Full Course: Alpha Protocol

Full Course is a new series I’m trying out where I go really in depth on a given game, show, or whatever. If you have any thoughts on how this article came out, feel free to leave a comment! I’d love feedback on this one.


Western RPGs are rarely my thing. If they’re fantasy, it’s incredibly tired fantasy cliches (dragons, elves, orcs, ect), and when they’re something else, something about the mechanics rarely click with me (though I do hope that will change as I try getting into Deus Ex, which I’ve only toyed with in the past). But I ended up playing eighty hours of Alpha Protocol for two weeks straight, four plays finished. So clearly, it’s doing something right. Alpha Protocol taps into a lot of common western RPG tropes and design styles, especially from Deus Ex, but there’s more going on there, and the context to its systems changes everything.

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For those uninitiated, Alpha Protocol is a 2010 WRPG released by Sega and Obsidian Entertainment, originally panned for a buggy launch, but now a bit of a cult hit. It sells itself as an espionage themed action RPG, taking a lot of basic ideas for action from Deus Ex, a dialog system similar to Bioware’s popular version, and a very streamlined style of level design that makes multiple types of play encouraged, but keeps things easy to follow and keeps you on a straight road with a few alternate paths. However, style wise, the title has more in common with the likes of GTA or Metal Gear, filling its cast with eccentric personalities that feel completely out of place in the realistic setting, all while having a lot of political themes and commentary alongside the more ridiculous moments. It even bases your character around the popular spy archetypes of Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne, and James Bond with a dash of every-man adventurer Nathan Drake. It’s a strange beast of parts that doesn’t seem too interesting outside the premise, but those parts end up making a bizarre contraption with a healthy chance of causing addiction. To fully understand it, we need to dissect it and look at each part separately (those being design, choice, and themes), then show how they function together.

First off, Alpha Protocol sticks pretty close to simplistic modern western map designs. Everything is relatively streamlined, so finding the next point to visit is easy. There are short cuts and work arounds littered around, but not in the way of something like a proper Deus Ex game, which basically just maps out a place that might actually exist with no regards to how it imparts information to the player. Alpha Protocol is not particularly open ended in terms of exploring the environment, even dividing areas of the game as missions you can choose to tackle from a series of safe-houses. Of course, this fits the espionage theme, as you need to get in and out of an area to accomplish an objective and move onto the next one. You don’t need an open world for intelligence gathering, and that would just complicate trying to get all the event triggers matched up. Not even games like Metal Gear Solid V, which is filled with large areas, are completely open world, as they rely on hub areas to space out the game as well. Dividing up the game into mission area creates for more memorable challenges, central to the game’s core design.

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The RPG elements and action game elements are combined, once again similarly to Deus Ex. However, there are some fine tuned changes. For example, weapon accuracy isn’t quite as terrible early on as it would be in something like Deus Ex. You still have to hold for better aim, but there’s a better sense of where a bullet will hit because you can easily see it fly after firing. The weapon types also handle accuracy differently, with submachine guns not requiring accuracy at all, and shotguns focused on charging to perform knockdown hits. It’s a tad more beginner friendly – but not by much. The first area of the game does a great job at explaining these mechanics at play, even offering four different tutorials for the main elements of the game (stealth, gun play, gadgets, and dialog), but you start out not knowing the details. You do get explanations on how to perform actions, but not when the right time to perform those actions is. It’s a good way to get a player to experiment, rewarding more active play over cowardly hiding, even with stealth. The greater the risk, the greater the possible reward.

As you level up to the maximum twenty, you earn skill points you can put into different fields like Stealth, Sabotage, and Martial Arts, netting abilities and passive improvements. Some of these are game breaking, like the pistol ability that freezes time for perfect shots, which can let you head-shot a boss six times all at once and most certainly kill them with no challenge. If you play stealth, you will learn to love the pistol and head-shots, trust me. Different fields add to different play styles, from non-lethal to shoot shoot bang bang freedom screaming bald eagle mark wahlberg could totally murder terrorism in the nuts. It also has the perk system, which rewards play with perks that fit your play style. Pretty much everything you do rewards you in some way, making your style of play easier. Doesn’t matter if it’s good, bad, or completely neutral, it can reward you with some sort of perk.

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This right here is a good early indicator that Alpha Protocol isn’t too concerned with passing moral judgment on the player, but letting them express themselves in play as they wish. It’s even cemented during a talk with your commander, Westridge, who outright states that there are no right or wrong choices, only results. I’ll delve more into this later, but as far as game design goes, Alpha Protocol makes every play style perfectly viable. There’s a way to make any style work, though only if you specialize. The game encourages you to avoid a jack of all trades approach, letting you specialize in three particular fields that will open advance marks on their skill branch. Stealth works best with stealth (obviously), accurate weapons, and sabotage abilities, which are incredibly useful for infiltration and looting. Gunplay focus goes with weapons that can leave a lot of bodies or control your space, gadget use, and toughness. You can also do other styles mixed around, like a style that uses martial arts over gunplay, complete gadget focus, or some combination I haven’t thought of. Failing to put a lot in two fields or so, though, will come to bite you in the butt, and bad. As stated, there are no right or wrong choices, only results, and results will just be less impressive with a balanced build. You never have a weakness with a build, just an additional set of strengths at the cost of possible other strengths.

Control feels nice to boot. All of the gun types play completely different and have difference roles. Gadgets each have different detonation times, requiring careful thought to properly use. Sneaking and running are well divided and easy to switch between, with advanced play allowing for easy change ups from crawling for quiet movement to dashing in for a fast take-down. Martial arts are limited to button mashing and hoping your level is high enough to be effective on your enemy, but it’s still pretty fast and becomes satisfying as you earn abilities, particularly the dashing hit. Basically, everything feels good on the most basic level, making later abilities really stick out. Skills are game changers, especially stealth’s invisibility, specialized weapon techniques, and little shortcut skills like long range hacking. It’s where the level design and enemy placement really starts to shine, as it’s all viable with basic skills, but become playgrounds for smart players specializing with their skills. The CIA mission in Rome is a great example, rewarding stealth and sabotage focused players in all sorts of fun ways.

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Even the bosses are surprisingly well designed – juuuuuuuust not to beginners. They’re all damage sponges with strange powers, and they will kick your ass if you try fighting them directly. It seems like weapon specialists have the upper hand for them, but this isn’t true. Just like any other enemy, you can hide from bosses, especially with the invisibility skill, and while you can’t do a non-lethal take-down or stealth kill on the main ones, you can use bought time to hit them with something else. Seriously, pistol or high martial arts. These will save your ass. Even gadgets are viable if you know how to use them, especially traps. They’re similar to Human Revolution’s tank bosses, but there are more exploits at your disposal to make use of that off-set their high health bars. Hell, sometimes damage dealing builds are poor choices against them, especially the ones that rush for martial arts attacks or teleport around the level and punish impatient players. Good stealth or gadget builds completely change tactics around, and this is greatly appreciated.

The action is all about player expression, and the dialog system follows suit. The game allows you to pick from three different response types, plus a forth special response at certain moments. You can be a by the book soldier with a reserved personality, a wise cracking ladies man in over their head, or a huge dick that loves sadistic violence, murder, and femdom (no spoilers). The thing is that your player character, Mike Thorton, already has a default “true” style, you just build around it by your choice of responses, only giving him an end goal and basic motivation. It’s not like you’re making your own Commander Shepard. Instead, this builds into the game’s views on choice. It’s very neutral and does not look at things as good or bad, right or wrong, just the results. Your dialog choices are less based around making a Mike Thorton, but presenting a Mike Thorton to others. This is an espionage game, so a major factor of that is talking with people and manipulating them as you see fit, which can have massive repercussions.

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Everyone in the game responds to different attitudes differently, or sometimes particular ideas or actions. You see this early on through your first four handlers. All of them react to a particular attitude positively, and have an attitude they hate. Darcy likes suave or non-serious answers, but is annoyed by confrontation and professionalism. Westridge likes eager soldiers and is neutral to obedience, but hates smart-asses. Both Parker and Mina like professional attitudes, though while Mina will also like a jokey attitude at moments, Parker is far too serious and hates anything but getting to the point and getting results. This does a good job of getting you used the dialog system, and more importantly, the dossiers you collect.

While you can pick up on what a character likes and doesn’t like from first impressions, it’s not always easy. Your handlers are more great examples, because you might not realize at first that the right dialog for Westridge is the most challenging and aggressive one, as he’s the voice of authority, or that being professional with Darcy will hit a nerve due to his personal frustrations. This is where dossiers come in. You can learn about different people and groups you’ll encounter in play through buying intelligence, gathering it during a mission, or just by catching stuff during conversations. This information is collected and fleshed out in dossier files, which can give you a major edge in confrontations. You learn about enemy tactics, weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and even gain new choices from this information by gaining a better understanding of a person or situation. You’re an intelligence agent, and your best weapon is constantly intelligence. Playing like Mark Whalberg vanquishing the horror of brown people with freedom bullets is a good way to miss out on a lot of interesting, perspective changing moments, and makes things needlessly difficult. It’s entirely possible to skip some boss battles with the right information, or get people to do what you want. Knowing how to get in the good graces of others can be game changing.

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But you can also play as the most unlikable person imaginable. If a handler hates you, they give you different bonuses in missions than when they like you. Characters will do different things based on how they view you, and making someone hate you can open different doors than if they like you. For example, there’s a major antagonist you meet in the Rome section named Marburg. He works for the main villain, and is a rival character with a similar past to yours. It’s possible to get him to completely leave you alone in the final area of the game if you get full info on him and manage to not get him to hate you …but if you do make him despise you through the right dialog and show of sloppy work, you can talk him into finishing your fight in Rome and kill him off well before then. Of course, this isn’t always advised for every character. Getting the insane Steven Heck on your bad side, for example, will have MASSIVE complications during the Taiwan section. Once again, it’s all about results.

The most interesting aspect of all of this, though, is that characters will learn about you as you go. You’re not the only intelligence agent, after all. How you present yourself to certain characters will paint what others expect from you. If you act professional around a Russian information dealer, he’ll tell your future target about you, which actually helps negotiations. Actions also have impact, changing your reputation with others or giving different initial impressions. For example, the sadistic mercenary SIE will like you more when you meet if you already met Malburg, her associate, and gave him a hard time. The game is built all around a complex web of cause and effect, creating radically different stories based on what you do and say. The only thing that remains for certain is that Steven Heck won’t die. Everyone else is easily expendable (with one spoileriffic character doomed to always die).

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That focus on results also gets pounded in through no win scenarios in the story. Rome, Taiwan, and Moscow all have one moment each where you must always give something up to gain something else, or make it unclear what choice is the right choice. Rome forces you to either save a woman named Madison you put in danger, or stop a bombing being used to ignite fear in Europe. Saving Madison results in her becoming a major political voice to quell fear mongering, but hundreds die in the bombing. Madison dies in the other choice, seemingly better …until an epilogue detail shows that a US senator is using her death to pass his own policies in America. Taiwan is the most obviously no win, either saving a president who will ultimately destabilize relations with China and risk world war, or save his people and kill a movement for independence. Lastly, Moscow has you either save your handler in the mansion assault mission, or go after important intel. That area gets even more complicated, as you can unlock one final mission by learning how you were manipulated, which presents one of the most uncertain situations and most gray outcomes.

Once again, it’s all about results.

The one place where this philosophy breaks apart is within the story proper, but only in one particular case. Alpha Protocol takes place in what is roughly our world, just changing around names and simplifying some organizations, like a collection of terrorist cells becoming an organization run by an oil sheikh. It’s a tad simplified and significantly more ridiculous, though, taking world design and mythology from the school of Metal Gear. There’s a fight with a man named Omen Deng, whom can turn invisible and teleport around the room as he tries to either punch the crap out of you or shoot you down. He’s a Chinese nationalist wearing a uniform that looks ripped from Vergil’s concept art, and he starts battles by tossing off a pointless cape that covers half of his body. He’s not even the most ridiculous person in this game. I’m not sure he’s even the *fifth* most ridiculous character in this game.

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The plot of the game is that Thorton is recruited into the super secret Alpha Protocol, a US intelligence program that exists to cut through red tape and let the US deny their part in covert ops, even justifying agents stealing money to avoid leaving money trails connected to the US government. After a mission to take down a terrorist organization that shot down a passenger plan is nearly finished, a barrage of missiles rain down in an attempt to destroy all evidence of the event – including Thorton himself. His government betrays him in the name of the weapons contractor Halbech, who turns out to be the real masterminds behind not only this terrorist attack, but many other destabilizing events around the world, threatening a nuclear powered WWIII. Thorton and his one handler still on his side, Mina, have to put a stop to these plans around the world, while we keep cutting to Thorton being questioned by the Halbech CEO back at the AP base.

You can tell Alpha Protocol was a game initially started during the tail end of the Bush years. The commentary on corporate intervention in US policy was at its most venomous during that time, and with good reason. Even the name Halbech is an obvious combination of Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s corrupt oil company, and Bechtel, a company accused of war profiteering during the beginning years of the war on terrorism. While times have changed and the US’ biggest problems come more from overloaded xenophobia leading to horrifically ghoulish lawmakers, there’s still a surprising amount of bite in AP’s commentary. It’s shown brightest with Henry Leland, the Halbech CEO, who uses the line of philosophy that something unlawful is not necessarily unethical to justify terribly thought out actions that will lead to the deaths of possibly millions. This man is basically the entire core problem of every major player in the Bush era rolled up into one, a person who thinks they know best when they really know nothing at all. Yet he’s somehow less cartoonish than our actual president right now, but another topic for another day.

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The other major factions don’t fall into the same black and white category as Halbech, though. Everyone else has their own agenda, neither good or bad, with exception maybe to Brakyo and his mafia ring. They only make enemies with you because of a butting of heads on a particular issue, and it’s possible to befriend nearly every faction in the game. In particular, you can make friends with the Veteran Combat Initiative, lead by the sadomasochistic SIE, and G22, an off the grid intelligence agency seemingly lead by the quiet and calculating Albatross. Both factions represent a different extreme in play style, guns blazing and pacifist stealth, and will judge you primarily on your actions and reputation. As far as the story goes, the VCI is connected to Malburg’s group and has a lot of animosity towards him and their common employer, while G22 is hinted to be a previous incarnation of Alpha Protocol gone rogue and trying to keep events around the world in control and plan out their own agenda once they have control over the chaos. The character representing the more do whatever works play-style, on the other hand, is Steven Heck, a conspiracy theorist psycho who’s plans are numerous and useful for all sorts of situations. He’s also the single most ridiculous character in this game by a huge margin, introduced threatening a man with laundry detergent to find out where he put his own keys. None of these factions are outright good or evil, just mainly neutral, some even taking pride in that. VCI is about as close to evil as you’ll get, but they have no agenda beyond money or spite, so they’ll gladly side with you without a second thought.

The game drenches itself in politics, expecting you to be aware of things like the One China policy and the history of capitalism in Russia. It paints everything except for capitalism as neutral, with the most horrific acts in the game occurring for motivations of profit. It’s all in reaction to Bush era policy, which dragged us into a war most of the country didn’t want for financial gain, backed by people who bent the rules in the name of their own faulty ethics. Leland just combines the two forces, an agent of corporate America and a stand-in for the philosophy of the Bush administration. He even caries out horrific acts to trample on whistle-blowers and free speech, which, if you forgotten, is a thing the Bush Administration tried to do. The weird thing is how all this doesn’t apply to you.

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This is where the endings come in. You are very clearly and openly casting moral judgment on Leland and Halbech, and even in the endings where join them, this is the first act from Thorton the game treats as truly evil. The base systems of the game constant try to focus on results over right and wrong, and let the consequences of your actions speak for themselves, which becomes incredibly questionable when you’re effectively working with the same moral system as Halbech. Just to get basic resources, you’ll find yourself selling and buying on the black market and working with criminals, justifying these sorts of action as necessary for the greater good. The exact same justification Leland uses.

Leland truly does seem to see the growth of Halbech as good. His goal is not to start a world war, but a cold war. Halbech gains more influence in the government and controlling the world, and also leverage with other nations by their common weapon source preventing them from making risky decisions. It would also allow him and his company to help police the world, guide it as he sees fit. The Halbech endings revolve around Thorton wanting that power of influence himself. These are the evil endings, while the two good ones either revolve around destroying Halbech, or destroying Halbech and Alpha Protocol, which was used by Leland.

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There’s never an ending where Thorton pays for his actions in some way. The only punishment is in the Rome chapter, due to Thorton dragging Madison into the middle of a dangerous situation because of poor judgment. Everything else is never cast in moral lights …except the endings give your actions moral meaning in retrospect. You’re either the good guy or the bad guy, and that gives new context to earlier gray actions. This probably wasn’t intentional, the idea was most likely to give players proper closure in a satisfying way that fits the games design philosophy of player focus. Because Alpha Protocol is very much a power fantasy, it wants you, the player, to feel satisfied with your own story that you picked and experienced, no matter how it cast you. But that decision results in a game that lacks proper consequences for your actions.

There are certainly consequences, as you hear the outcome of your decisions in a series of radio broadcasts in the ending credits, but the game never casts judgment on your choices outside the Madison one or choosing to join Halbech if you manage to get on Leland’s good side. That latter one also doesn’t offer in narrative punishment either, as Thorton betraying his friends is kind of an obvious outcome for that choice. That feels like one of the game’s few missed opportunities. Thorton is the single most important person in the game, and he even states in the take down Halbech and AP ending that it’s his world now, and he plans to make changes to it. If Thorton goes evil, it’s in a satisfying way to the player, not a punishment. The only certainty in this game is that Halbech is evil, but how you choose to deal with them also gives you a morality – and you never see personal consequences for your actions in the ending in the terms of Thorton himself suffering. For the genre and themes the game plays with, the lack of real consequence beyond a woman in the fridge is a glaring shortcoming.

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But while the ending feels a tad under-cooked, the journey to get there is fantastic. The sheer amount of variables Alpha Protocol throws at you makes it endlessly fun to replay and toy with, seeing what new action will result it. It also rewards continuous play through mastery of its mechanics, much like a Platinum style action game in the most bare sense. This makes the veteran run all the better, as the game finally gives you enough skill points to really explore different play styles in full. Going through areas that frustrated you and completely, effortlessly demolishing them is intoxicating, and changing choices can result in a radically different game, with entirely new bosses and encounters. I could seriously play this game for months, endlessly.

Alpha Protocol is surprisingly biting and filled with entertaining characters and memorable lines (And we name eggrolls “freedom rolls”), and it’s so enjoyable to replay it and see what new things you can find. Despite the slow loading textures, occasional glitches still in the most recent version, and odd bugs that can affect your ending in strange ways (doing the embassy mission by going to the roof makes the game think you killed Marines down below), the game stands out as something truly special in a genre ruled by heavy convention and copy catting. Alpha Protocol is still guilty of both of those things, but the context it makes is unlike most anything out there. It’s a game worth playing, and worth remembering. It’s easily one of my all time personal favorites.

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