had a couple of missions to choose from, figured I’d stop here and make the choice of which to tackle next time. When I next load the game up, I lost everything I did at the safehouse, even the conversation debriefing Thornton from the previous mission. There’s no way to manually save or force a checkpoint without going ahead into the next mission. It’s just awful, and it’s things like this that specifically make me hesitate before loading up the game again, and lead me to go play something else instead. (Metro 2033 has a similar save system, but at least the checkpoints have felt better, and there are fewer choices and decisions that could potentially be lost upon quitting at an inopportune time.)
It’s not all bad. I don’t generally like contemporary settings, since the scale of things tends to get out of control. Look at something like Modern Warfare where it becomes all about killing thousands of enemies and saving the world five times over. But thus far Alpha Protocol has done a good job keeping things relatively small, but still making them feel important.
I like the conversation system. I still have the same issues I have with it as with the Mass Effect and Dragon Age 2 systems, where I’ll pick an option and the character will say something well beyond what I had intended. Sometimes words matter, not just tone. While putting a timer on picking an option exacerbates this problem, it does make the conversations flow more smoothly. And some times I get pleasantly surprised. I extorted money from an arms dealer as part of shaking him down for information, and when Thornton’s boss questioned the choice, without my prompting, Thornton immediately responded exactly how I would have wanted him to, pointing out that the dealer would have been suspicious if Thornton hadn’t tried to extort him.
It seems like the game is working hard to create nuanced, multi-faceted characters. It’s still early, but the mere presence of the system that’s tracking how I’m choosing to interact with the characters, and what they think of Thornton, makes me hopeful. And while the missions themselves are pretty linear, I appreciate that the game gives me choices in terms of which order to tackle them, and how to approach them, with options like paying some money to get a better map of the facility I’m infiltrating, or hiring some mercenaries to cause a distraction and reduce the number of guards I’ll have to deal with.
So, in conclusion, a structural and narratively promising start, with some good peripheral systems, but the core gameplay is a disaster.