There's a pretty big hardware caveat for playing Alpha Protocol on the PC; you really need an Xbox 360 pad to enjoy it. I first tried playing it with mouse-and-keyboard and it was pure hell; my older Saitek pad wasn't up to snuff since it didn't have pressure-sensitive triggers (needed for the lockpicking mini-game), and the "mouse look" stick won't work with games that don't inherently support it. It's a worthwhile investment anyway; it's a really good pad and it's been the standard for all PC games coming out pretty much since 2008. Microsoft commercial over.

I mention this because Alpha Protocol got very middling reviews, and a central complaint of those reviews seems to be the camera and control. With the 360 pad in, I didn't have any real problems with either, and thought the game actually played quite smoothly on the whole. Yeah it's kinda bullshit that a particular $25 peripheral is mandatory just to make the game playable, but it's one that's useful for nearly every other game that requires a gamepad on the PC too, so Brotocol gets a pass there.

Protololz might initially strike you as a bit of a rip on Burn Notice; you play as an asskicking incredibly competent superspy named Michael who is betrayed by his agency and left to operate on his own. The plot deviates quite a bit though, and there's a much more morally ambiguous (and violent) tone to this game ... plus this actually started development before Burn Notice even went on the air, it's one of those games that had to bounce around through various hands, stall out, and struggle for funding just to stay alive.

Protoballs (OK, that's the last one, I promise) is actually more akin to Deus Ex, Mass Effect, and the System Shock games than anything else; the whole lineage of FPS games that offer multiple approaches, RPG elements, plenty of non-shooting action and mini-games, and that have complex branching paths in which lots of small elements of the game constantly change in response to how you play. It's the latter that is Alpha Protocol's greatest strength; this might actually be the best game ever created in terms of how intricately the conversations, missions and environment change in response to your previous actions and your dialogue choices, surpassing even the first Deus Ex in scope. Unfortunately, the gameplay is not as intricately crafted as the dialogue and story, holding the game overall back to mere Very Goodness instead of Absolute Greatness.

The overall structure of the game in terms of the levels you play is fairly rigid. Mike starts out training at Alpha Protocol HQ, then gets sent on his first series of missions in Saudi Arabia. Saudi ends up going sour, Mike is on his own, and from here you have the choice of three hubs to work from - Moscow, Rome and Taipei. Each has their own series of missions, but you're free to take them on in whatever order you want, including jetting back and forth between hubs whenever you like. And the game accounts constantly for this. Characters in one mission will mention things you've done in the others, and may have their perceptions of you altered by the choices you made, which may also open (or close) certain new avenues to you. Between freedom in how to approach missions (anything from non-lethal stealth to brute force shotgun annihalation of anything that moves), and your conversational responses, there are many possible ways for the game to shape up. The missions themselves don't really change, but what varies wildly between games is the character of Michael and how all the various other characters and factions respond to him.

A big part of this is the game's unique conversational system. Rather than picking from prefab dialogue choices, you'll be asked to respond on-the-fly with one of three general attitudes - Agressive, Suave or Professional. The game's developers liken these to the characters of Jack Bauer, James Bond and Jason Bourne, respectively, and that's a fairly solid comparison, though "Suave" often sounds less like James Bond and more like a complete dickhole, and "Agressive" can be downright psychotic sometimes. The conversation is somewhat hit-or-miss for people for a couple of reasons. First of all, you have to respond while the conversation is going on, and you generally have only about three to five seconds to pick which attitude you want. Secondly, the little snippet of text that gives you a general idea about what your response is going to be like is sometimes insufficient or confusing. This sounds like a recipe for Fail on paper, but as you're told at the outset, conversation in this game is all about manipulating people to do things for you, and generally once you get an early read on what they want (or don't want) to hear, sticking with mostly the same attitude in your responses is the way to go. I'd like to see the system tuned up a bit to give you a little better idea of what the character is about to say, but on the whole I actually really liked this system, it keeps you engaged and paying attention during "talking head" dialogue segments that you might tune out of in a more traditional non-interactive cutscene.

The first thing to understand about the action coming into this is that this is not a traditional FPS. It's almost as much RPG as it is FPS - what happens is dictated not just by your actions, but by invisible dice rolls based on your stat sheet. You gain EXP as you complete levels and subobjectives in levels, and this translates into points you sink into your various skills. You also need to periodically buy new guns (which have their own numerical stats), and also upgrade their various components - barrels, sights, clips, etc. So at the outset, you can pump three or four shots into the teeth of an oncoming opponent, and they'll barely flinch until you upgrade your Assault Rifle skill and buy a better model with better accessories. This would be insufferable except that the game gives you plenty of cover to use while plinking away in most firefights, and also gives you the option of using stealth to get by most enemies, with a one-button takedown if you can sneak up behind them without alerting them.

