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Game Review | Alpha Protocol

Michael Thorton (Josh Gilman) is on the run in Alpha Protocol

Game Summary: After a mission goes awry, Michael is cut off from all of his contacts and betrayed by his superiors and is being hunted by the United States government. (IMDb)

I first played Alpha Protocol back on the Xbox 360, going through the game twice thanks to enjoying it so much. This time around, I played on PC and it was only marginally different: better to look at, but more bugs to deal with. Regardless, the fantastic story and the characters populating it still made it a very fun game to go back to.

One advantage Alpha Protocol has over other games like BioWare's Mass Effect or Dragon Age series is that, while you can make choices that very much influence proceedings, the character isn't quite as much a blank template. To put it in other words, Michael Thorton (voiced by Josh Gilman) is a dick. How much of a dick he can be is up to the player, but he's always a dick.

At least, he sounds like one. At the bare minimum level of dickishness, he's still supremely confident and half a step short of being arrogant. The other end of the spectrum? Holy shit, why would you want to play a character like that? You can be horrifically cruel at times, manipulating people and events to benefit just you and walk away like it's nothing.

The reason I say this is an advantage is that you don't get the kind of tonal whiplash between saint and sinner many other RPGs go for. To use Mass Effect as an example again, constantly switching between Paragon and Renegade makes Commander Shepard sound schizophrenic. With Thorton, you can mix and match responses from one response to the next and it all sounds consistent with the character.

This may make Thorton sound like a very limited character, but there's so many ways to manipulate other characters and influence the story-line that it never feels that way. Yes, he's a jerk with a heart of gold at best, but that's still very different from the merciless killer you can choose to play as if you want - it's the consistency of the character's 'voice' that makes it all work so well.

And you'll be hearing that voice a lot thanks to how many conversations there are in this game. Unlike many other games, the talking in Alpha Protocol is timed, forcing you to respond quickly and has the fortunate side-effect of keeping up a certain pace to events as you have to think on your feet, utilising what you know about who you're talking to if you want to get the most out of the situation.

Which is yet another cool feature: the little biographies that usually just provide background info on characters in other titles? They're actually valuable intel here and extremely useful - if you encounter someone and already know how to treat them, it feels like you have the upper hand in what is essentially a verbal battle rather than a physical one.

These conversations can have huge ramifications too - even more than completing certain objectives in the more typical field missions. The right thing said to the right person and speaking to them in a certain manner can be significantly more important than many other objectives. You can turn an enemy into an ally or vice versa this way.

The thing is, that kind of messes up talking about your allies and enemies in this game, because just about anyone can be an ally (to differing extents) or an enemy. It would take far too long to go through every character that you can join forces with and the relationship you can develop with them, just to then go through them all again to discuss what kind of opponent they can be too.

All of this means that it's kind of impossible to spoil the game because there are so many different ways it can end, with my first play-through simply resulting in bringing down Alpha Protocol and getting away with a girl and my life. The latest ended with me developing an army of contacts and special forces around the world that effectively turned Michael Thorton into a global superpower of his own making.

Someone is enjoying themselves at a mansion party in Alpha Protocol

The best thing: not only is everything in-between those extremes possible, you can go even further and join the bad guys! Yes, you can end the game as a victorious villain. Honestly, I don't know of any other game where there are so many ways that it can finish - certainly not in the almost-decade since Alpha Protocol first released.

Of course, this does make a direct sequel somewhat impossible, because how the hell do you pick a canon ending when there are dozens of characters who could be alive or dead, friend or foe? Maybe we'll end up seeing another espionage-based RPG at some point in the future, but the bar has been set so high already it'll be one hell of achievement to equal the fluid narrative here.

That fluidity also lends itself to the game structure. Once you're past the opening section and the multiple operations open up, not only can you do any of them in any order, you can - and should - move between them as completing a mission in Rome can have an effect on the operation in Moscow which then affects Taipei and it's all so wonderfully done.

The types of mission you go on are also brilliant to the point of making you wonder - again - why other games still aren't doing this. They can range from simply meeting for a talk, checking out a social event through the lens of a sniper rifle and choosing whether or not to kill the target, infiltration where lethal force is highly discouraged or more typical run-and-gun missions.

The truly incredible thing about all of these characters and their constantly-evolving relationships and the variety of locations and mission types is the detail that goes into them. Meeting in a public place and you arrive in full body armour? Depending on who you're meeting, they can either praise you for taking precautions or mock you for failing to blend in, pointing out that you're only talking so should be wearing street clothes to avoid drawing attention to yourself.

Aside from the bugs in the PC version (genuinely never encountered any on the Xbox 360), it's only really the visuals that hold this game back. Much like another excellent espionage-style game, the original Deus Ex, Alpha Protocol wasn't much of a looker even at the time of release, with only decent graphics and rather stiff animation - which only looks worse now.

If you can put up with the rather 'functional' look of the game and the bugs that effect it, then you really should enjoy Alpha Protocol, especially as it's so cheap even when not included in a sale. As for the bugs, there was only one which was mission-ending and required me to start a level over again, but they can still be really irritating because the rest of the game is so damned good.

Alpha Protocol is still a great game almost a decade after its release, with relationships between characters proving absolutely vital and influencing the story in a way few games have done since. It's not the prettiest game, plus it can be a bit buggy at times, but it's still one of best RPGs made this millennium and would love to see some kind of 'spiritual successor' at some point.


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