So, very rarely, I decide to go check out what’s on offer at my local GameStop. These are never deliberate visits where I go out specifically in search of a game so much as I do on occasion need to take my car in for maintenance, and there happens to be a GameStop in the same strip mall with the WalMart where I get my oil changed (perhaps the most embarrassing part of this post is admitting that I actually patronize two incredibly evil companies, although my experiences with the individuals working there have always been positive, so I guess it’s a wash) and I need to kill forty five minutes somehow.
So a month or two ago, I was at GameStop just looking around, and I wandered by their clearance bin (I like to glance through this thing every time I go inside on the off chance that I will discover some amazing old gem that no sane person would ever throw out of their personal gaming library; it’s a pipe dream, but it kills ten minutes). There were a few PS3 games lying in there (highly unusual), so I flipped through them and came across Alpha Protocol priced at five dollars. Also, wonder of wonders, the clearance bin was having a special sale for half off the sticker price, which meant that this game could be mine for a whopping $2.50.
Now, I’m a ridiculous cheapskate who actually has adopted the xkcd model of gaming in my adult years (except that because I’m a console gamer, there’s really no need to delay for that long; six months to a year is plenty of time for games to drop price dramatically), so I decided I could afford to pick up this game for the cost of a couple sodas out of a vending machine (I also got a slightly less awesome deal on Final Fantasy XIII-2 at the same time, but I’ve not jumped into that game yet; I’m looking forward to it simply because it’s supposed to be dramatically different from Final Fantasy XIII, which I didn’t hate, but which didn’t leave me with tons of warm fuzzies).
The funny thing about this game is that I’ve seen it sitting in bargain bins for a couple years, and I always just overlooked it because the core rule of console gaming is that if a game goes from $60 to less than $10 before the console it’s on becomes last-gen, then there’s something seriously wrong with the game. I was seeing copies of Alpha Protocol for $5 less than a year after it released, so I figured it must have been such a mess that it wasn’t worth my time.
Anyway, fast forward to this past month, and I’ve been plowing through the game on my weekends when I’ve had some spare time from doing NaNoWriMo. And you know what?
This game doesn’t suck.
I mean, I’ve not been this surprised about the disparity between a game’s price point and its quality since I played Brutal Legend (new copies were being sold for $10 at Fry’s several years ago). From what I had heard when it first released, this game was apparently a complete and utter SNAFU that failed to deliver on every level. That’s not what I found.
The story focuses on Michael Thorton, a secret agent for the U.S. government who winds up being framed for acts of terrorism and is forced to operate independently as a rogue agent while he tries to figure out just what the heck is going on and why he was set up. It’s a very standard spy thriller plot, but it’s written competently, and I was genuinely interested in the development of each subplot as I progressed through the game. The game’s major gimmick is a dialogue system that riffs on the one implemented in Mass Effect but with the added twist of each decision being on a timer. It’s competently done, and from what I understand there’s quite a bit of variation in how the story can play out depending on what attitude you make Thorton take with the people he interacts with (personally, I went for manipulative sociopath who always picks the choice intended to boost the other person’s opinion of me the most; this is not a story that cares much about morality, so it was actually refreshing to play a character who could be morally ambiguous without mechanical repercussions).
Where the game falls short is mostly in the mechanics. I have a strange obsession with playing games nonlethally if I have the option, and that was the case here. The problem is that as with most games that offer nonlethal gameplay mechanics, this severely limits my choices as a player. The game has a wealth of weaponry options, but if you don’t want to kill anyone, you’re limited to hand-to-hand combat and using (somewhat hard to come by) tranquilizer rounds for your pistol (to be fair, there may have been some nonlethal gadgets I could have played around with, but that was an aspect of the game I didn’t really explore). This is problematic simply because it meant that I had no long range options for taking out enemies (in the case of a few bosses where getting in close for melee is either impossible or highly inadvisable, this was a poor oversight). The hand-to-hand combat wasn’t bad (stealth takedowns were actually quite easy to pull off) but it wasn’t great either. I had a lot of instances where I’d charge an enemy in the middle of a gunfight and either completely miss him with my charge attack or somehow end up performing a melee combo just out of the enemy’s reach (the fact that Mike can chain through an entire melee sequence without actually contacting an enemy struck me as problematic, since it often ended with me either getting killed or having to run for cover and wait for my temporary health to regenerate while I sat with dangerously low regular health.
Besides the hinky hand-to-hand combat, there were also issues with the mini-games. Throughout each mission, the player’s presented with timed hacking mini-games that can be completed in order to earn extra experience, money, items, and information on various factions and characters in the game relevant to the current mission. It’s a mechanic that clearly borrows from western style RPGs like Mass Effect, Fallout, and Elder Scrolls, and for the most part it’s perfectly fine and fun. My biggest gripe was that in the end game, the difficulty of the hacking mini-games spikes dramatically (timers drop from around thirty seconds to less than fifteen with one mistake costing well over five seconds, meaning that hacks essentially have to be executed quickly and perfectly). This wouldn’t be an issue except all of the hacking mini-games are tied to the game’s stealth mechanic by triggering alarms that can let enemies in an area know of your presence if you fail them. This is an instant consequence with only one do-over allowed before the alarm’s tripped (assuming you invest skill points in gaining a perk that gives you the do-over, otherwise you get no room for error). Now, from a design perspective, the game’s alarms are flawed because they usually don’t cause more enemies to spawn in an area, which means that once you eliminate everyone nearby, you can trip the alarm with impunity and just deactivate it once you’ve completed all the hacks in the area. The problem with the end game hacks is that they’re so difficult I was unable to complete them even with a good bit of practice. The fact that the game apparently didn’t offer any sort of character customization to make the hacking mini-games easier was frustrating, and the only alternative to trying to complete the hacks legitimately was to burn EMP gadgets to short them out (because I was doing a stealth-focused build, I never invested much in gadgets and so the sudden sharp increase in hacking difficulty caught me unprepared with virtually no extra gadgets in my inventory for bypassing them). That’s a lot to say about a relatively minor problem with the design that doesn’t become apparent until late in the game, but it really annoyed me.
Flaws aside, I want to reiterate that I really enjoyed playing this game. I think its story and plot presentation are solid with an engaging dialogue system, and the actual gameplay mechanics are for the most part perfectly functional, if unpolished. There is no doubt that this is a mediocre game in a lot of ways, but considering what used copies typically sell for, it’s definitely worth the cost of a few snacks from the vending machine.