Alpha Protocol – Why you should care

Repost from Sunday, 10 July 2011  

I’m not here to excuse Alpha Protocol of its flaws, nor am I here to defend it critically. Alpha Protocol is far from perfect, actually, the current Metacritic score of 72/100 is absolutely deserved, would I have to objectively review it, I’d give it a 7/10 myself.

No, I’m here to tell you about why you should care in spite of its flaws.

Alpha Protocols strength lies not in its presentation, technical fidelity or its refined game-play. Its strength lies in its ambitious storytelling and revolutionary character interaction, giving it a unique re-playability and depth rarely found in modern games.

In other (similar?) games like Mass Effect you replay the game because you want to try a different combat-class or maybe because you want to play Renegade or Paragon with all your funny color-coded responses. Alpha Protocol will make you want to replay the game for completely different reasons, yes you can replay it to experience a slightly different gameplay-style too but thats not the focus.

You will want to replay the game because you want to know what will change in the world if you respond differently to the characters or do things differently. Its not so much: will character X die?, or: can I romance Y female? Sometimes its more subtle than that: Can I stop riots in Taipei? If i let X live will I get access to better weapons or will it destabilize the region? In the end these results will spark different outcomes, the riots in Taipei might make your infiltration easier or harder, the destabilized region might make your access to new equipment harder or easier.

This game has no wrong choices (in dialogue), but not in the way that the Witcher 2 has no right choices, and not in the way Mass Effects choices are completely predictable. Just as in real life, as long as you are doing something, you are gaining something, be it experience, perks or skills. You don’t pick them from a talent-tree, you don’t get them via convoluted morality meter, you get them organically, flowing from your decisions over long periods of time.

Example:

One of the early missions requires you to infiltrate a CIA facility, you are an US operative yourself so killing CIA agents is rather sub-optimal. Yet I got detected, alarms went off and I had to shoot my way out of the place killing CIA agents. This led to a discussion with my handler on what went wrong so I chose the response “no time” on the dialogue-wheel which translated into the dialogue from me:

“There was no time to play nice”

This resulted in a negative reaction from my handler, so I expected to get either penalties or to loose the handler. But nothing like that happened. A few missions down the line I infiltrated an NSA listening post, again, mistakes on my part were made and i got detected, again US agents died. After i finished the mission I got another discussion and strongly negative reaction from my handler (strong animosity by now) BUT… I got a perk called “No time to play nice” with -5% ability cool-down.

The game actually remembered my decision and had a response ready to actually reward me. Good or bad does not matter, the decision was made and I stuck to it, so the game awarded me a perk flowing from my previous reactions in the game. Now I want to know what happens if I do not make mistakes in that mission, or choose any of the other 3 explanations(excuses?) why I killed the US agents or just not kill any of the agents once they start shooting.

And the game is sprinkled with decisions like that, not game-changing good or bad decisions, but small, seemingly insignificant decisions, taken in the heat of battle, that pay off in one way or another in the end. No matter what you do, you will get results, and it is so refreshing to not see the results coming from 100 miles away.

Alpha Protocol boasts a 11Gb installation yet it has worse graphical fidelity, more confined and smaller levels as well as less movement-freedom than The Witcher (2007), so where did all those Gigabytes of data go?

It all went into voice-acting, if you thought Mass Effect 2 had a lot of choice and dialogue-options this will blow your mind. You are constantly interacting in one way or another with your environment, the game-world and the characters. This is the most immersive and interactive game I’ve ever played.

Imagine, everything you do has an impact on the game-world and on you, and I literally mean -everything-. Killing enemies in a mission will have repercussions (better equipped elite guards on your next mission against the same faction) so will not killing them (better surveillance systems, more cameras, better secured computers, more locked doors) etc.

You will run into the butterfly-effect in this game all the time. You do something, something benign, like joke around with your handler on a mission, and later it gets brought up in an interrogation and someone calls your bluff because they know how you really behave.

Its amazing how much work went into creating this system, its the most ambitious interactive story-telling project I’ve ever seen.

Alpha Protocol should be the benchmark on which to measure choice and decision-making in games.

Forget morality-bars and alignment systems, forget presenting problems as choices, forget manipulating the player into decisions with predictable outcomes, Alpha Protocol is where its at, Alpha Protocol is where it should be for every game.

If you care, even just a tiny little bit, about story-telling mechanics or choice in games, you will give this game a shot.

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