Monday, June 7, 2010

Alpha Protocol or: How to Abuse Stealth Mechanics

Alpha Protocol (An Espionage RPG) is a new game by Oblivion. Oblivion carries a lot of baggage with them. They're notorious for making buggy sequels to excellent games. Alpha Protocol, however, is new ground. How do they do when they're not working with something someone else created? Well, pretty good, actually. It's far from perfect, but it's a solid game. I'll discuss it in more detail mechanics-wise, but I'm not going to give any plot spoilers.

First thing to get out of the way is the length. The game *feels* short, but mostly because it's billed as an RPG, and I'm used to ones that take 40+ hours to beat, like Final Fantasy XIII, or Fallout 3. I bought it Friday, and beat it twice. Granted, I pretty much ground through it. I started at 10 AM on Saturday, and played nearly straight through until I finished it about 14 hours later. So, if you've got a free weekend, rest assured you'll be able to beat it at least once. But you won't have experienced everything the game has to offer. It's not quite a branching paths system, but different actions will open up different or close off different missions and dialogues.

The game is almost an amalgam of Splinter Cell, Mass Effect 2, and the Bourne movies. The soundtrack especially made me feel like I was Jason Bourne. The dialogue and action mechanics are rather... reminiscent... of Mass Effect 2. Conversations are carried out by picking an option off the screen that only gives the vague attitude of the response, rather than the exact lines you'll be saying, but rather than simply wait until you pick your choice, it's more like a quicktime event, in that you have until the other person finishes speaking to make your choice, and options usually deal more with your attitude, with the options of suave, aggressive, and professional, with some situationally appropriate options showing up. You don't have an overall meter measuring your attitude, but instead characters have individual attitudes towards you, and they react differently to different dialogue choices. The nice thing here is, pissing someone off doesn't automatically close off something. You even have different bonuses based on how your mission handlers feel about you.

Speaking of bonuses, not only do different handlers give different bonuses, including giving different ones based on attitude towards you, but nearly everything you do will get you bonuses to your character as well. Use your pistol a lot? Get bonuses. Use stealth a lot? Get bonuses. Leave people alive? Get bonuses. Collect a lot of intel? Get bonuses. Send a lot of email? Get money.

And bonuses. Had you for a second, didn't I? Heh.

You can play through most missions stealthy or guns-a-blazing, except for the missions that are pure conversations. That's right. There's missions where the only thing you do is chat. I actually found these pretty interesting. They usually have the most profound effect on other missions, possibly netting you additional intel, support, context, clues, and more. The "combat" missions are  well done. On my first playthrough, I only hit one spot where I just couldn't proceed because I kept getting my ass kicked, and that was a boss fight, and I didn't bother using my skills properly, so it was all my fault. If you're careful, you can almost always stealth through a mission, until you get to the boss fights. There's a few other set-piece areas where you're forced to engage enemies as well, but for the majority of the game, it's possible to choose. I did a stealth-based playthrough my first time, and am currently doing a gun-and-run playthough, and in either case, it's all about using your skills properly. Some of the skills are nearly broken at higher levels, though.

You can stack skills. For instance, there's a skill that reduces the damage you take, and another that increases your melee abilities, and you can turn them both on at the same time to become a punching machine. What I did on my first playthrough was max out the stealth skills, giving me master-level silent running and shadow operative. Shadow Operative makes you invisible until you throw a punch, shoot a gun, or throw a grenade, for 30 seconds. Silent running makes you silent for 60 seconds. Turn both on, and you can run up to anyone and do an instant takedown attack without breaking shadow operative. In that 30 seconds, you can easily take down an entire room of enemies, since they can't see or hear you. It takes about two minutes for the abilities to recharge. Yeah, the last part of the game basically becomes you being a ninja if you focus on stealth. Then there's the pistol skill. A pistol critical shot to the head will incapacitate any regular enemy in the game. At high levels, you can get a critical hit from across the room without much trouble. That's not the broken part. The broken part is triggered skill that at master level gives you 30 seconds to pick up to 6 targets, including the ability to target for crit headshots. I've not really found a way to abuse the other skills to the same degree, but a person smarter than I probably could. So, this has the rather unfortunate effect of upending the difficulty curve. The start of the game is much more difficult than the end, even on subsequent playthroughs, to eliminate the added problems of learning. But, the skills are just so darn fun to abuse, it's forgiveable.

So, fun conversations, fun skills, good combat/stealth options, how about plot? Well, sadly, the plot is rather labyrinthine and 'evil corporation'-y. It serves mostly as a framework for tying together the disparate locations the missions take place in, as well. It's not terrible, and at least the small details of it are affected by your choices, though the broad brushstrokes don't change. Individuals' motivations change, one or two side characters' actions change, but the overarching plot and villain don't. What actually happens at the end changes, though, which is nice. In fact, the number of things that change depending on how you do things is fairly impressive, even if I could point to several other things that would have benefited from the same treatment.

Which brings us to the criticisms portion. I mentioned that Obsidian had issues with making buggy games, and Alpha Protocol is no exception. I didn't run in to any game breakers, but I do have a few things to take to task. The graphics for the most part are pretty solid, though the opening cinematic is rather laughable since they're going for a realistic look, but some of the elements would fit better in one of the new Sam & Max games, and the textures in the inventory (of all places) are slow to load. Also, certain cut scenes have an odd blur filter on them. Anyone who wears glasses will know what I mean when I say it's like having a small smudge on your lens and looking at a light source. At first I thought it was a glitch. They're not the prettiest graphics ever, but they're not even close to terrible. Anyone who seriously picks on the graphics in this game is spoiled. ;)

The real issues in this are the AI and the camera. The camera is functional. Barely. You can't control the distance by zooming in and out, though it'll zoom on its own if you get too close to a wall, and coupled with the inability to lean or go in to first-person, you'll often be fighting to look around a tight corner, or suddenly be left with a tight view of the back of your head. Luckily, the AI is "special" enough to mitigate that somewhat. The game likes stealth, but it doesn't give you any actual hiding places. Just, stay out of sight around corners or behind furniture. If you're spotted, you pretty much need to clear the room. One gunshot is enough to alert enemies in a wide area, and with no hiding places, running isn't a great option. Especially coupled with the checkpoint system. Ninety-five percent of the time, when you hit a checkpoint, the area behind you is closed off, so you're limited to portions of the level at any given time. It is possible to avoid enemies, since they're not wonderful at searching, but if they reach red alert, it takes quite a while for them to return to patrol status. If you stealth-take out his buddy five feet from him, a guard won't notice as long as he's not looking directly towards you, and guards in general have no peripheral vision as long as you're crouched. If you're not, they'll literally hear you running from a room away. But sometimes they'll lose interest while running towards you if you stop running.

Despite this, this is a good game. If you like action or stealth games, there is absolutely no excuse to rent this game if you own a console, or buy it on Steam if it goes on sale, and there's a lot of reasons to pick it up now at full price. There's a lot of replay value here, and a solid, enjoyable game to wrap it around.

No comments:

Post a Comment