I Actually Played This — Alpha Protocol
Welcome to I Actually Played This, the place were I play the video games that most gamers have, out of caution, ignorance, or common sense, never played. Please do not attempt to play any of these games yourself. Remember that actually playing these games may undermine your health, well being, consumer confidence, and belief in the inherent goodness of humanity. I am a professional, and as such have already lost my soul. Don't try this at home.
It's possible, sometimes, to enjoy being sick. Not sick as in cholera, depression, or fibromyalgia, but a passing sickness, one that's intense enough to excuse you from exerting yourself but mild enough that recovery is inevitable. It frees you to embrace sloth without guilt, and for a few brief, shining, mucus choked moments, all the guilt and pressure to DO SOMETING WITH YOUR BRIEF LIFE is set aside, lest said life be rendered even briefer. Being that kind of sick is still a pain, but it's a pain you can grip, a pain you can comprehend, take the full measure of, and take concrete steps to alleviate. One of the worst things about living with a chronic mental illness is you don't know where you end and the illness begins; live with it for long enough and you can lose any idea of what healthy is. Compared to cutting yourself on a dog food lid resulting in so much anguish you can't get out of bed for the rest of the day, a cold is a lark, a bit of deliberately rationed hardship like camping, calling your parents, or playing a deeply flawed yet thoroughly engrossing video game like Alpha Protocol.
Before Alpha Protocol begins you're tasked with picking a background for your agent, selecting from choices like Soldier, Field Agent, Tech Specialist, or Freelancer, choices that are utterly irrelevant because many of the areas of the game they apply to are so flawed that any player who isn't a masochist will either joylessly power through them as quickly as possible or ignore them completely. The game then opens with a cinematic that intercuts between a series of close ups of a passenger jet taking off and night vision-style home video footage sensually panning over a surface-to-air missile a la food porn, with Arabic chattering audible in the background to let the audience know that this particular missile is being wielded by the bad kind of foreigner. (But who gave them the missile? Someone who isn't a Muslim terrorist? Perhaps someone who isn't even a foreigner?! INTERNATIONAL INTRIGUE!!!) The missile roars into the sky and splits apart into a bunch of cute little baby missiles, all of which strike the plane. The cinematic cuts to several screens displaying several different feeds of various news outlets with reporters standing in front of the smouldering wreckage. The screens abruptly go dark, revealing the reflection of a middle-aged besuited white guy smoking a cigar. Who is this mysterious stranger? We don't know, but he's wearing a yellow shirt and tie with his suit, so we know he's sassy. The door opens behind him to reveal a figure in silhouette, and yellow shirt guy says “If anyone is to blame for these events, Mr. Thorton, it is you.” Having played the game, I know that this is utterly untrue, at least where the plane crash is concerned. Yellow shirt guy seems to be referring to everything that came after the crash, in which case he should have said so—if such simple communication is a problem it's no wonder American espionage has such a rich legacy of utter failure.
Its framing device established, the game flashes back to 3 months ago, with agent Thorton awakening from drug-induced slumber in a mysterious complex called the Greybox. A woman named Mina Tang contacts you via a PDA, you beat up the guard outside your door, and a basic tutorial ensues. As I made my way through the generic office space that constituted America's most super-secret spy agency I deduced that I probably hadn't been kidnapped by any hostile entity, this was really just Alpha Protocol's way of inducting me into their ranks, and neither I nor the agents I was pummeling into submission were in any real danger. My hunch turned out to be correct, and while that didn't damn the entire game's story to unqualified crappiness, it did dig it a nice little hole for to crawl out of, effectively undermining whatever sense of Things Are Not What They Seem the designers were trying to cultivate.
Upon reaching the end of the level Agent Thorton was introduced to chief Yancy Westridge along with the rest of Alpha Protocol's staff, I was introduced to the game's dialogue system, and it didn't go well for either of us. When a conversation happens in Alpha Protocol a menu appears that gives you a limited amount of time to choose between three replies, one that's suave, one that's aggressive, and one that's professional, but there's a lot of wiggle room within those categories: Suave can be Sarcastic, Professional can be Honest, Aggressive can be Threaten, the options presented are described in one or two words max, and are vague enough that you sometimes have little to no idea what a choice will prompt Agent Thornton to actually say or do. When you make a choice your interlocutor likes, their opinion of you goes up, and vice versa. No one in Alpha Protocol liked me. (the organization, not the whole game) I was introduced to a bunch of characters, I was suave, I was aggressive, I was professional, and everything I said seemed to piss people off. Eventually I ended up just saying what I wanted to and watched helplessly as people's opinion of me cratered, it was like High School all over again. The characters were so one-dimensional it seemed like their dislike of me was the only thing tethering them to reality. There was human comb-over Alan Parker, unrepentant douchebag Sean Darcy, and tech guru Mina Tang, whose personality was confined entirely to her hair color. I was glad to be rid of those jerkasses and on my way to my first real missions in Saudi Arabia. Then the game began to suck in earnest, and I quit.
