Fiction tells us the world of espionage is supposed to embody everything cool. All the guys are buff, all the women are hot, all the guns and gadgets are awesome and all the tasks have something to do with saving the world. Naturally, we want to be a part of it.
Sega’s Alpha Protocol manages to capture some of this energy. But sadly, whatever slickness it has doesn’t extend to a lot of the actual gameplay, so we’re left with yet another title that falls short of its potential.
The game’s best parts are imbued with tinges of Mass Effect, where story, dialogue and the interplay among characters is just as key as any action you take in fighting worldwide evil.
You play Michael Thorton, a customizable operative who gets recruited into the ranks of Alpha Protocol, a secret organization that feels like a mix of Third Echelon from “Splinter Cell”, a little bit of G.I Joe with a dash of James Bond’s version of MI6.
The player can adjust everything from Thorton’s background (was he a gun-for-hire or a talented U.S. soldier who caught someone’s eye?) to his facial hair and tan. How you tailor Thorton’s background influences how people can sometimes talk to you.
It’s in those conversations where the game manages to captures some of the essence of the spy fantasy world, where it’s less about shooting people and more about finding information and making connections.
During certain conversation points, there’s a timed response period where the player has to choose how to react to what the person is saying or doing. You can flirt, be professional, say something abrasive or try to be funny. This extends to other forms of communication, like e-mail. In some instances, you can either execute targets or choose to leave him or her alive.
All of the choices Thorton makes have consequences that can ripple throughout the game. If a mix of flirting and professionalism get you in good with your female mission handler, you’ll get perks like extra armor for your missions.
On the flip side, if you anger the wrong people (like, say, a Triad boss in Hong Kong), you might find a few more guns being pointed at you when it’s time to stop a presidential assassination.
I enjoyed how the game lays practically every facet of the spy world at your feet. In addition to all of the choices you can make, you can read dossiers on foreign contacts to get a read on how to talk to them. You can also use the black market to buy weapons, intel and gadgets for future missions, which take place around the world.
However, much of the joy of piecing together the story and adding strands to a web of intrigue is lost when the time comes to actually execute your missions.
Combat in particular is sloppy. For lack of a better term, the people trying to kill you are stone stupid.
The same guys who like to take cover also have no problem taking more than a few bullets to the face before trying to punch you.
The only real advantage they have against Thorton is numbers, where waves upon waves of opponents emerge to provide food for your guns. Otherwise, they scramble around like spilled marbles, take impossible shooting angles and generally just beg you to finish them quickly.
If you play this right after playing Splinter Cell: Conviction, the lack of intelligent enemy movement will be startling. I’ve had guys leave their position of cover and run right at me while I attempted to empty a clip of ammo into them — and they survive, managing to get in a few cheap melee hits before falling.
This kind of Keystone Cops fighting isn’t something one should see in a game about espionage (or really any game at this point) and it destroys any momentum built up from all the intel gathering and smooth operating done beforehand.
I can only shake my head, because the ceiling for this game could have been Mass Effect for spies. Instead, we get a poor impostor, a flat pretender. And from what we’ve seen, those don’t last too long in the world of spies.
Sega / Obsidian Entertainment
Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Rated M for Mature