Thursday, February 16, 2012

Review - Alpha Protocol

I'm going to be upfront and honest here and say that, when I first started playing Alpha Protocol, I really really didn't think I'd walk away from the game with a positive experience.  In fact, after playing a goodly bit of the game, I very nearly turned it off, ejected the disk from my PS3, cased it and shelved it so I could move on to something else, since as I keep mentioning that I have games I should be playing right now to get through my backlog just so I don't have games standing around that I've never played.  But I continued playing because there was something very very special that assured me there was goodness in the game; I just had to pry it out to examine it, to quantify it and to be satisfied.  I will suggest to you now that I have found it because as of this writing, I've completed the game fully twice over now and, backlog be damned, I'm probably going to play it again.  There's something to be said about a game that instills such an excitement in me that I -want- to play it again and again.

I'm confident in saying that that -thing- that I took so long to find in the game is, in fact, not something that is in the game, but rather is the game, though in a very strange way.  It's a little hard to explain, but the gameplay is, in fact, quite far removed from the actual game, in so much as the game is the dialog portions of Alpha Protocol.  Not only do they dominate a good portion of playtime, but I firmly believe that they hold a lot more sway in the overall progress of the story (or rather, the narrative you're playing through, since there's....honestly more than one 'storyline' to the game, despite the whole thing going from Point A to Point B) than most of what you do while you're walking around and killing or not killing guys.  In fact, the only thing more important than the dialog choices you make in the game is who you kill and who you don't kill.  And there are quite a few options there that present themselves over the course of your narrative.

The game actually offers one of those rare occasions where I've thought about it, a lot in fact, and I honestly don't know just what all to say about it.  My brain goes to the moments that I went "Eeeee!" or "YES!" or similar exclamations of joy to rather than trying to really, cohesively, think any part of it through to describe it.  Still, I guess everyone first looks to the part where you move sticks and press buttons to make things happen, since the gameplay portion of a game tends to define it.  As I said, that's not the case here; Alpha Protocol's Meat and Potatoes as it were, is not defined by the portion of the game where you walk or sneak around and either stab, choke out, or shoot guys in a variety of manners to get to the next objective.  Though it -is- there and it -is- something to consider about the game.

Alpha Protocol is definitely a Third-Person shooter at heart, and while there's elements of melee and stealth, Shooting is going to be 90% your preferred method of dispatching foes unless you play really sneaky and are really patient enough to stalk all your foes and take them out with a choke out or a knife to the carotid artery.  That option is readily available to you, of course, as the scenarios are pretty open enough that you can handle everything depending on what your play style is on that go through.  The basic three types would likely be Stealth, which mixes a combination of light arms and melee, High-Powered, where you're all heavy artillery all the time and able to take some hits yourself, or High-Tech where your main weapons aren't the guns you carry but rather the grenades and mines stuffing your pockets.  I guess to explain this a little better, I have to explain the Skills System a little better first, though.

This Image shows off the Skills available to you and this is basically what determines, obviously, how effective you are with certain things.  Each skill has 15 ranks that you spend the AP you gain by leveling up or doing special actions on to rank up to get a certain addition or benefit to that skill.  It's basically me going out of my way to explain a system that you all know how it works and I'm kind of wasting time.  Now, during a single play, you'll only be able to have the -chance- to level up three skills to the max of 15 ranks and these are determined by your specialization.  You likely won't get the AP to max all three skills, depending on what they are, but the chance is there at least.  Again, the specializations are as above, Spy for Stealth, Commando for the action-oriented and Engineer for the techies out there.  Or you can also pick Operative which will let you decide which three skills you want to have the chance of maxing if you want, say, Stealth, Sabotage and Toughness to have a stealth-focused character who (if you have any AP to spend on Toughness rather than Stealth) can take a few knocks without toppling over.

This system is all at once great and awful as there will likely be -one- skill that you really really want to pump up and there's little restriction for most of the game to stop you from getting one as high as possible before moving on.  On my first run, my stealth-centric run, I pretty much focused purely on leveling up stealth for quite a while before I realized the skills I got there were mostly secondary and that I needed a primary mode of attack, so that I finally started ranking Pistol up.  Thankfully I did it when I did because the Pistol-specific skill it offered is basically the best offensive skill in the game, allowing you to literally enter bullet time and line up up to six shots (at max level) that will hit almost simultaneously as the world slows to a near halt.  Doing this and lining up critical hits on boss characters (Basically wait til the crosshair turns red which takes a couple seconds only) will take off a good chunk of their health and even the cooldown doesn't take long enough to not encourage you to rely on it.