After that an odd thing happened. Two odd things, really. The first occurred was when a distinguished gentlewoman by the name of HighTechZombie got in touch with me and personally nominated Alpha Protocol for inclusion in the elite I Actually Played This™ Pantheon of Crap. I determined to revisit the game, and was surprised by what I found. Like someone who doesn't know the entrée before them is an acquired taste, my first impulse had been to immediately spit Alpha Protocol out and hope to never see its like again, yet when I returned to it another odd thing happened: I began to enjoy myself.
In retrospect, I can see that I was doing several things that greatly diminished my enjoyment of the game. For one thing, I was using the dialogue system incorrectly, making dialogue choices in Alpha Protocol the same way I used dialogue in Mass Effect, i.e. as a way of defining my character by expressing their personality. As far as Alpha Protocol is concerned Agent Thorton has no personality, or if he does it's completely irrelevant to the task at hand. In Alpha Protocol words aren't a means of expression, but manipulation. The only reason to speak is to tell someone something they want to hear, thus manipulating them into giving you something you want. (Just like in real life!) In Mass Effect you're swamped with allies and can stand to alienate a few aliens if that's what it takes to be the Paragon or Renegade you want to be, but in Alpha Protocol everyone you speak to is a potential enemy—which is bad—and is immediately willing to broadcast their personal dislike of you—which is worse. In a game like Mass Effect if you see a character doing something you don't like, you can stop them, and the story branches accordingly. In Alpha Protocol you can't stop them, you can only get them to like you or not, and if they don't like you, you've failed. Alpha Protocol bills itself as The Espionage RPG and, like the practice of espionage itself, is adrift in a sea of bleak realpolitik. I walked in on a character named Steven Heck torturing his dry cleaner for some trivial reason, and the only thing the game let me do was choose bits of dialogue to get Heck to think I was cool. As defined by its system of dialogue, in the world of Alpha Protocol people are assets to be activated or deactivated in accordance with their usefulness, and that's it. Once you accept that Agent Thorton is a sociopath the dialogue system becomes an interesting puzzle where you try to read people and say whatever they want to hear. The strange disconnect that arises when Agent Thorton is still supposed to care whether people live or die is of the piece with the rest of Alpha Protocol's flawed design, which you have to learn to accommodate if you're to extract any fun from of the game.
Being The Tactical Espionage RPG, Alpha Protocol lets you choose which traits you want to empower: stealth, weapons, health, technical expertise, or hand to hand combat, but enemy interaction is a fiasco that's best dealt with with zero finesse and the bluntest instrument at hand. Enemy A.I. is a mess, which is too bad since the combat mechanics are okay, if you don't count the targeting reticule that forces you to stand still for a ridiculously long time in order to get any accuracy. I saw enemies take cover against walls that weren't there. An enemy ran to a ladder and failed to climb up it, but kept running into it, as if he could overcome gravity via sheer force of will. Enemies stand still and wait patiently for grenades to explode. They often have no survival instinct whatsoever, and charge right into oncoming bullets. Nevertheless, they can definitely spot you. Combat may be flawed in Alpha Protocol, but stealth is a complete non-starter. The alarms. My god, the alarms. Did you know there are alarms in subway maintenance tunnels? In terrorist training camps? I swear to god, Alpha Protocol has alarms in Roman Ruins. Terrorists saw me and set off an alarm in a museum that THEY THEMSELVES WERE SNEAKING INTO. Who was in charge of the alarms, Obsidian? I want to know so I can personally bitch slap them across this great land that we call America, because the alarm situation in your game is completely out of control. The alarms go off constantly, often for no clear reason at all. The penalty for setting off alarms is so insignificant—they only mean a few more guards are dispatched, guards you're already blasting away since the alarm's gone off—I can only assume it was greatly reduced in response to the oversensitivity of enemy detection, thus obviating the existence of the whole stealth mechanic, which was presumably a huge part of the game. (In another belated attempt to salvage a broken stealth system, every camera inexplicably emits a green field that represents its field of vision.) The alarms sound exactly the same whether you're in Saudi Arabia, Moscow, Taiwan, or Italy and are deactivated precisely the same way: via minigame, thus needlessly adding even more minigames to the already bloated, overstuffed minigame smörgåsbord Alpha Protocol insists on cramming down players' throats. There are hacking minigames. (Curse you, hacking minigames! If Super Mario Bros. was made today there'd be a damn hacking minigame every time you had to go into a pipe.) There are lock picking minigames. There are circuit breaker minigames. There are several of these minigames incorporated in every level, and by several, I mean too many.
