There are a lot of games that receive decent scores on Metacritic but don’t sell well, leading them to an early demise. Alpha Protocol, developed by Obsidian Entertainment in 2010, is one such game. An action RPG with stealth elements, the game follows the aftermath of a terrorist attack on an American airliner in the skies of Saudi Arabia. Al-Samad, a Middle-East terrorist organization, is responsible for the attack. Alpha Protocol, a clandestine US agency, is called to take care of the situation as the United States wish for it to be solved as swiftly as possible. Michael Thorton, a new recruit, is sent as field agent in Saudi Arabia in order to take out Al-Samad and its leaders. Don’t be fooled by its premise, the plot is well written and will surprise you multiple times.
Alpha Protocol is an ambitious game which reminds of a mix between Metal Gear Solid and Mass Effect. The player travels around the world as he unravels a big plot involving big organizations and corporations and he is the only person who can stop it. As in Bioware games, the player’s action affect future events and ultimately define the ending of the game, with a decent number of options available. The first and most obvious way to affect the plot is through conversations. As Thorton interacts with other people, he will be able to choose what kind of attitude to have towards them with a system called “Dialogue Stance System”. This will affect the affection that these NPCs have towards you, giving you different options on the field and in future conversations. You might be able to turn enemies into allies and vice versa.
Most of the time you will have three options during dialogue, with a fourth one appearing under special circumstances. Those might appear as a consequence of previous choices or thanks to dossiers you have obtained throughout the game. Dossiers are pieces of intel about the characters and organizations present in the game and tells you information about their background and motivations. Sometimes these dossiers will give you leverage over specific NPCs, giving you more power to influence their action to your advantage. They can be bought, obtained during conversation or found scattered around during missions. As dossiers are missable, they give an interesting twist to the game’s conversation system and together provide a good replay value to the game as you try to obtain different endings.
Other classic RPG elements are present in the game. Almost all actions in the game will reward you with experience and leveling up gives you Advancement Points, which you can use to power up the different skills available. There are 10 skills available, more than half of them are combat based while the rest gives access to advanced stealth capabilities. Each skill also gives you active abilities, such as temporary invisibility, extra damage or bullet time. Only 3 skills can be maxed, which means that in each playthrough you will have to decide what approach to take. Are you the new Big Boss, completing your objectives without ever being seen? Or you like a more practical approach, going all out with assault rifles and shotguns? Some more diversity in skills would have been nice to have but overall the game gives you enough options to play the game as you want.
As every action RPG, before deploying, you are able to outfit Michael with a big array of weaponry and armors. You can carry with you two weapons of your choice, with each having access to a number of mods such as silencer, bigger magazines and so forth. Each weapon category (pistol, assault rifle, shotgun and submachine guns) also has access to 3 different types of ammo, specializing them for different situations. Non-lethal players should always bring a pistol as these are the only weapons which can fire tranquilizer rounds, the only way to neutralize an enemy from long range without killing them. Armors also come in a big variety and can be customized with mods, depending on what you need. They can provide extra stealth, lower your skill cooldowns or simply give you extra health and armor. Lastly you can bring different gadgets with you. These vary from the usual grenades to EMPs and sound generators, giving you an edge during unexpected situations.
All equipment is bought through the black market. Weapons are classified from one to three stars depending on how powerful they are, with cost increasing considerably between different tiers. You can find money by picking up during levels or through specific conversations but it doesn’t come in big quantities, meaning you should be a little careful on how you spend it. I suggest picking up two weapon types and sticking with those, instead of trying to buy everything. Money is also needed to purchase intel, which you should prioritize over everything else. Last thing about your economy is ammo. Ammo is limited, especially the special munitions. This provides an extra layer of difficulty, especially for a non-lethal playthrough, as tranquilizer rounds are rare and very expensive.
Combat is the not-so-great side of the game. Regardless of the weapon you have, your aim will be pretty bad. This is supposedly counterbalanced by lining up critical shot. If you hold your reticle on an enemy, after a few moments, the aim will improve and the reticle will become red. If you shoot you will inflict critical damage, most of the time killing enemies in one shot. You use this while taking cover so you have the time to line up a critical shot in safety. Unfortunately this system doesn’t work as it breaks down the action in a cover-shoot cycle, making combat boring. The system does work well on stealth though, killing isolated enemies with a critical shot and moving on. Bodies unfortunately cannot be moved or hidden (which is frustrating at times) but disappear relatively quickly.
For stealth players, everything is pretty standard. Enemies can see in a cone-shaped area in front of them and will become suspicious if they see or hear something strange. If you are compromised, they will start attacking you and will sound alarms in order to call reinforcements. You can dispose of enemies with CQC, lethally or not, or with firearms. Using weapons without a silencer will alert nearby enemies so use your pistol to stay hidden. Beside enemy soldiers, you will also have to avoid cameras and, later in the game, automatic gun turrets. You can disable cameras by shooting them, which will draw unwanted attention, or by hacking specific terminals. For the turrets you throw an EMP grenade at them and destroy them with your silenced pistol. Stealth is fun, though it can be a bit easy at times as the AI is not so smart and will get stuck in weird places, even at the highest difficulty setting.
The game also throws at you some small mini-games to unlock doors and terminals, similar to how it is done in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. As in DE:HR, they are a nice distraction during the first hour of play to become just a distraction the further you play as they are too easy. Failing supposedly triggers alarms but I never confirmed it. Aside their difficulty, there are only 3 different mini-games, not a lot of variety. I’d rather take the password cracking in Fallout 4 over this.
One last remark: the UI is good but not so good. The UI itself is well done, not clunky and everything is in the right place (beside the map, it’s a pain that it doesn’t open immediately when I open the menu). If you play on console, you won’t notice anything wrong with the UI, because the problem is on the PC version. Obviously, no one decided to spend more than 5 seconds on how navigating the menu with mouse and keyboard would be like. In some instances you can use WASD and Enter to select, sometimes you cannot use Enter, in other moments you are forced to use your mouse. It’s not a game breaking issue since you can use the menu but these small things get to me. I can’t even get around the problem by using a gamepad since I refuse to aim without a mouse while playing on PC.
Alpha Protocol is far from being a perfect game. But if you can look past the combat system, you will have a great time playing it. Going for a non-lethal stealth playthrough will give you the best experience as it avoids combat and focuses on the decently implemented stealth mechanics. What made me complete this game multiple times was the plot. While the premise might be a bit clichéd, the plot does a good job developing it towards unexpected directions and, thanks to its memorable characters, will keep you from leaving until the end. Voice over is good, which empowers the characters even more. With a deserved score of 72 on Metacritic (I’d give it slightly more), it’s a pity that its sales did not allow a sequel to be developed. If you enjoy games like Metal Gear Solid, definitely give this game a try.