But you all know me and you know that if melee is in a game, I definitely have to explore it, and that's exactly what I did.  The line doesn't offer a lot, really, starting off with primarily adding more damage for your attacks and then giving a "Rage" ability that I honestly never bothered using.  It probably would've been helpful, but I simply didn't see enough reason to use it for one reason or another.  It's not until about halfway through when you get two abilities that Martial Arts pay off, but it pays dividends quite handily.  The first ability just lets you clear up your personal space with a roundhouse kick (yes, pictured above) and it is quite handy for enemies that like to get right up in your face and smack you with their gun before backing up, preventing you from punching them back, provided you can use it at the right time, as getting attacked will completely stop the animation.  But the other attack is the reason to bother with Martial Arts at all.  It's called a Running Knee Strike and it does -exactly- what you think it does.  While sprinting, if you hit the melee button, Thorton leaps and slams his knee right into the face of the nearest thug, sending him flat on his back so that you can finish them off with a stomp.  It's not very stealthy (and, in fact, sprinting cancels your 'go invisible' stealth ability) but it's satisfying and that's really what matters.

Something else that makes up a large portion of the 'gameplay' part of the game is the mini-games that are associated with pretty much anything technologic.  They're mostly innocuous and, while they might not be enjoyable, they're not -terrible- either.  The one for hacking gives you a large grid where every box has a number or letter that keeps changing rapidly over the course of seconds, so that you can't stop and see any single one.  The only boxes that don't do this, and instead feature static letters and numbers are what you're suppose to look for as you have two strings of random characters that you then line up over those areas and lock in.  Similarly, bypassing keypads involves looking at a mess of circuits that twist and turn across themselves and trying to match up where they start in numerical order.  Easy ones tend to have you go from 1 to 5 sequentially where the hardest have up to 10 circuits that are wrapped in manners most foul, intent on confusing you.  The worst, by far, is the lock-picking mini-game, however, which involves you using the pressure sensitive shoulder buttons to move pins up to a certain point that is pixels thick and locking it in place.  It takes immense precision in a limited time and is terrible for both those reasons and -double- terrible for both those reasons put together.  Thankfully, 3 AP ensures that if you're carrying enough EMP charges, you'll never have to play the lock-picking game.

As I've gone on and on about several times now, though, the Conversation and Relationship system is where Alpha Protocol's bread is buttered and this right here is exactly what kept me in the game even when I was pretty sure I was done.  I wanted to see how this aspect of the game played out and it did not disappoint because, while many games try the approach of "Everything you do matters and has consequences!" few games really have that, in practice.  Using another one of these games that you all know I actually like as an example is Heavy Rain since, while it broadcasts the fact that 'The characters can die!' and they -can-, they can't die 85% of the time you're controlling them which makes it a bit moot.  Alpha Protocol on the other hand....yeah, those things matter.  Something you do at the start of the game will stick with you til the end and I'm not even saying that as anything specific, just generally stating, no matter what you do, it's gonna stick.  'You're gonna carry that weight', if I may steal a line.

I'm going to use my own example of my two play throughs as an example, and I'll try to keep it as spoiler-free as possible.  Without the context, names like "Grigori" and "Surkov" are just names, after all and at worst, it'll just give you an idea of how you can 'game' the system as it were, though that should be the last thing on your mind at any given point.  As I might've said, my first Run-through was as James Bond Michael Throton, Spy Extraordinare - You only see him if he wants you to.  Friend to the men, easy on the eyes and charming to the ladies, he just had a certain way about him that made the majority of the people around him like him and trust him enough.  That charm didn't work on everybody, but it worked on enough people for him to get by, of course.  However, on my second run, I played Mike Thorton, Certified Ass-kicker.  He was a recruit (means you get some extra dialogue at the start and no AP to start with) and overcompensated for that green-ness by yelling at everyone that got in his way, if not worse.  There were no prisoners taken by Mike, so the goal of anyone to exist in the area he was around in was to simply -get away- before he saw you.  (The names are my call, not the games, by the way, just adds a little flavor)