Failing one often sets off an alarm. The lock picking minigame comes with a time limit, and I don't know why. I cannot overemphasize just how many of these accursed things the game makes you do in order to complete all your mission objectives and turn off those damn alarms. If you add enough experience points to your Technical Aptitude ability you can buy EMP grenades that will let you bypass minigames, which amounts to you bribing the game to let you get out of having to play certain parts of it, which is something of a red flag, if you ask me. The hacking, lock picking, and circuit breaking minigames may have been amusing once or twice, but when dumped on the player en masse the effect is torturous, it's the difference between a glass of water and waterboarding. Speaking of which, Agent Thorton doesn't get up to quite as many rambunctious hijinks as those lovable scamps in the CIA and NSA. He doesn't spy on hundreds of millions of innocent people, he doesn't fund death squads or engineer the overthrow of democratically elected governments or imprison people for years without charges and won't even let them kill themselves or fabricate evidence to justify going to war. If anything, Agent Thorton is failed by the game around him.
Alpha Protocol enjoys a small but loyal fan base who mourn the critical drubbing it received and fervently hope to see a sequel one day. Said fans tend to acknowledge that the gameplay has its flaws, but insist that Alpha Protocol is redeemed by its exceptional story. Indeed, Alpha Protocol's story is good, but is it good enough to redeem gameplay this twisted? The flaws in Alpha Protocol's gameplay aren't game ending, but they are legion, and baffling in their awkwardness. The gadgets available to Agent Thorton are useless. One of them is a noisemaker that attracts enemy attention. Solid Snake knocks on the wall. Sam Fisher whistles. Why does Agent Thorton need a specific device to make noise, and why does it have to emit a sound like a dunk robot vomiting dubstep? Agent Thorton's handler mentions a coming sandstorm that he can use for cover, then the wind blows once and is never heard from again. A barrel I shot kept burning, but refused to explode. The doors you can open and the doors you can't open look exactly the same. I killed an automatic turret and it kept firing into the air, the sound of gunshots drowned out the conversation I had with an NPC. You can customize weapons, but everything that adds to one characteristic detracts from another, working to balance each other out to such an extent that there's really no point in modifying anything. I paid for a sniper rife to be placed in a level, and from its immovable position I could only use it to kill one guy. The hot tub in Rome made bubbling sounds even though there was no water in it. I went to take cover and slid up the wall, hanging there like Spider-Man. Can the story redeem all that?
Alpha Protocol's story has the unfortunate distinction of putting its worst foot forward. It begins with young buck secret agent Michael Thorton being sent out a kill/capture mission (unlike our Commander in Chief's drone strikes, capturing is actually an option in this particular kill/capture op) targeting Ali Shaheed, the leader of Al-Samad, the terrorist group responsible for shooting down the passenger jet we saw in the opening cinematic. Nothing interesting happens in Saudi Arabia until the very end, and the missions leading up to it are the most poorly designed in the game, although you do get to exchange a few words with a balaclava wearing terrorist who inexplicably has the same voice as Dr. Claw in the old Inspector Gadget cartoons. When Agent Thorton finally catches up with Shaheed the ol' jihadi scoundrel readily tells Thorton that he was given the missiles by Halbech, a massive U.S. defense contractor, but no sooner can Shaheed get the words out than missiles rain down from the sky, killing Shaheed and leaving Agent Thorton bruised but alive. Mina Tang gets in touch and tells Thorton that he's been disavowed by Alpha Protocol, is presumed dead, and is officially a rogue agent. Thorton sets out on a globe trotting journey to uncover what Halbech and Alpha Protocol are up to, with Mina Tang secretly working as his handler while maintaining her post at the agency. In the beginning it isn't clear why Tang goes to such lengths to help Agent Thorton, and honestly I'm used to so many people inexplicably offering help or asking for help in video games that I didn't think to question it, but it turns out there's a damn good reason, and Obsidian should be commended for going to the trouble to plug their plot holes.
Agent Thorton visits three cities in his quest to uncover the conspiracy, each with their own particular missions, characters, and objectives, and it's here that Alpha Protocol really starts to take off as a game, even if it never really reaches cruising altitude. You can choose the order of the cities you visit, and I personally went Moscow, Taipei, Rome.
