Thursday, September 30, 2010

Yet Another Review: Alpha Protocol (PS3)

If you’re a longtime PC gamer, you’ve probably played a Black Isle Studios game. They were formerly the kings of the PC RPGs, creating classics like Fallout, Planescape: Torment and Baldur’s Gate. Despite much success, the company disbanded in 2003, with many of its employees going on to found Obsidian. So far they’ve made Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Neverwinter Nights 2, two great games that suffered from glitches. Their latest release, Alpha Protocol, is more of the same.

Instead of being a turn-based D&D RPG, AP is a third-person shooter with character customization elements and various styles of play. Sort of similar to Deus Ex (but not nearly as much freedom). You can either play stealthily or go Rambo, but it’s very important that your character has at least some competency in combat, because you will be forced to do plenty of fighting.

The shooting takes a while to get used to, and tends to be inaccurate until you’ve leveled up the corresponding weapon skill or purchased a better gun. Stealth, too, is inconsistent in the early stages, as enemies seem to have a very large sight radius and can easily track you down.

Perhaps the biggest problem is this artificial intelligence, which is similarly unpredictable in combat. Sometimes they’ll just stand far away, firing wildly, while at other times they’ll charge at you to engage in melee as another enemy moves to your back and blasts you with a shotgun.

 The AI prefers to get up close and personal.

Avoiding combat when possible and going stealth is definitely the way to play, though. Watching Michael karate chopping some poor guard’s neck never seems to get old. It’s no Metal Gear Solid, but the AI will react upon seeing a fallen comrade’s body, hunt for you and alert any other nearby guards.

Aside from shooting and stealth, you can use various gadgets to set up traps. These are fun to use, but only a limited amount of doodads can be carried into missions. There are also tons of locked doors, encrypted computers and secured keypads that can be defeated by winning a little mini-game. These little buggers are tough tests of eyesight and hand control. Certain skills and equipment make these much easier.

A big deal is made about the dialogue sequences in the tutorial. Basically, like in many RPGs, choices will come up during conversations, which allow Michael to respond neutrally, aggressively, or suavely. Each character responds differently to each type of attitude, and their disposition is changed accordingly. Enemies with a high disposition might eventually offer to join your side, while friends that hate you might turn against you. These relationships definitely affect the game and story, and these dialogue choices aren’t just illusions of freedom.

Even if Obsidian is a shell of its former self, the writers still have talent with the pen. For the most part, the story keeps your interest and the dialogue is sharp and intelligent. There’s some cringing every now and then (a crazy Russian gangster yelling out a one-liner from Duke Nukem as you fight him on a disco dance floor with Turn Up the Radio blaring in the background), but the banter and voice acting are both top notch.

Those who enjoyed Mass Effect for its "waifus" will be
disappointed by the boring girls in Alpha Protocol.

The amount of detail they put into things is also impressive. For example, after beating the missions in Rome, I went to Moscow to see a weapons dealer. He not only noted the work I had done in Rome, but was also honored that the first thing I did when arriving in Moscow was to meet with him. It shows the insane amount of delicate care the writers poured into the dialogue.

If you’re obsessive about graphics, you will want to avoid this game. When moving around, textures look blurry for a few moments before suddenly popping into focus. Jagged lines are everywhere. There is a very limited selection of appearance options for Michael, and most look goofy and out of place (although snapping necks and seducing ladies while sporting obnoxious orange aviators, a backwards baseball cap and a lumberjack beard is kind of funny).

 Look out, ladies.

Alpha Protocol is not for everyone, but I was pleasantly surprised. Worth checking out as a rental, or buying when it hits the bargain bin. Sadly, due to limited success, they’re not making a sequel. Obsidian will instead focus on Fallout: New Vegas for the time being, along with Dungeon Siege III.

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