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Review: Alpha Protocol

Justin McElroy

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I have something of a reputation on staff for being the guy who takes in strays, the one who falls for the games that, while they may have a lot going for them, are in some way flawed. It's a fair representation and, considering it allows me to enjoy games that others may instantly write off, it's not something I'm necessarily ashamed of.

Now, thanks to Alpha Protocol, I've learned that I have my limits.

Gallery: Alpha Protocol | 18 Photos

If there's such a thing as being "too rogue" that's agent Michael Thorton. Not only does he work for a super secret rogue spy outfit called Alpha Protocol, he's actually going double rogue as he investigates the connections between his employer and the nefarious Halbech corporation. Our man's just getting started in the field though, so as he globetrots and investigates he'll gain experience you can then apply towards improving his shooting and stealth skills, hacking prowess, even hand-to-hand combat.

Your typical mission will have you sneaking or killing your way to an objective (like a computer that needs to be bugged), collecting weapon upgrades and cash along the way. There are four different regions you'll visit, each with their own distinctive look, goal and narrative thread, but the mission structure doesn't vary a whole lot.

It sounds fine here on digital paper, but don't be fooled. Alpha Protocol's components could have fit together nicely, but the concept falls apart as soon as you realize that none of these components are executed particularly well.

Take combat for instance: Much like obvious influence Mass Effect, whether or not your weapon scores a hit is more dependent on its accuracy statistic than your actual skill. Even if you line up your shot perfectly you'll often whiff, especially in the early hours of the game. Note to developers: I don't care if it's realistic, making me miss because of math is never, ever, ever fun. Now stop it.

Alpha tries to compensate with a neat system that ties the likelihood of critical hits to how long you can keep your reticule fixed on your target. It definitely helps, but it's only available once you've improved your skills in each particular weapon and the length of time it takes to get a lock can bog down combat. The same goes for the special abilities Mike receives as he progresses (like the power to stop time and fire off two pre-aimed pistol shots). They're useful, but you'll spend way too much time waiting for them to refresh before you go into battle. (Protip: The right move in combat sequences is, more often than not, kicking all the bad guys to death.)

Kicks don't miss.

Combat's mediocre and the mission design is utterly banal, but they're far from the worst offender. No, that honor goes to the game's most touted feature and its Achilles' Heel: Choice.

Alpha Protocol is a very personalized adventure, even beyond the RPG skill progression elements that we've covered. Throughout the game you'll encounter a bevy of stereotypical spy flick characters (the all-business secretary, the kill-happy comic relief) and how you interact with them will shape the events that follow. If you're flirty with your handler for a mission and she's all business, she may not want to work with you later. If you help a suspected terrorist out with a problem, he may do you a solid later. If you kill someone ... well, that character will just be dead. A good rep with your mission handler also provides a stat boost (like better kicking strength) for the mission.

It's a technical nightmare.

It's a swell idea, and it would probably be a great way to both keep you on your toes and provide a reason to replay the game if it weren't for the tiny problem that it's all so boring. The dialog is uniformly insipid and lazily performed, and characters come, go and turn on you so frequently that it's hard to feel like your relationships and decisions have any real weight.

The combinations of conversations in your game may be totally unique, but they're so piecemeal it's impossible to be truly invested in them, let alone try to follow the plot.

Alpha Protocol is structurally flawed, but perhaps most damning -- considering the thing was apparently done six months ago -- it's a technical nightmare. Textures take forever to pop-in (and sometimes even pop back out!); enemies hover 10 feet above platforms; there are frequent, seemingly random load times that can range from 3 to 15 seconds, and even occur right in the middle of dialog. Trust me, I could go on.

As a reviewer, I can understand how a company can release a game with structural issues. Sometimes that stuff is just too deeply ingrained to fix, or maybe you really believe it's the right design choice. I'm going to call you out on that stuff, but there's a chance I'll be able to get past it. But to release a game that's just plain not finished and to expect people -- to expect your fans -- to pay the full $60 for it? That's where you lose me.

This review is based on early review code and the Xbox 360 retail version of Alpha Protocol provided by Sega.

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