The whole of the narrative is basically just framing certain situations that happen (though they don't -all- happen, depending on what you do and how you do things) so when you have some overlap, you have a way to truly appreciate how different things can be.  At a certain point, you need to get in touch with an informant by the name of Grigori to try and find some connections in Moscow.  Michael Thorton tried to chat up Grigori to find that he was rather lukewarm to Michael's attempt at charm and humility, wishing to simply cut to the chase.  He didn't have a very high opinion of Michael, as he seemed to pre-occupied with talk rather than getting anything done.  Still, he was given the name of "Surkov" as a local to investigate in relation to what he was looking for and sent about his way.  Upon returning to the safehouse, Michael found an email from Grigori that says he put him on his short list of Clearinghouse (the black market, basically) sellers so Michael could buy something if he felt it was necessary.

Mike Thorton, on the other hand, had no time for this small talk.  Grigori was rather evasive to start because of Mike's gruff demeanor and reputation, thinking him as some thug.  Those thoughts might not have been so unfounded, however, as, in an attempt to get him to talk, Mike slammed Grigori's head against the bar and then broke a Vodka bottle over him, taunting him all the while.  Subtle he is not, but it was effective as Grigori, scared out of his wits, offered the name of "Surkov" and begged and pleaded for him to believe that that's all he had to offer.  Stating that their next meeting would not go so well, Mike left and returned to the safehouse where he found an email that said Grigori had added Mike to his list of Clearinghouse sellers with a discount to 'extend an olive branch', as he obviously offended the American.  He encouraged Mike to buy whatever he wanted, as Grigori's cut of the profits might just pay for his medical bills that he accrued after their little meeting.

As you can see, both scenarios had the same rough outcome (and as such, it's not the best example as certain scenarios have very different endings for such varying actions) but both also had very different consequences later on down in the game.  Not being seen as a threat, Michael Thorton was welcomed rather warmly by Surkov when they finally met and Surkov relied on Michael's help to get out of a sticky situation; directly after which he offered Michael all the information he needed if he could just meet him elsewhere.  On the other hand, Mike Thorton has a rather dangerous reputation, one of a wild, unpredictable agent, so upon reaching the complex Surkov was at, Mike found that Surkov's normal security detail had been replaced by heavily armored Marines who, nonetheless, let Mike in, as Surkov still wanted to talk to him.  Upon meeting Surkov, he expressed a distaste for the American's methods, but they nonetheless formed a shaky alliance to get out of the aforementioned sticky situation alive.  Directly afterwards, when they were in the clear, Surkov thought it was wise to pull a gun on Mike Thorton.

This was not wise.

Mike Thorton disarmed the man and, when his questions weren't answered fast enough, he shot out one of Surkov's knees.  (These were all conscious choices made by me, by the way.  It's not automated at all depending on how you've played til that point)  Crippled and bleeding out, Surkov told him what he wanted to know, though not in as much detail as Michael received, not that it was necessary.  The two parted ways, never to see each other again, which they were both grateful for.  An onlooker to the timeline of the events even commented on the fact that Surkov had a limp after the meeting which was a nice little touch of flavor that the game is basically built on.  Again, two different scenarios, they go -roughly- the same way, but have wildly different context and outcomes in this case and this is just yet another small portion of the game.  The game is filled with these, and they all matter and it's brilliant.  This is precisely what gets me excited for the game and precisely what makes me want to play it yet again, because there is territory yet untouched even with two full, complete play-throughs under my belt.

Graphically, Alpha Protocol is not going to blow you away and, in fact, will sometimes bug you.  I don't know if it's exclusive to the PS3 version or if it's just in the game as Obsidian are not known for the highest QA standards, but I got a lot of artifacting in spots, points where entire halves of character faces would blink black for a moment, and similar such visual issues.  Aside from that, the faces look good, not great, animations are janky more than they're not, and lighting works well enough, but there's no particular area where I was impressed.  The graphics are, basically okay, even looking really decent at parts, but they're never going to make you think you're 'watching a movie' or anything like that.  Which isn't a strike against it, so much as it's just a little unfortunate as there was likely time that could've been applied to sprucing it up.

