Recently Completed: Alpha Protocol
Time to Completion: A little over 20 hours.
System: XBox 360
Story: Without getting into too much spoiler territory you play as a secret agent in a shadowy government organization that doesn't officially exist. Your first mission series goes wrong and you end up rogue, on your own and trying to figure exactly what happened and why. Along the way you can recruit allies, betray them, make friends and stay loyal to them or just be a complete asshole and shoot damn near everyone in the face and/or bounce their head of tables and bean them with booze bottles. In short fun for the whole family. Oh, you can also sleep with 90% of the female cast if you feel inclined to be the cyber reincarnation of James Bond. And it's funny I should mention James Bond because...
The Good: The main character has three main personas he channels when dealing with people based on the three JB's of the spy thriller genre. Suave (James Bond), aggressive (Jack Bauer) proffesional (Jason Bourne). During conversations you choose which stance you will use and you have a time limit to make the choice. If you don't choose the game will simply choose for you using the last stance you used. Occasionally you have the chance to choose a fourth option which is usually either an extreme action move, such as impromptu execution, or sometimes if you've gathered enough intel on someone you can catch them lying or something of that nature. Or you can just be an ass and end the conversation. At first while playing through some of the earlier conversations the thought "Mass Effect rip off" crossed my mind more than once. But the more I played the more I realized that isn't really the case. The game does not morally judge you for your choices. There is no good/bad. There's just results and consequences. You want to get in good with the reporter chick? Send her intel she can publish. You want to actually make money from that intel? Blackmail the bastards you stole it from. You want to throw your weight around and be a dick with an informant? Beat the living shit of him in a bar and publicly humilate him, but don't be surprised when he doesn't cut you in on his distribution network. In fact, how you treat some characters will have direct reprecussions on how others deal with you because you will gain a reputation and they do keep each other up to date on your activities. I played through the first time as a pretty "morally flexible" character. I tried to keep a decent amount of allies to help me out but I also shot a lot of people in the face and burned a few bridges. My buddy, (who is almost done with his playthrough) was pretty much a complete cockmonger but he kept damn near everyone alive so he could extort the hell of them at every opportunity. Known differences so far, he missed out on a number of lucrative bonus objectives as well as not getting an assisst that would have made one of his boss battles almost infinitely easier. I have access to more weapons and equipment than he does but not as much raw cash. Also I got Mike (the main character) laid twice...
On that note I suppose the sex in the game must be covered since everyone lusts after pixelated boobies and virtual sex acts right? No? Just me? I mean of course not, only perverts care about stuff like that. Ah the hell with it, by this point everyone knows I'm a pervert anyway... I thought the game handled the sex scenes well. There are apparently 4 women you can sleep with at some point in the game (assuming you haven't killed them or pissed them off, yes I killed one and pissed off another) so I can't speak for all four but the two I did see were tastefully done, they didn't show anything graphic nor dwell on it overmuch. You know what's going to happen, then they fade to black. Mass Effect had more nudity (the butt shot) but if you're playing a game for the pixelated nudity, seriously get yourself some help. But sleeping with every attractive woman who moves is a staple of the spy thriller genre ever since James Bond so I can see why they felt inclined to include the option in the game.
And since this is nominally an RPG you have a wide variety of skills to choose from as well as weapon upgrades. The upgrade system works much like Mass Effect in that each weapon has slots you can upgrade (barrel, magazine, sights, and accessory which can range from stocks to complete frame replacement) all of which tweak some stat of the weapon. One of the things I really liked was the fact you could buy different chokes for the shotguns to affect the spread pattern. Another thing I liked was how there is no set inventory for the black market, what's availble is strongly influenced by your interactions with other characters. If someone likes you well enough, or you if you drive a hard enough bargain when dealing with them, they'll give the nod to someone they know who knows some people and the next time you check there's some more stuff available for you to buy. In fact some of the areas have nothing available when you first arrive, you have to cultivate local contacts first. The armor system is similar, generally speaking the stealthier armor has less pockets and carrying space for gadgets than the bulkier combat armor but there are naturally a few middle of the road options that have nice balance.
The skills are much as you would expect, weapons specific skill trees, stealth, hand to hand combat, gadet use, breaking and entering, overall toughness. Unless you have a couple points put into a skill tree, it sucks. You will not be able to be stealthy, you won't be able to punch your way out a paper bag, you won't be able to hit what you're aiming at. If you max out a skill tree? You will be as unto a god in that area. My first play through I did a recruit who starts with NOTHING. I spent most of the first area thinking stealth was broken in the games favor. By the end of the game I had maxed out my stealth and was convinced it was broken in my favor. The game gives you a LOT of flexibility as to how you specialize your stats. And that being said, do not attempt to be a jack of all trades. This is a game where specializing is key because the better skills open up late in the skill tree. If you don't specialize you're going to suck equally at everything.
