Over the last several years, veteran game developer Obsidian has built a strange niche for itself – becoming the go-to developer for the sequels to popular role playing games. In the past, they’ve pinch hit in the Dungeons & Dragons realm with Neverwinter Nights II, picked up BioWare’s baton for the Knights of the Old Republic follow-up, and are currently working hard to prep the Fallout return, New Vegas. Which makes their latest release, the new IP Alpha Protocol, stand out. While the developer has proven adept at playing in other’s universes, do they have what it takes to craft their own?
Alpha Protocol is an action role playing game in the vein of Mass Effect, where the player is given full real-time control over combat while dialogue options are controlled by a branching set of response types. Having plied their trade in familiar RPG arenas such as deep space and the Dark Ages, Obsidian has set their latest game in the shadowy world of spy vs. spy. You play as Michael Thornton, a guy drafted into a covert government agency tasked with sifting through a sprawling conspiracy spawned when terrorists take down a crowded airliner. This leads your agent across the globe, chasing down leads and shifting alliances as you try to catch the villains before they act again, while trying to stay a step ahead of your own government who believes that you have gone rogue.
Alpha Protocol controls similarly to BioWare’s recent console efforts. The action is all real time, which means that players can choose to attack combat situations with a full on assault or through more methodical means. Various actions, including completing mission objectives and sub-quests as well as hacking various terminals and picking locks, will provide a boost of experience points which can be used to build up your abilities. Players are free to craft their character towards the stealthy spy end of the spectrum or make a gun toting soldier of fortune. The ability system closely resembles that used in Knights of the Old Republic with branching skill trees opening up more robust options the further your character evolves. As with all RPGs, there is a plethora of weapons, gear and gadgetry to pick up and pawn away – allowing the player to fully customize their agent.
Unfortunately, Alpha Protocol feels like an extension of what Obsidian has been doing all along. In my intro, I mentioned that they have garnered fame stepping in to handle many sophomore outings. That’s what this game feels like – a shadow copy of better games – most specifically Mass Effect. The cinematic approach to the narrative mimics Mass Effect’s radial dialogue choices but the key difference is that Mass Effect tells a densely plotted, compelling tale where the narrative in Alpha Protocol is all over the map. A good story is key to a great role playing experience. Without it, there’s no real reason to invest in all the grinding required to build your character. Unfortunately, Obsidian steps into a fertile landscape and then simply decorates it in cliché – never bringing anything new or unique to their retelling.
Missions very quickly devolve into a rinse and repeat formula. Early on, your player gets access to a safe house. While that initially appears to be a cool concept (a place where you can retire to research the next objective, deck out your load-outs and chase down leads), each subsequent global hot spot that the story leads to (from the Middle East to Taipei) provides the exact same setting. So, players find themselves running and gunning through generic warehouse environments taking down the poor AI opponents, returning to their safe house for a new debriefing, using the on-site computer to choose their next assignment, and then heading out into the field to do the same thing all over again. It hurts that the missions never really vary from the standard fetch quest approach. The intel you’re chasing may change its name but it’s always the same thing – fight your way to the next waypoint, press A to grab the item, and then work your way to the exit.
Alpha Protocol displayed a lot of promise when it was first revealed. I love a good conspiracy movie and when I first saw the trailers for this game, I thought this was right up my alley. But as BioWare has proven, you really need to bring something new to the familiar. Obsidian knows how to play in these worlds but thus far they’ve produced karaoke renditions, and given the chance to strike out on their own, once again it just feels like their echoing a better effort. They may have aimed to give gaming their own Bourne or Bond but that’s a mission impossible with a hero this bland.