Not long ago, a friend of mine recommended I take a shot at Alpha Protocol. He knew that I enjoy action RPGs and that I love spy games. Some years ago, the same friend also recommended that I try Dark Souls. I loved that game but I would never have picked it up without him suggesting it. I found it rewarding to play even if a majority of my time was spent getting killed. It felt like an accomplishment to defeat every enemy. Alpha Protocol offers no such reward. When I finished the game it felt like a Pyrrhic victory. I had clawed my way through the game. I had made the hard choices that saved some people and killed others. Friends and lovers lived and died by the decisions I made. But by the end of the game I felt like I had done nothing. I had connected to characters that felt like they would have lived or died even without my say so. When I finished the game I felt like I had been tricked. I hadn’t achieved anything. I was playing a corridor shooter that made me feel like I was behind every decision when I wasn’t.
Alpha Protocol bills itself as “The Espionage RPG” and that is certainly accurate. It is most definitely an RPG. The espionage aspect is however a little bit more nebulous. The whole game seems to want to shroud itself in cloak and daggers: the mechanics, the reasoning behind in-game events, and even the benefits of making certain choices. Much of the time, you aren’t quite sure what’s happening. At least from a player’s perspective; you make choices and you do things, but the why of those things always seem rooted in a vague hazy mystery. Everything about the game is about boiling down systems in the real world (conversation, relationships, skill-building) and gamifying them. It’s far more RPG than FPS. All of the action elements seem to be tertiary to the aspects of the game which I consider primary: the conversations, and the choices the player makes. These are traditionally things that happen in RPG games. The action being an afterthought negatively affects the gameplay and the way in which the player is informed of this emphasizes the issue.
Unfortunately, part of the problem with the game is that it isn’t upfront about just how much role-playing lies within the game’s mechanics. For example, when aiming a pistol in-game you have a dot in the center of a circle representing a best case shot scenario. The dot is deceptive. At first, you need to develop skill in the weapon through investing Advancement Points in order for it to be an accurate estimate. Otherwise your shot falls somewhere within the circle, giving you the difference between a head-shot, or a miss that alerts every guard nearby. In theory none of this is an issue. But the game makes very little mention of this in any meaningful way. You kind of just find out on your own with a bit of practice and some vital misses with an assault rifle. Therefore, don’t expect excellent accuracy at at any range early in the game. This game isn’t a standard FPS by any means. It’s very much an RPG with heavy action elements. Most of your skills will be gained through investing Advancement Points. These points can be very scarce depending on the class you choose in the beginning. You can also somewhat enhance your weapon abilities by using the weapons themselves. Certain actions when repeated will increase your skill with the weapon. The enhancements tend to be quite minor and that works just fine. But things working “just fine” seems to be a recurring element in this game.
The story in Alpha Protocol is quite standard for a spy story. The character dialogue is moderately interesting at times. You play as Mike Thornton, a character whose backstory you can determine, which also determines his potential skill set and thus partly determine his personality. This, however, is the beginning and the end of your ability to genuinely control the outcome of the game. The customization is extremely limited. For example, you get to change the skin tone to different shades of white. It feels a bit out of place to be honest. It’s pointless and somewhat insulting. You get to be a white guy who has facial hair or doesn’t have it. Who wears a hat or doesn’t. Who wears glasses or doesn’t. The options are very limited and very out of place. This just reinforces the illusion of choice from very early on. The story at no point requires that Mike Thornton BE Mike Thornton. A slightly expanded but lazy character creation option would have been much better.
Timed conversation forms the basis of how you choose the direction of the story and the development of relationships. This is familiar to those who’ve played games like the Mass Effect series, Dragon Age, or The Witcher series. However unlike those games you don’t get a rough idea of what you will say in response. You have to choose from three basic options “Aggressive” “Suave” and “Professional.” The joke responses usually appear in terrible situations and, in my experience, always end badly. With the exception of professional responses, which clearly keep the mission at hand in the forefront, the other options could virtually be anything. A well-worded and timed joke in a tense situation between nervous or angry co-workers can cut the tension and help everyone’s focus. In this game, however, you have to roll the dice on responses which remove much of the actual choice out of the game. For a game built on the idea of the player making decisions, it kills any immersion in the story. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, but for the wrong reasons. Having to make such decisions under the gun, as it were, while having no real idea what you’ve just chosen, is how this game operates.
It would be easy to state that the game developers had no idea how to implement their conversational system in a way that felt natural and still have the quick, almost frantic quality for which they strove. But all of this seems very intentional as though bewildering you was their first choice and not an unfortunate accident. In theory, it’s great that we can choose how we want our character to express themselves. In practice however you only have a basic generic personality that seems emotionally stunted. We blurt out things we didn’t expect, in a tone we wouldn’t have used, in ways that feel false. We feel almost betrayed by the experience, at least the first time. By the eight or ninth conversation you come to view Mike Thornton as that friend you like but find embarrassing because of the inappropriate things they say.
A game built on the illusion of choice in a linear narrative can achieve a great deal of things. Alpha Protocol seems to offer choice and remove it just as quickly with each conversation. It is even worse when you are supposed to develop relationships with your in-game NPC mission handlers. Handlers are the people who supply you with info and advice during missions, and the better the relationship with your handler, the greater the perks you receive from them. However, these points are gained through basically spamming the particular response type (Professional, Aggressive, or Suave) that they are programmed to prefer. One character almost exclusively responds positively to the ‘suave’ response. Conversations become tiresome chores once you figure out the ‘correct’ response.
The other ‘benefit’ of the conversation system is romancing the female characters you meet. Almost invariably you can consummate all your romantic relationships if you reach maximum affection. This game continues the tradition of most ‘complex’ relationship systems in RPGs. You pick the option the character you are talking to prefers most. Get relationship points. Reach a certain amount of points and you’ll have a burgeoning romance. It seems straight-forward. That’s part of what I find so odd. Most games keep their points system secret. Alpha Protocol makes it clear. This removes the ‘organic’ aspect of developing a relationship with someone. When you spend time with a person you naturally share your interests with them, and they share theirs with you. You discuss things and learn their perspective on a variety of topics. Alpha Protocol boils things down to what we all sometimes believe: If we say the right things, everyone will like us. When you start a mission with your handler, it has their affection score listed right beside them. It also shows the benefit of them liking you, or being your friend/love. The gameplay benefit for making people like you is making missions easier to manage with the perks you get from them. Another facet of life is gamified.
I supposed I shouldn’t fault AP for treating relationships as a procedure with a material value rather than an abstract good. The fact that it’s so upfront about the mechanic is almost commendable.
Every game forces you to play it in exactly the fashion it wants you to. I have never witnessed this truth laid so bare before me. I’ve never seen a game that revels in its flaws so viscerally. The audacity of it is stunning and vicious. To tell us we have choice and then systematically show us we really do not. Function within the tiny margins of choice that the devs give you and nothing else. I found myself repeatedly astounded by this message. The only choice you have is the one they give you. It’s clever in the sense that it forces us to rethink the entire game as a game with aspirations of storytelling and nothing more. The illusion of choice is a common occurrence in video games in general. We are limited by physical constraints, computing restraints, the amount of time the devs could put into giving us a variety of options and a bunch of other things. Alpha Protocol doesn’t hide its limits from us. The game lays them bare to us and promotes them as central to our experience with it.
Alpha Protocol is a better than average game. It is so despite the glaring issues, especially early on, that can deeply hinder your enjoyment. The story is generic: spy takes on new job, spy gets betrayed by agency and finally, spy takes down agency. But what really makes this game unique is how maddening it can be. It gives you the feeling that you make all the decisions, but choice in this game is a red herring. You don’t choose. The game chooses for you, but it does an admirable job of instilling in you the idea that you’ve made a difference. Not effort or skill really; just pure luck and that is what you spend a large portion of your time in AP hoping for: a little luck.