Closely related to the skill system are the perks. The game will reward you for how you play. Depending on how often you use various response types, or how many kills you make with a certain weapon or even how many hit points you've lost in your career the game will reward you with bonuses of AP (action points buy your skills), EXP, and even health and damage bonuses. It's nice to be given a bonus for hanging up on enough people
The Bad: The graphics are not pretty. The character models and animations range from "servicable" on the high end to "first gen 360 or possibly even late gen XBox" on the low end. I get that an RPG is about story first and graphics second but some of the jerky animations (the main characters hunched over "stealth" walk) leave you scratching your head and asking "couldn't they have polished this just a LITTLE more?" Textures have a bad habit of not fully loading in, this is especially noticeable when you're checking out weapons and armor and the game chugs to load the texture while you're looking at an amorphous blob; wondering if it's a new bulletproof vest or if the rendering card just vomited straight to the screen. Also you WILL get noticeable moments where you transition from one area to another where the game will pause to load. A little rotating Alpha protocol logo pops up and the screen blurs to assure you that the game didn't freeze up and they USUALLY only have these at doorways but I encountered a few in hallways or large rooms which was jarring. I will say though that I never had the game actually freeze on me so that's pretty cool.
The cover system... it has the same problems most context sensitive cover systems do, you hug the wrong wall and open yourself for being shot for instance. Plus they added a few more just for your torture. Most doorways allow you to take cover next to the door so you can cautiously push the door open without getting a bullet in the teeth. But some doorways that appear to have just as much room if not more won't allow it..? Plus there's the fact that really the cover is almost completely pointless, most of the time I just crouched behind something and didn't bother wall hugging and it served me just as well without the goofy control issues.
The camera is just plain stupid. It will not track to your movements all and I HATE having to run in half circle or some other tactical move while manually panning the camera. Call me spoiled but cameras haven't been this dumb since the inception of 3-D platforming. The one slightly redeeming quality is that you can click the left thumbstick in to center the camera, a fact that isn't covered in the manual and that I found on accident. Still, it's not the same as having a proper camera.
And speaking of dumb... The AI is straight up ridiculous. As if being crippled by horrendous walk paths where they will stand staring at the wall waiting for you to show up and stick a shiv in their back wasn't bad enough, these poor saps also have NO peripheral vision. I've approached some of them who are facing three quarters towards me and they continue to stand stock still, jaw hanging slightly open to let the drool escape until I crush their windpipe and snicker under my breath. Or I'll attempt to perform the same manuever and lo and behold! His ESP will kick in and he'll quickly pivot and empty his AK mag into my forehead, then call for backup. Then his friends will take turns dumping rounds into my skull while I fractically attempt to backpedal while mashing the ineffectual cover button until I die from blood loss. And they never really seem to get smarter as the game goes on, instead you merely face more of them with better weapons and more health. They also will get upgraded with some brutal hand to hand moves so don't expect to pimp slap them to death like you can in the early stages unless you keep your martial arts skills buffed up. In other words inconsistent and nintendo hard instead of properly intelligent.
Overall: Overall I'm equal parts disappointed and satisfied. I was a huge fan of Black Isle studios (Planescope Torment anyone?) and have bought everything they've done since becoming Obsidian. (Like KotOR 2.) And just like KotOR 2 and Planescape there are truly awesome moments in the game. And sadly like both of the aforementioned titles it also have parts that just seem so unfinished. For KotOR 2 I blamed the fast turnaround time from original to sequel for the lack of polish but Alpha Protocol can't hide behind that excuse. The game has been in production for at least two years and got delayed from a release in October of last year for more polishing. What they did with the game in the last seven months sort of mystifies me. But beyond the sometimes clunky controls, dated graphics and usually goofy AI I actually enjoyed the game. I liked the character interaction and I've already restarted with my veteran character and am enjoying trying different actions to see their consequences. At the end of the game while the credits roll there's a voiceover of a news broadcast which lets you know the longer reaching implications of your choices in the different world arenas you affected, it was a nice touch. If you're an achievement point completist or want to see all the different endings the game will take you a few playthroughs. But if you're not looking for an investement that long term I really can't reccomend buying it, and even if you were to buy you're probably better off waiting till the price drops to 30 or 40 bucks. That probably won't be too far in the future.
Final Grade: C+/ B-