As far as sound goes, the actual music is decent background noise, but I never heard a track that stuck with me or made me really try and seek it out in or out of the game.  Aside from the few times where they make use of licensed music which was the stand-out track.  I'm not sure if that's for the novelty of having a song like that in the game that you know already, or because it's genuinely something that sticks more than the music in the actual game, but I know the night after I played the part where I heard that, I was listening to it on youtube, and not so with the rest of the game soundtrack.  Again, nothing terrible, just nothing all that memorable either, so I can't really say much about it as a whole beyond that.  Though one of the songs towards the end of the game caught my attention a little and I might seek that out, if just for the way it opens.  I'd have to find it in the game again, first, however.

Another area where things really shine, thankfully, is the voice-work.  A quick glance through at the IMDB page for Alpha Protocol will show you names that you might not be all that familiar with (beyond Nolan North who, like Steven Blum in Shadows of the Damned, is recognizable but not instantly so), but I assure you that at some point in life, you've heard these people speak and it's a pleasure to hear them again.  The biggest example of this is Jim Cummings who has been in everything from Mickey Mouse's Clubhouse (and other Disney things by extension of voicing Pete for just about every appearance since 1992) to Mass Effect and (hilariously) the Splatterhouse remake.  Regardless, there was not one point where I rolled my eyes at someone's voice, nor accent (though a case could be made for SIE, I guess, YMMV) which by my metric means the voicework was grand.

I imagine that's where a lot of the budget went as well, as the flexible nature of the game means a lot of detail work with the script, which means a lot of lines to write and, more importantly, VA.  And this is where everyone involved had to put their best on, as if you don't voice these things properly, when they're put together, it's -obvious- that it's been cut and rifled in for if X meets Y criteria.  If I wanted to be hyper-sensitive to these things, I could probably point out a few points where it's obvious that this scene is only here if you've been evil or somesuch, but on the whole, there's really no egregious examples.  That's impressive on its own since, like I said, there are a lot of areas where this exact thing could come up and, with the very varied types of play that I went through, I imagine I would've come across one or two examples that I could throw down here, but nothing springs to memory.  Congratulations go to the voice actors and the people directing them for that.

The Good
  • Fantastic Conversation system that, frankly, kept me playing when I hated the game
  • Slightly related to the above, the Relationship system is interesting in how it works and benefits the player
  • Everything, Everything you do matters.  Lots of games try this, few succeed
  • The 'gameplay' actually does get better the more you play and molds to the style you're going for
  • Stealth and Pistols border on OP which is refreshing
  • Seriously, that Running Knee Strike redeems the melee system.  When I used it the first time, I couldn't help but shout "YES!" in joy
  • Voice-work is on par with the best parts of the game rather than the majority of it
  • While the narrative generally has you go from Point A to Point B, the context is always different
 The Bad
  • The game is -not- easy to get into and might, in fact, make you want to quit playing
  • Until it clicks, it's more 'interesting, but flawed' than 'magical' (which it ends up being)
  • Graphics and animations are just barely sub-standard, could've used a little more attention
  • The soundtrack is nothing special
  • 'That goddamn Brayko fight' is something you'll hear from the people turned off by Alpha Protocol and mostly for good reason
  • The lock-picking mini-game can go right to hell
  • There are so many alarms and they go off and it's always annoying
  • There are all sorts of tiny nits to pick that aren't big enough to mention individually, but build up
Mogs Says
Despite what I though at first, Alpha Protocol ends up being something really really special that has unfortunately been overlooked because there is a very real case to be made of it being not a great game.  It has great, great aspects to it and if you put enough time into it, it pays off in spades.  It's rare that a game makes me want to play it, so much as I'm happy to do so, but I know I need to put at least one more play into the game before I'm done with it.  And that entire play-through will feature me with a big, big grin on my face, just because it's genuinely exciting and interesting to see what happens when you do things differently in it.  I strongly recommend you give it a shot with my warning that, again, it takes quite a bit of work before it clicks, but when it does, it's all worth it.

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