North American cover
Nathan J. Davis
|Engine||Unreal Engine 3|
|Genre(s)||Action role-playing, stealth|
Alpha Protocol is a 2010 action role-playing video game developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Sega. The game revolves around the adventures of American field agent Michael Thorton. The game was originally set to be released in October 2009, but was pushed back to May 2010.
Upon release, it was met with mixed reception. Praise was given to its narrative and conversation elements, while criticism was directed towards buggy launch and poor combat mechanics.
Alpha Protocol is played from a third-person perspective, allowing the player to see Thorton and his surroundings at all times. As Thorton is a trained covert operative, the tools at the player's disposal include numerous firearms, hand to hand combat using Kenpo, and spy gadgets.
In addition to the action elements, players also earn Advancement Points, which can be placed into any of the ten different skills in the game. These skills will increase Thorton's ability to use certain weapons and grant different abilities to him. These abilities are free to use, but require a "cooldown" period before they can be used again. One ability, called Chain Shot, has been mentioned in previews and allows Thorton to scan a group of enemies in slow-motion before popping out of cover and shooting each of them more rapidly than he would be capable of normally, similar to the "Mark and Execute" mechanic of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction or the "Focus Aim" of James Bond 007: Blood Stone.
Somewhat unique for a realistic shooter game, the game uses a system of boss fights; the bosses in the game are humans themselves, though a tank and a helicopter are both faced. The bosses, who are denoted as such via a large health bar in the upper-central corner of the screen, have a much larger damage resistance than the standard enemies and cannot be defeated with just a few headshots. Some minibosses can be stealth-killed, though the main bosses themselves cannot be and must be defeated by a combination of strong offense and good defense. Most bosses will also summon henchmen to further challenge the player. Each city culminates with at least one boss fight, and the final bosses of the cities are usually the hardest bosses of the game.
Alpha Protocol features numerous characters with whom to interact. Conversations occur in real-time, giving the player a limited amount of time to respond at key "decision points" during dialogue. The dialog system in the game - known as the "DSS" or Dialogue Stance system - allows the player to choose from three different attitudes, or "stances," when speaking to an NPC. Obsidian has said that these options are based on the personalities of the "three J.B.'s" of spy fiction - Jason Bourne of The Bourne Identity novels and films, James Bond of the eponymous film and book series, and Jack Bauer of the television series 24 - although the game itself does not use these names: during dialog sequences, the player will be able to choose from options like "professional" (Jason Bourne), "suave" (James Bond), and "aggressive" (Jack Bauer), sometimes with a brief description of the dialogue choice (such as "angry", "sarcastic" or "focused") taking the place of the general stance. A fourth, "special" dialogue choice is also sometimes available. Each NPC will react to these choices in different ways: one character might be intimidated by an aggressive stance, while another character may find an aggressive stance to be insulting or childish but respond favourably to a professional stance, and another might become aroused by an aggressive stance but discouraged by a suave stance. While dialogue choices will have some immediately noticeable consequences, many may not be seen until much later in the game. As each conversation is experienced once per playthrough, multiple playthroughs will be required in order to experience all of the game's content; while the game contains a total of approximately twelve hours of cinematic sequences, a player will only experience around four hours during any given playthrough.
Alpha Protocol is based on Operations which in turn are composed of Missions. For each operation, Michael Thorton will have his own safe house in each city, in order to lay low between and prepare for missions. The safe houses act as hubs for the game. From them, Thorton can change clothing; access a weapons locker to customize his weaponry and equipment; access an encrypted online black market site (the "Clearinghouse") to purchase weaponry, armor, and intel; use an encrypted email account to exchange messages with contacts; and attempt missions. Some missions are critical to the progression of the story, though there are some missions in an operation where the player need only complete a select amount of them to proceed (for example, in the Taipei hub, of the 3 missions the player begins with, one of them is necessary for story progression and the player need only complete one of the other two - although playing through both missions might give the benefits of each individual mission together, or vice versa). Cities include Rome, Moscow, Taipei and a city in Saudi Arabia.
Thorton can optionally romance several of the female non-player characters. This is accomplished primarily by choosing the appropriate dialogue responses and gaining reputation, and also in completing missions in such a way that the NPC in question is not killed first.
The player can only carry two weapons at once. Pistols are weaker and shorter-ranged but they and assault rifles are the only two classes capable of precision shots, and only pistols can be suppressed for stealth or equipped with non-lethal ammunition. Assault rifles do more damage and have longer range, and can be used quietly by using expensive and rare subsonic ammunition. Shotguns and submachine guns are good at short range; while the shotgun user can charge up for a critical hit to knock an enemy down, the SMG user gains a damage increase as more of his shots hit targets in a short time.
Weapons can be customized by placing modifications in one of four slots: the barrel, the scope, the magazine, and the accessory slot. These modifications can have both positive and negative effects on the weapon's attributes: Damage, Accuracy, Recoil Control, Stability, and Magazine size.
