I recently bought Alpha Protocol on the cheap and it is a stupid game. Everything about it is lacking, although I expected as much from the reviews and scuttlebutt.
The thing that really bugs me is that Obsidian get a lot of credit for their writing. I do not understand this. I’ve always found them to be the ‘good ideas’ team, but definitely not star writers or storytellers.
Here’s a quick list of some of the dumbest highlights of Alpha Protocol’s story:
- Extremely out of place emo teenager with twin revolvers attacks you for no reason while working for a mysteriously mysterious organisation with unexplained motives who approach you for an alliance if you randomly let said homicidal teen go for no reason.
- Choosing between stopping the bomb and saving the girl – if you go for the bomb, the girl is brought to you and executed in front of you in a way that would’ve been stopped if Cutscene Protagonist had raised his gun. This also makes all the angsting over the decision seem rather pointless. (Compare this to the Ashley/Kaidan decision of Mass Effect to realise how Bioware‘s best could write circles around Obsidian)
- Nothing you do in the game has an effect on the antagonists or their fiendish plans until you just go to their base and kill them at the end. It’s linear-tastic!
- Random note: F.E.A.R. 2 beat Alpha Protocol to the ‘male protagonist basically gets raped by a woman’ thing. That lovely bit of info brings us to the hastily-written “romances” that make the Mass Effect games look like classic and epic standalone love stories.
The dialogue system itself is broken. With the cruel timer and the vague options, it’s easy to get lost in a conversation or to do things you didn’t intend to do. Having a mere few seconds to comprehend certain huge decisions late in the game is particularly bad.
Plus, much like Dragon Age: Origins, it often doesn’t give you the options you want.
The ‘suave’ dialogue options are supposed to be like James Bond, but the writers couldn’t write that, so the flirtier options come off more as a bumbling Hugh Grant. Or Michael Cera. (No wonder those options make most characters hate you.)
Obsidian are praised for moral ambiguity in their games, but I think that’s just down to how unclear they are about the options presented to you.
See, Bioware get accused of being too black and white when writing their in-game choices, and while they could do with injecting a little more uncertainty into decisions, the simplicity helps them keep the dialogue trees and the formula of choices understandable.
Unless confusion is intended by the Bioware writers, you tend to always know what is going on and what your options will do. It’s very intuitive.
Whereas in a number of Obsidian game, there’s poor presentation and exposition leading to a lot of “I didn’t know that option would do that.” The game has a lot of little branches, but people who have played through it multiple times probably couldn’t tell you how to get certain sequences to occur.
Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is one of my favourite games and I would argue might represent the pinnacle of their interactive storytelling.
Obsidian’s Knights of the Old Republic 2 is one of the worst games I have ever played and not just because it’s infamously unfinished or because the gameplay is one long dungeon crawl.
The characters are horrible people, always bickering shadily and plotting behind your character’s back – which is as infuriating as it sounds. The grand moral choices are bland and meaningless (side with the good guys or the bad guys on each planet) and the story is just bad. All it has is a few interesting ideas with wounding the Force, Darth Nihilus etc.
This pattern goes back to the horribly overrated Planescape: Torment too, which current Obsidian employees worked on. Great ideas paired with terrible execution.
As for the gameplay: it feels ten years old. Broken shooting mechanics, the ridiculous endurance fights with bosses that brandish massive health bars and psychic guards that telepathically alert everyone two rooms away of your exact location just by catching sight of you.
Much like in the story, you rarely feel like you’re in control of the stealth. The game also forces you into alerts and fights so often that it feels like it doesn’t know what it wants to be. If only it had taken more cues from Metal Gear Solid or even Splinter Cell Conviction.
It has patches of actual fun when you get the hang of it, and your repeat playthroughs can be interesting. But mostly Alpha Protocol is an exercise in wasted potential. The duplicity, stealth, violence and betrayal of the espionage world could make for an incredible interactive story.
The mere branching paths of Alpha Protocol are nowhere near that possibility. Nor are their attempts at stealth or action gameplay. It’s just good ideas and nothing else. Looks like we’ll be waiting for Burn Notice: The Game for a while longer.