UP UNTIL NOW, Obsidian Entertainment has only produced sequels to existing franchises. While it continues this trend with the upcoming Fallout: New Vegas and recently announced Dungeon Siege III, Alpha Protocol represents its fi rst original IP. It is an ambitious title, aiming to blend action, RPG and stealth elements. It doesn't succeed in this lofty goal.
I'll start with the positives. If there is one thing Obsidian knows, it is RPGs. Given that this is the studio that boasts a long line of quality games in the genre (including those by Obsidian's forerunner, Black Isle), decent RPG mechanics are to be expected. Obsidian has managed to make the various in-game conversations fairly interesting; weapon and armour customisation is done reasonably well, and the game hands out perks: little character-enhancing rewards for various actions throughout the game.
However, the fact that the most positive things to be said about this game are about its menus is not good.
The player character, Michael Thorton, feels like a walking spy cliché and rarely shows any emotion other than ‘mild surprise’ or ’somewhat annoyed’. Coming from the team that brought us such great writing in the past, the lack of a charismatic protagonist is surprising and makes it diffi cult for players to connect with the story.
The actual gameplay comes in the form of a third-person shooter. The unalert enemy AI is dumber than a sack of bricks, to the point of obligingly staring at walls while its buddies are slowly picked off. The alerted AI, on the other hand, is mostly supernaturally perceptive. To avoid this, the player can invest ability points in the stealth skill. While the power to see the location and facing direction of enemies is vital for anyone attempting to sneak through the game, the powers acquired shortly afterwards make most of the game a complete cakewalk.
However, stealth completely falls apart when the mostly linear levels lead the player to the inevitable horde or boss fights. Purely sneaky characters struggle here, while those that invest in weapon skills easily breeze through these mandatory fights. Again, like with the stealth skill, there is an incredibly thin line between useless and seriously overpowered. Unfortunately, like the stealth aspect, the combat isn't terribly engaging either.
In addition to the combat and stealth skill lines, there are the even more poorly balanced gadget skills. The ’sabotage’ ability allows the player to skip a mini-game (aligning tumblers in a lock, clipping alarm wires in the right order, or fi nding the ’unchanging’ codes in a constantly shifting field for hacking) by expending an EMP gadget, after which investing in it serves little purpose. The idea of using grenades and traps looks good on paper as well, but it is invariably easier to mow down enemies or to just sneak past them, further highlighting the imbalance of the game’s skills.
While at first glance the levels appear impressively large and open, it doesn't take long for their linearity to become painfully obvious. Fences and knee-high obstructions are impassable, the most inane example being where the player is forced to send a crane crashing through a barricade when a perfectly safe route up and over it would suffice were it not blocked by three simple wooden crates.
Alpha Protocol is still an enjoyable game; it's just not the grand espionage RPG that Obsidian was shooting for