Wednesday, August 10, 2011

-REVIEW: Alpha Protocol-
because we all need some dating advice, sometimes

Title: Alpha Protocol
Developer: Obsidian
Publisher: SEGA of America
Price: $19.99 on Steam

I’m looking for missiles, have you seen any? No? Okay, thanks. I’m looking for missiles, have you seen any? Shut up, you’re stupid. Wow, rude. I’m looking for missiles, you’re going to tell me or die. No? Okay, sorry. I’m looking for missiles, where is your leader? Wait, don’t shoot, I’m sexy! I’m looking for missiles…

noam chomsky would be proud

As games grow older, we expect them to also grow in complexity. This is most often accomplished by simple addition; more material means more complexity. It's a rule that seems to have guided the most recent generation of development to produce games like Assassins Creed, Red Faction: Guerrilla, and Fallout 3. But this type of lateral thinking, useful and productive as it may be, obscures the other dimension of complexity: verticality. Verticality means depth; creating layers of experience, interaction, and engagement that rest upon a single idea by exploring its possibilities more thoroughly. It's considerably more difficult and time-consuming than formulating and implementing as many ideas as possible, but its results are always compelling; it spawns games like Braid, Portal/Narbacular Drop, and Alpha Protocol.

Some may find it laughable to include Alpha Protocol amongst such titles, but you read this for my opinion, so here it is: making new things new is easy. Making old things new is damn hard. Alpha Protocol takes the oldest thing known to man and makes it brand spanking new.

the art of communication

The story you, as Michael Thorton, worm and weasel your way through isn't classically compelling, but it is thick enough to hold the proverbial water. Thus the brilliance of the piece lies in its ability to use this rather-average thickness to produce consistently above-average results. Other dialogue-heavy games (Mass Effect and Dragon Age being the prime examples) are simply that, heavy with dialogue. They carry them about, those ponderous weights, borne like medals of valor and dignity. But in reality they are just weight. They don’t add anything to the game except pomp and circumstance. They only succeed because the story they exposit has merit or the game that they run alongside is extremely enjoyable. With Alpha Protocol, the dialogue is the game. It is not a feature, a nice addition, or a thing to be appreciated once and left alone forever. It sounds like a nightmare, to base a game on conversations and dialogue(with all its resultant ambiguities and wildly divergent outcomes), but Obsidian has done an amazing job of it.
 Unfortunately, it’s easily overlooked because the game itself is presented in such a visually similar way to other games of the “shooter” genre, which it decidedly isn’t. Still, the shooting and general combat is married to the dialogue via the game, which makes it hard to tease apart; those wishing for punchy, solid combat may find themselves woefully divested of lasting satisfaction. This is a bit sad because it detracts from the overall experience and exposes Obsidian’s tender underbelly to some serious criticism: the combat sucks.

Before moving on, let’s not forget that this is a game about expertise. Espionage titles usually are due to their premise (perhaps the closest thing to a spy game where you acquire spy-ness over time is Yahtzee’s Trilby). To manifest this feeling then requires either a lot of control options, which encourage learning and expertise on the part of the player, or a lot of contextual actions, which convey free-flowing gameplay and the sensation of expertise to the player. Alpha Protocol nobly attempts the latter, but I very much wish it would have used the former. Obsidian simply doesn’t have the skill required to create as seamless an experience as required by a game of this nature. Snapping to cover is spotty and inconsistent and Thorton’s acrobatic moves are alarmingly clumsy. Gunplay is highly reminiscent of Rainbow Six Vegas 2, but lacks polish and weight; the camera position is unnaturally tight and guns tend not to have a believable kick. Even stealth approaches are unbearably unpredictable.

These flaws are ironically amplified by the quality of the visual presentation; if the game had lower production values, some of these oversights, noisome enough as they are, would be easier to forgive. But placing these half-baked animations and mechanics edge-to-edge with fantastic visuals just makes the whole thing feel more flimsy. The chain really is no stronger than its weakest link.
I would have much rather been happy with more time spent refining these mechanics and action elements than having the overwhelming amount of weapons populate the combat(which really don’t change much of the gameplay). This is extremely speculative, but I think that this scenario probably resulted from a preponderance of focus-testing bullhonky. Thankfully, combat isn’t the primary focus.

back to the point, the point

The point is dialogue. While Alpha Protocol is a tragic example of Obsidian’s weakness, it’s also a testament to their skill with words. Thorton’s politico-speak is uncanny; it’s not that he talks his way out of or into situations; rather, it’s that he conveys a very specific attitude with each phrase you choose for him. It’s practically the cure for Asperger’s Syndrome. The voice acting here isn’t “top-notch” per se, but it gets the job done and does quite a bit to add to the enjoyment of the game.  But what really raises Alpha Protocol out of the mire of mediocrity is the fact that every choice you make, whether in dialogue or in combat, is substantially accounted for in one way or another. In fact, if Sega had been so inclined to suggest Obsidian create an ARG that would contact you in real-life with information from your actions in-game, it would feel completely natural. No other game in recent history is as cohesive and comprehensive in its treatment of your actions in the game. If you fear that I’m somehow conflating achievements or flavor text with “real consequence” let me quell that notion by telling you that you’re wrong, dammit. You’re wrong.
Everything from dispatching (or avoiding) enemies, killing innocents (or just neutral combatants), being a jackass, not being a jackass, failing objectives, accomplishing objectives in varying order, being selfish, being altruistic, or simply being apathetic, this game tracks it and responds accordingly. It’s a refreshing surprise to see a game put such a concerted effort into making you feel like what you do matters.

bucky, i want to stop the bullies, buddy

As fantastic as all those things are, I won’t tell you to go out and buy it outright. Why? Because I’m smart, that’s why. Because logic demands a reason for sacrificing my free time and productive time in pursuit of entertainment. And because this freaking game has major flaws. The aforementioned clumsyfighting and kludgerobatics make for a frustrating experience, especially when you’ve got your heart set on a specific playstyle. It’s also infuriating when you’re pursuing a pure challenge and the erratic controls simply don’t let you do that. And it’s extremely disheartening to discover that if you want to see all those other outcomes, dialogue choices, and crazy changes to the game that occur when you travel off the beaten path, you’re going to have to start from the beginning and slog your way through it all over again.
 That being said, if this game goes down to like $7.50 of $5, ride that train all the way home, friend.
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