This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Alpha Protocol.
There have been many RPGs that let you define your character's personality to a certain extent. Say you're given a quest to get a schoolgirl's cat down from a tree. On average, you'll be given three options: Neutral, where you get the cat down and accept the schoolgirl's allowance as payment; Good, where you waive the fee and fondly tousle the schoolgirl's hair as she scampers off; and Asshole, where you set fire to the tree and jump up and down on the schoolgirl's face. And speaking as an asshole, this offends me. There are so many wonderful ways to be a complete ponce that these games rarely cater for. Why can't I rescue the cat but hold it to ransom for her dad's porn collection? Or get the cat down by throwing rocks at it so it breaks all its legs on the concrete and then still expect to be paid, with the infuriatingly infallible logic of a complete tosser? Why can't there be an RPG that covers the entire dickhead spectrum? Well, good news, ponce fans: now there is!
Alpha Protocol follows Mike Thorton, a member of a covert U.S. government agency with strong ties to a private military company that might as well rename itself, "Kitten Stranglers PLC". He gets betrayed, goes rogue, has to work alone to build a case against them, blahdee-blahdee-blah. But what's important is that however you play him Mike Thorton is the ponciest ponce that ever ponced past a poncing parlour.
The dialogue system lets you switch between three attitudes: a professional, by the book sort of ponce who wouldn't emote if the Angel Gabriel blow off in his face; an aggressive ponce who sounds like he's five seconds away from snarlingly flipping the global crisis onto its front and pounding away at its netherhole with a Franchi SPAS-12; and the suave ponce, who might as well just save time and Mace himself every time he opens his fucking mouth. Best of all, even if he only ever talked about his favorite breakfast cereal, he'd still sound like a wanker, because the voice actor delivers every line in the level, smug tones of a highbrow film critic archly dismissing the latest superhero blockbuster as he spoons himself another helping of baby seal.
Let's get the good over with quickly. For once, this is a game that claims that "every action has consequences" and actually means a consequence more significant than a character maybe wearing a different hat. For example, although the hub-based mission system lets you do the operations in any order, during the one I chose to do last, an informant mentioned the previous operations I'd completed in conversation. "Fuck", I said, "this game's just showing off now." So I immediately became an aggressive ponce and slammed his head into a desk. After which, there was more security in my next mission because the informant went crying to his big brother or something.
The RPG action stuff reminded me of Deus Ex - in a good way. It's nice to see a game where your character has to work on their gun skills and can't expect to draw their pistol and immediately hit the On button on a tumble dryer from nine hundred yards. And I was also impressed by the lockpicking and hacking minigames, which nicely balance skill and incremental difficulty, and I can't think of a joke for that sentence, so here's a picture of a dog in a hat.
The thing about Deus Ex, though, was that you could arguably specialize completely in combat or stealth or hacking or playing the cello and still beat the game. Even the final encounter had equal parts monsters, security systems and incomplete string quartets to allow any approach. Alpha Protocol, on the other hand, is happy to let you sink all your points into learning to waltz, only to find yourself stuck in an unavoidable freestyle disco competition. I was a stealth/close combat specialist, and there was a particularly obnoxious boss fight that I couldn't sneak out of and whose CQC attacks wrecked my shit. I had to inexpertly spray at him with an assault rifle I knew as much about as I did a fucking nuclear reactor, then whenever he got his knives out let him chase me around the room like Benny fucking Hill. The skills you can upgrade are stealth, hand-to-hand combat, and then four kinds of guns, which I feel makes little sense. Why the fuck would anyone specialise in shotguns when a shotgun is a situational weapon? What are you gonna do if there's an enemy more than ten feet away, throw your shoes at him?
The dialogue system gives you about one second to pick a conversational attitude that is summed up in one word, and it's often hard to decipher. You might be talking to a sexy lady, for e.g., when suddenly an option comes up reading, say, "Trousers". And there's no way of knowing if this means the poncemaster general will change the conversation to the subject of trousers, or draw attention to a specific pair of trousers sneaking up behind them, or whatever. So you select it out of panic, whereupon El Ponco promptly pulls his trousers down and slaps his bum while mooing like a lost calf, spoiling your reputation with the character somewhat. Dialogue seems a bit buggy at times, too, which I guess is inevitable with conversation trees as labyrinthine as this. There was a moment when I was gabbing away with another sexy lady when the option came up to initiate a quick knobbing, which went down reasonably well. Then afterward, she started repeating dialogue lines she'd been spouting beforehand. "Wow", I thought, "I literally fucked her brain out!"
There are a couple of other bugs here and there, like how the distinction between a wall you can take cover on and the ones with ponce-repellent wallpaper is known only to Mr. Thorton. But none of them got in the way too much, because after a while my stealth skill was so high I could literally turn invisible and run around insta-killing every possible threat with my bare hands. And nothing could pose a challenge after that, short of the invention of some kind of ponce-seeking missile.
All in all, Alpha Protocol is weak and poorly-balanced, like a three-legged dog with an eating disorder. But I want to come back to the story for a bit. You know that extremely brief summary I gave about five paragraphs ago? That's literally the extent of the plot I understood. The rest was an incomprehensible miasma of factions, motivations and betrayals, through which I was just dumbly acting with zero understanding. Towards the end, a line of dialogue got drowned out just before a boss encounter, and I honestly didn't know if I was supposed to be killing or protecting the guy. Maybe this would be helped with repeat playthroughs. Oh, Sega, you crafty bitches. But what I do know is that the overarching story is about a PMC that is secretly evil, a plot that I think has only been used about fifty or sixty times. What has the games industry got against PMCs? Is it the "murder for profit" thing? Oh, like you're perfect, games industry. At least war profiteers never put back the Australian release of Mario Galaxy 2 to early July!
The microfilm is in his pants: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Glasses, flat cap and full beard? Are we doing covert operations in Yorkshire, now?
Remember the three JB's: James Bond, Jack Bauer and John Barrowman