Alpha Protocol

(Sega: PC, Xbox 360, PS3)

If ever you needed proof of the two most salient facts of computer gaming, here it is, in the form of one single product. Salient fact one: Computer gamers are overwhelmingly massive children. Salient fact two: Computer game journalists are overwhelmingly massive children, and also corrupt.

For the past year or so, the anticipation for Alpha Protocol has been rabid. It’s the first actual proper espionage game I can think of since Covert Action from 1990, which is to say it focuses as much on tradecraft, confidence tricks and investigation as it does sneaking up the joint Splinter Cell style. It sounds like a fab idea for a game.

Unfortunately, such a solid and appealing concept inevitably leads to imagination feature creep among the intended audience, who’ve apparently got little better to do than dream up their ideal form of escapism (hint, try taking a drug overdose); and then when the game finally comes out, and it isn’t the fist-sized conflict diamond it was anticipated to be, tantrums and smirched underwear is the inevitable result. It’s pretty funny to watch.

For a top-of-the-line title, Alpha Protocol has, admittedly, come out in sort of a sad state. It’s full of strange bugs, the interface and presentation are pretty laughable, and the animation is borderline hilarious. Baddies act like lobotomy victims, and there’s a lot of grating grenade spam to make up for it. You’ll see textures popping in continually. And protagonist Mike Thornton’s sneaking motion looks a bit like a duck in a neck-brace trying to peck a Hovis trail up off the ground.

As yet there is no end to the level of splenetic venting that has resulted, and it’s not just the customers, either. Reviews are pretty divided – Destructoid gave the game two out of fucking ten, which is either idiotic, cynical, or just nakedly dishonest. Be interesting to know what Sega’s ad spend has been there, wouldn’t it?

Yeah, it is clunky, but it’s also fucking fun. It’s fun to crouch in hiding, waiting for your pistol reticule to narrow for the perfect critical one-shot kill from cover. It’s fun when the childish ragdoll physics take over and flip your target through a quick somersault when you slot him with yer shootah. And it’s fun when the thicko AI somehow psychically detects you from miles away and sets off an alarm, turning your careful approach utterly tits up and funnelling a torrent of hapless goons into your lead cloud. Know why it’s fun? Because all of that is the sort of thing that happens in James Bond and Jason Bourne films, and that, if anything, is what this game is aiming for.

Alpha Protocol scores most of its hits with its writing, though, alongside the integration of choice, the lifeblood of RPGs, into the game. It’s a sight better than Mass Effect in this regard, while remaining every bit as streamlined and intuitive. The plot’s a typical Tom Clancy potboiler, but it never takes itself all that seriously. It’s better than Mass Effect in that regard, too, a series that has never really struck the mark for me.

You’re continually picking up perks, a lot like achievements. Rather than bloating your fucking ‘gamerscore’ badge of shame, perks instead confer bonuses. Unless you’re autistic enough to look up all the perks and what you do to get them, you just sort of absorb them organically by doing stuff, and build a character while you’re not really looking. It’s a marvellous RPG system, for those of us who dislike Microsoft Excel.

Similarly, your relationships with other characters are nicely handled. Typical for an RPG, other characters react depending on how you treat them. But here, you get subtle, unlooked-for storytelling and gameplay consequences for how you approach your relationships. The plot might be on rails, but there’s a few branches in the line, and it’s not always clear whether you’re changing the points or not. It keeps things unpredictable.

I have a feeling this game is going to be like that vampire one that came out a while ago, and got butchered in the press for being buggy as heck and weirdly animated. Once they got over their need for absolute technical perfection though, and realised what a genuinely nice bit of writing it was, it became a cultish, flawed classic, a rough-edged gem, and every games writer that panned it quietly updated their opinion to reflect consensus. Sadly, by then, it was too late for that game.

I suspect the same thing is going to happen to Alpha Protocol. It’s worth a go, at the very least.

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