There's a bit of glitchiness in the gameplay, but not enough to be a dealbreaker. Every once in a while, enemies would shoot through floors successfully, or spawn in right behind me in an impossible position, or spot me from 300 yards away through a tiny crack in a wall, but not nearly enough to ruin the game. More of a problem is a limited stealth/AI engine that's more primitive than even the first Metal Gear Solid in a few ways. When a guard spots you, every other guard in the area psychically knows your position instantly. They also trip alarms instantly without physically pushing anything. Some guards seem to be programmed to radio in alarms, but this is an event that occurs regardless of what they are actually doing. For example, in Taipei, I was sneaking through a subway station patrolled by civilian police that we were trying very hard not to kill. I knocked a guy out, but his buddy came around on a patrol route that caused him to spot the unconcious carcass. Spotting bodies not only seems to make the enemies immediately aware of your position even if you're under cover and no one has seen you, but this guy was also calmly and casually radioing in an intruder alarm somehow as I rushed him suddenly and he was holding up both arms in front of his face to ward off my rain o' blows. Needless to say, you also can't move bodies ... but after a minute or two they mysteriously vanish on their own. The AI in firefights is generally competent about using cover and trying to flank you, but not outstanding, and has a propensity for getting caught on corners. You're at more danger from being rushed by overwhelming force than by a competent AI getting the drop on you.

The worst bit of the game experience is the overly pumped-up bosses, who are just ridiculous about being bullet sponges, and rushing you to deal out massive damage with melee attacks with little to nothing you can do about stunning or pushing them back. Almost all of them also have infinitely respawning grunt companions kitted out with powerful assault rifles, even though they're more than enough of a handful by themselves. This ties into another problem with the game, and one that's endemic with these action-oriented games that allow non-combat builds; eventually, not putting points into combat/tank abilities always comes back to bite you, because the game railroads you into some overly tough boss battle or action sequence where stealth, hacking, etc. are completely useless. Alpha Protocol DOES allow you to sidestep some of these; but the requirements are obtuse and often very finicky and arbitrary. For example, the next-to-lass boss of the Moscow campaign is probably the enemy you'll see most complained about on forums. He's a little cokehead Russian gangster who gains ridiculous buffs when he periodically snorts some toot; he becomes nearly invulnerable to damage, rushes you faster than your normal running speed, and when he closes with you, slashes off over half of your health with one knife combo. He automatically gets priority at close range no matter how high your Martial Arts skill is, he gives (and takes) ridiculous damage no matter how much you've upgraded your Toughness stat or equipment, and there's simply no way to stun him or push him back, even with high-level shotgun blasts directly to the head at close range. The trick to defeating him turns out to be to complete the Taipei missions first, and make nice with an affable sociopath you keep encountering there; if your rep with said sociopath is high, you have the option of paying him to spike the gangster's coke prior to the mission, turning the battle from Nearly Impossible to Laughable just like that. There's other ways to beat him if the coke-spiking isn't available, but you need a couple of particular items or abilities that you might not have on hand. If you've come to this point without them, I'd go so far as to say this fight is impossible without cheating. Again, this is a common problem with these types of games, and I don't know why it hasn't been ironed out in over a decade of them now; most aspects of the regular game are well-thought-out to accomodate different character builds, but Boss Battles and Big Action Sequences stand out like a sore thumb in forcing you to play with one fixed strategy or die in futility.

One last hinky aspect of the game is the oddball "checkpoint" saving system, which can be a bit annoying. You have a running auto-save that overwrites itself as you cross each new checkpoint, and can only manually create a separate save from the last checkpoint you crossed, not your present state. There's a more than adequate amount of these, and even if you aren't manually saving, the game never asks you to retread an annoying amount of ground when you die. The problem lies in that when you return to your "hub" safehouse from a mission, you auto-save, but then can't save again until you commit to a new mission. There's a lot of stuff to do at the hub - check emails, upgrade weapons, etc. - but there's no way to save AFTER you've done all that stuff but BEFORE you commit to the next mission.

Alpha Protocol is indefensibly flawed in the gameplay department. For the most part, it runs well enough, but there are some major problems that stand out and bring the game experience down. Still and all, it's an enjoyable and unique experience on the whole. The writing and characters are great, and do a lot to compensate for the rough bits of the gameplay. It's a game that I think certainly deserved better than all the dismissive 60-70% reviews, and to already be all but forgotten only one year after release. Give it a run when it goes on sale for 15 bucks or less.

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