In Moscow you try to track the distribution of Halbech weapons, which Halbech is moving with the help of the Russian Mafia. You meet SIE, (pronounced Zee) a flamboyant ex-Stasi agent and member of the VCI mercenary firm who's got that whole Bad Girl Appeal thing going on, Albatross, the leader of an elite, secret group of technocrats looking to influence world affairs, and Sis, Albatross' mute, emo bodyguard. As the Moscow mission moves forward you're forced to align yourself with either SIE or Albatross, though you won't really get to know either of them very well, which I guess is an occupational hazard of being a spy. There'll come a point where you'll be forced to chose between saving them and executing your mission, a choice the game goes on to force upon you two more times, which is two times too many.
In Taipei Agent Thorton works to prevent the assassination of Taiwanese president Ronald Sung as orchestrated by Omen Deng and the Taiwanese secret police. He works with Steven Heck, a maniacal kill-happy conspiracy nut who's apparently got ahold of whatever Glen Beck is smoking, and Hong Shi, leader of the White Oak Mountain Triad, though unlike in Moscow their help isn't mutually exclusive. Thorton can also enlist the help of Scarlet Lake(she of the Bond Girl name), a famous and alluring photojournalist who likes to play spy, or so we're led to believe. As we learn, no one is what they seem.
A brief aside: I'm making it sound like Agent Thorton is constantly flanked by helpers, but really, outside of dialogue, the missions are solitary affairs marked by running through corridors, shooting, and doing minigame after minigame with Mina Tang running color commentary via your radio. Allies only join you at particular points in particular missions, and even then they're useless as anything besides cannon fodder. The story lends a note of gravitas to otherwise colorless run and gun gameplay, but its real impact is reserved for the dialogue menu. (Granted, some have said the same in reference to Mass Effect.)
In Rome Agent Thorton meets another lass with a Bond Girl Name, Madison Saint James, who helps him uncover a false flag attack engineered by Conrad Marburg, an old guard company man who has adapted to the new environment of private for-profit espionage by becoming a complete bastard. Throughout all this the game keeps cutting back to the besuited white guy with a yellow shirt and tie we saw in the beginning as he talks with Agent Thorton, going over every mission and helping weave the various narrative threads together until Halbech's conspiracy emerges. It's a good move, since Alpha Protocol keeps even more balls in the air than the average spy thriller, and it's easy to loose track of who did what and why. The nature of video games means that the pieces will never fall into place as neatly as those in a Graham Greene or Robert Ludlum spy thriller, but Alpha Protocol's ending is likely as satisfying as an espionage RPG of this type can ever be, and if that happens to be what you're looking for, you're unlikely to find a better specimen anywhere else.
The time has finally come to address the elephant in the room. The main character in this game is named Michael Thorton. My name is Eric Thornton. The letter 'n' is used twice in my last name. It is pronounced Thorn-ton. The 'n' is soft, but it is there. My name is not “Thorton”. No one's name is “Thorton.” Thorton sounds like the name of the alien in a campy 50's sci-fi flick. “Thor-Ton! The horror from beyond Pluto!” Despite this, people have been misspelling my name all my life. I've encountered a stranger named Eric Thorton on my driver's license, my checks, my credit card, and reams and reams of mail addressed to me. I don't know why people hate the first 'n' in my last name and I honestly don't care, I'm right and they're wrong and there was absolutely no reason for the lady at the DMV to be that irate about it, as if it were my fault somehow. The writers at Obsidian got the name Thornton wrong, then they just went with it. They knew they got it wrong, I know this because they made a joke about it in the game, when Agent Thorton examines a certificate with his name on it he remarks “They spelled my name wrong. 'Thornton.' ” Is Alpha Protocol supposed to take place in some perverse sideways dimension where fire hydrants are blue, the sun rises in the west, and Thorton is the correct spelling? No. No, Obsidian made a mistake, they got something wrong in their hugely ambitious game, (THE espionage RPG!) and they decided not to correct it and damn the consequences, even if someone named Thornton could possibly play the game and have it gnaw at his already diminished soul every time his name was mangled, f**k that guy. It's an attitude emblematic of all of Alpha Protocol's squandered potential, which is undermined by a pestilential swarm of tiny, vexing flaws. Is it a bad game? Sometimes it is absolutely a bad game, other times it's a pretty good game, what's certain is it is a flawed game: a misshapen, genre-hopping, minigame hoarding red-headed stepchild for a game, and as such I can't help but see a bit of myself in it, even have a grudging affection for it.
Learning the rules of a poorly designed video game can sometimes be a game in itself. It was a I game I played. Did I win?
How Long I Could Make Myself Play: The whole durn thing.
How Bad Is It As Described By A Film On IMDB's Bottom 100 List: I'm going to take a pass here and use this space to promote the magnificently idiotic 1988 film Action Jackson, staring Carl Weathers.
Redeeming Factors(if any): This: