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Monday, May 6, 2013

Freshly STEAM-ed: Alpha Protocol Review

Join me as I mine the backlogs of the steam store for its hidden gems...and buried skeletons.

Three years ago I heard of a game which the press was salivating over. A Spy Thriller RPG. Now those words are to me what chocolate and peanut butter are to most everyone else, delicious. Two of my favorite things now mixed together! What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty. The game was mired by an indecisive production on one side and an impatient publisher on the other. One could hardly call it rushed because it had already taken four years to make, but in it's state the gaming press was justifiably not amused. Jim Stearling (a critic I like) gave it a 2/10 saying “It's disgusting that a game in this forsaken a state is asking for a single thin dime, let alone sixty bucks. Even if it was free I wouldn't recommend it.” Games are expensive, and I pride myself on paying close attention to a wide variety of reviews before making a purchase, suffice to say words like those struck AP off my list for several years.

But then a few months back I was looking for something on the cheap and stumbled across message boards about the most underrated games of this console generation and this came up more than any other. But how could that be?! It was a disaster, so many critics said so... I was still resolute in not giving this game the time of day.

But had found something. In their article “AlphaProtocol is the new Deus Ex” they claimed that the original ideas it presented were fully realized in spite of its technical shortcomings. It was a good read and it gave me a figurative craving for Reeses. Steam had it for $15 and I'll admit it was late, I was bored, and pretty intoxicated. But I should probably talk about the game now shouldn’t I?

The critics were absolutely right...initially. The game put's its worst foot forward, not once, but several times. The first forth of the game is it's worst by a mile and paradoxically the tutorial chapter is only fun after you've already beaten the game, its weird but true. In fact after I died during the very first real mission the game glitched and all the enemies had disappeared. Enemies are kind of important for those little things a spy thriller needs like tension and conflict. 

The stealth walk is hilarious...the stealth skills are hilariously awesome.
You also can't simply point a gun and shoot it. You need to invest skill points in a corresponding weapon's tree to actually have a chance of hitting something. The enemy’s intelligence is also frighteningly bizarre as well as erratic and they all look like they're walking against an invisible treadmill. So after the first few hours I had a really sour taste in my mouth, I was only playing the game because I felt I had to, and by gum I was going to get my money’s worth.

Thankfully things changed, the minutia of the the previously irritating shooting system began to make sense every gun had strange gimmick attached. Pistols could fire precision shot from behind cover, holding your aim with a shotgun gave it a bigger knockdown effect, holding a rifle shot still charged a kill shot, and so on.Then I started paying closer attention. Passable characters began developing into compelling ones, the skill trees started bearing delicious fruit, and my Taipei secret base was AWESOME. I wasn’t having fun in spite of myself, I was actually having fun.

There are several wonderful things about AP that other critics either failed to mention or misrepresented. In most games you have all the time you need to respond to characters during dialogue. Obsidian invented the dialogue timer. You have seconds to decide whether to execute an arms dealing warlord or to back stab a trusted handler. It gives immediacy and weight to otherwise over calculated and cold decisions. And everyone has an opinion of you, especially the villains. Towards the end a secondary antagonist was bragging about how little I had thought through the assault on his compound. But I hadn't. I ran through my reasons and tactics exposing how little he actually knew of my plans. Every step I had outplayed him my reputation meter ticked up out of his begrudging respect for my actions. A more perfect tandem of game mechanics and story telling I have never seen.
The long and short of it is this is a diamond in the rough for anyone who loves video games and espionage as much as I do. If you can forgive it's budget and harebrained mechanics, this is the interactive spy novel you never knew you wanted.

I'll play myself out.

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