This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.
Alpha Protocol is the new Deus Ex. This may seem like a strong statement, given the original Deus Ex's regard as an all-time great, but that wasn't always the case. Time has been very kind to it, and Alpha Protocol seems perfectly positioned to undergo a similar process. Both games' weaknesses are transparent, and both games' strengths point toward the future of video games.
When Deus Ex was released a little over a decade ago, I remember reading a review in Computer Gaming World, which gave it 3.5 stars out of 5. CGW justified that score by pointing out glaring flaws with Deus Ex, primarily its ugly graphics and pathetic artificial intelligence. I remember that review specifically because, a month or two later, they printed a letter to the editor that said roughly "I was going to get angry because I obsessed about the game for two weeks, but as I started writing I realized your criticisms were entirely valid." This, to me, strikes at the very core of what makes a cult classic: a general, all-encompassing analysis may find obvious flaws that prevent full-throated praise, but for those who can forgive those flaws, the strengths aren't done better anywhere else.%Gallery-19776%
This is why I feel like Alpha Protocol inhabits the same conceptual space as Deus Ex, even though obviously the recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the literal "new Deus Ex." Human Revolution is a fine game, but it's also (boss fights aside) a much smoother experience than its predecessors. It's Deus Ex reimagined as a blockbuster, with better combat, a more streamlined narrative, less intense music, and no particular political point of view.
The innovative narrative structure and focus of both Deus Ex and Alpha Protocol are the most memorable parts of both games, which makes their flaws easier to forgive. Deus Ex used the Fallout model of branching peaceful or violent paths through most of its quests, which wasn't new on its own, but it was largely new in the world of shooters. More importantly, Deus Ex's story focused on entirely different subjects from most games. Its head-first dive into conspiracy mythology provided an entertaining over-the-top storyline, while also giving enough room for longer philosophical discussions and even ahead-of-its-time satire. I remember one long conversation with a Chinese bartender in particular, where your player character argues that separation of power is necessary to prevent the worst from a country's leaders with the bartender countering with it also prevents the best from happening. This was rare in any game not named Planescape: Torment, and totally unique in being directly connected to the real world.
Alpha Protocol's narrative is built around a similarly forward-looking conversation system. As you talk to someone, you're presented with two to four options of what emotion you want to guide you in the conversation. Critically, this happens as a timer goes down, meaning that you have to choose and choose quickly, with a minimum of information. While the concept of not showing exactly what your character will say had previously existed with Mass Effect, the addition of the timer and notable vagueness of the response options make Alpha Protocol's tense affairs. It's easy to see Alpha Protocol as a precursor to The Walking Dead thanks to the timer, which adds immediate intensity to the former simple conversation model.
Alpha Protocol also fits in with The Walking Dead in that its conversations, indeed its entire narrative, are unclear. You can choose various options without any certainty of whether they'll be effective for what you want or whether the other people in the game will like you. You can make your choices based off of prior experience, and you can read your dossier for background information, but even that doesn't always work. While some may have disliked this aspect of Alpha Protocol, particularly when compared to Mass Effect's transparent Renegade/Paragon systems, but I found it mesmerizing. There was no point in Alpha Protocol where I felt entirely comfortable in my knowledge of what had happened and what was going to happen based on my actions. Given that most role-playing games are entirely predictable – be the hero, save the world – this model was quite refreshing.
The biggest mistake Alpha Protocol made was in not making its role-playing game origins and systems clear enough, especially early in the game. It gives a poor first impression, particularly in how it deals with combat. Its cover mechanics are awkward and a little bit buggy, but the bigger issue is its shooting. Alpha Protocol uses a system where you can aim a dot in the center of a crosshair, while a ring around that dot indicates potential areas for your shot to hit – the random dice roll, as it were. However, the way this is done, with the dot in the middle, makes the process of shooter-style aiming seem more important than it actually is. Deus Ex did almost exactly the same thing, but it didn't have a center point in its crosshairs to get frustrated at missing. If you train your Pistol skill, you can get around needing to worry about the RPG-style aiming in a third-person shooter shell, but since the game doesn't make this clear, it's easy to see why people might have hated these mechanics.
With the Pistol skill foreknowledge, however, Alpha Protocol becomes significantly more manageable, and allows the game's strengths to rise to the fore.
The most fascinating difference between Deus Ex and Alpha Protocol is their level structure. Deus Ex is what's come to be called an "immersive sim," a game in which most of the world's objects can be interacted with, set in huge levels with multiple facets. To be honest, going into Alpha Protocol, I expected a similar structure. Instead, it's divided into many discrete smaller levels. These levels initially seem like they're all roughly similar – a quest hub leads to three different levels, after two of which you can skip to the main event. But then Alpha Protocol starts to mix the rhythm up – missions are longer, or shorter, or just conversations, or just watching and gaining information. The variety is good enough, but by keeping the missions distinct, Alpha Protocol can adjust a lot of its story. In an immersive sim like Deus Ex, the game allows for multiple different methods to achieve success. Alpha Protocol's smaller levels give it the ability to adjust different variables, which gives it more power to have different story effects.
It's that story that makes Alpha Protocol work. It's rare that I ever play a game whose story beats and outcomes are unpredictable, but everything about the game works to make that the case. That's special and makes its current status as a cult hit inevitable, while The Walking Dead's unambiguous success demonstrates quite clearly that Alpha Protocol was on the right track. Is it perfect? No. But that just makes it all the more lovable.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.