Was Joe Wrong?
There’s still one thing about Alpha Protocol that bothers me though and that’s that it has such a huge amount of potential which has gone to waste. The idea of a modern-day spy game where you can choose your allegiances and style is pure gold – it’s only Obsidian’s delivery which is off. If Alpha Protocol had been a bit different it actually could have been a worthy successor to Deus Ex, I reckon.
The first thing that you’d have to change would be the opening levels. Alpha Protocol eventually grows to become an intelligent, non-linear shooter given enough time and there are times where you’re asked to make important decisions mid-mission – one of my favourite features. The start of the game doesn’t reflect this at all though, giving you only a series of dull, cramped desert levels to
fail at sneaking through. It’s pretty terrible.
Even then, the remaining missions would still need a fair bit of redesign to make them really deliver on the non-linear promises that Obsidian made. Giving the player the choice between ‘Press X to kill this guard, or Y to knock him out and essentially kill him’ doesn’t count as player choice in my books. The minigames would need to be completely rebalanced too or, better yet, completely obliterated and erased from the memory of everyone, ever.
If only it actually looked this good when you played it
While we’re at it, let’s try and come up with a consistent tech level for the fiction, OK? No more teleporting bosses or invisibility in a supposedly modern setting. That will help us get rid of the quote-unquote crazy characters too – no more Brakyo or Sie nonsense. Personally I found putting up with those two characters to be actually fatiguing.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Alpha Protocol could stand to delete the action altogether. Journeying out to meet a new informant or contact or checking your email from the safehouse are the highpoints of the game for me, as they encourage a Machiavellian deviousness and make it feel like you’re building a proper network of contacts. I’d have loved it if Alpha Protocol was, like Introversion’s Uplink, all about action at a distance. Really; that concept genuinely excites me.
Sadly, with Sega having firmly ruled out a sequel already, it’s doubtful that Obsidian will ever get a chance to improve on Alpha Protocol – meaning all that wasted potential will stay exactly as it is; wasted. Playing the game again now, detached from my initial disappointment and vitriol, I can’t help but think that that’s a huge shame. Alpha Protocol 2 might have defied the odds and been a brilliant game. It’s yet more proof that the hardest thing to do in the games industry is to launch a new IP; you’ve got to get it right the first time around, because if you mess up then you won’t get another shot.
Like Old Man River, Sis don't say nuffin'
Then again, that’s not a valid reason to cut Alpha Protocol any slack. The only way to encourage games to be better is to outline exactly where they fail – a point Richard Cobbett also makes on the GD podcast, where he laments adventure game fans tolerating rubbish adventure games just to keep the market alive. I can’t help but agree; if it’s a dead duck, it’s got to go, regardless of how much you like it.
So, I have to tell you that Alpha Protocol is awful. It’s buggy, it’s broken, it’s not something I feel I, as a critic, can ever recommend that anybody ever play. That’s why this isn’t an apology – I still agree with my original assessment.
Then again, I’ve been enjoying it an awful lot and, just as I originally hated Deus Ex because of it’s bastard first levels, I’ve come to love Alpha Protocol too. It’s smart, cool and interesting, with enough non-linearity built into it that I already know I’m going to play it again and again. I’ll probably play it straight again after I finished it next and, while I can’t recommend anyone ever play it, it surely won’t be too long until it shows up on some Steam sale or as some part of some ‘Pre-order X, get Alpha Protocol free!’ bundle, in which case I’d suggest you pick it up. You might, like me, be pleasantly surprised.