Characters can also choose, customize, and modify their armor. The main function of armor is to provide Endurance—a pool of regenerating hit points—to Thorton, but different suits and modifications can specialize in stealth or increasing the amount of gadgets Thorton can carry in his inventory.
The player can choose also which skills to advance, allowing them to change their play style. The character can advance skills which make him kill his enemies more efficiently (Pistol, Assault Rifle, Shotgun, Submachine Gun, Martial Arts), make him better with gadgets (Technical Aptitude), better at avoiding detection or bypassing security (Sabotage), harder to kill (Toughness) or move without being noticed (Stealth).
The main and playable character of Alpha Protocol is Michael Thorton (Josh Gilman), a highly skilled secret agent newly recruited into Alpha Protocol, a clandestine United States agency given unlimited resources to conduct covert operations on behalf of the government. His colleagues are his handler Mina Tang (Adrienne Wilkinson), superior Yancy Westridge (Gary Anthony Williams) and veteran Alpha Protocol advisors Alan Parker (Michael Bell) and Sean Darcy (Andre Sogliuzzo).
Alpha Protocol is a highly classified black ops agency whose very existence remains unknown to many, even those in the highest echelons of government, as a means to operate outside of the confines of government oversight. Recent inductee Agent Michael Thorton is given his first assignment, assassinating Sheikh Ali Shaheed, the leader of the Al-Samad terrorist group in Saudi Arabia that used American-made missiles to shoot down a civilian airliner. When confronted, Shaheed claims that Halbech, an American defense contractor, provided him with the weapons and target. Thorton neutralizes Shaheed and recovers his intel, but his position is struck by missiles, and Thorton is presumed dead. Thorton survives with the aid of his handler Mina Tang who warns him of the attack, and that the agency has been infiltrated by Halbech operatives.
Shaheed's intel reveals three key locations tied to the conspiracy: Rome, where an Al-Samad cell has been activated; Moscow, through which the missiles were routed; and Taipei, where the Taiwanese president Ronald Sung is under threat of assassination. The locations can be visited in any order and events that take place may influence interactions that occur in other locations. Thorton deduces that Halbech's plan is to raise global tensions and cause a new cold war, turning the world into its private marketplace.
In Rome, Thorton meets Madison Saint James and, with her help, discovers the Veteran Combat Initiative (VCI), a private security firm run by Halbech's former security chief Conrad Marburg, who is planning a false flag operation to blow up a museum in order to influence harsher anti-terrorism legislation in Europe, using Al-Samad as a scapegoat. Marburg kidnaps Madison, and Thorton must choose between saving her or preventing the museum's destruction and innocent deaths. Afterwards, Marburg escapes unless Thorton can convince him to finish their fight to the death. If Thorton chooses to save Madison over the civilians, she leaves out of guilt.
In Moscow, Thorton tracks weapon shipments to Konstantin Brayko, a Russian Mafia underboss with apparent ties to Halbech. During his investigation, Thorton can encounter SIE, a German VCI-affiliate mercenary, and Sis, a mute in service to Albatross, the leader of the G22 paramilitary group. Thorton, aided by either G22 or the VCI, infiltrates the American embassy to contact Russian Mafia boss Sergei Surkov. After discussing the arms deal with Surkov, Thorton confronts Brayko in his mansion. After defeating Brayko, Thorton can learn that Surkov worked with Halbech and framed Brayko. If he learns the truth, Thorton confronts Surkov, and has the choice of working with, arresting, or eliminating Surkov.
In Taipei, Thorton uncovers a plot by Omen Deng of the Chinese Secret Police to assassinate Ronald Sung and incite riots at a political rally to provoke conflict between China and the U.S. With aid from Triad leader Hong Shi, and/or G22, and Steven Heck, a psychotic man claiming to work for the CIA, Thorton counters an assassination attempt by Deng and obtains a disk containing the plot — but upon analysis, a security protocol on the disk starts to wipe itself, forcing the player to choose to save files detailing either the assassination or the riot instigation. Eventually, Deng and Thorton duel on a building overlooking the podium; afterwards, Deng can be killed or spared by Thorton. If Deng is spared, it is revealed that both he and Thorton were tricked into thinking the other was the assassin, allowing the real assassin to shoot Sung. If the assassination data is saved, Sung is convinced by Thorton to wear body armor and survives, but hundreds are killed in the riots.
Along the way, Thorton encounters Scarlet Lake, a photojournalist with many contacts whom he meets in Taipei. After completing the three operations and (optionally) contacting some affiliates, Thorton — needing to expose Halbech's activities before World War 3 starts — surrenders to Alpha Protocol and is brought to Henry Leland, CEO of Halbech and acting commander of Alpha Protocol. Leland and Thorton discuss his activities, and (if the player has a high reputation) Leland subsequently attempts to recruit Thorton. If Thorton refuses, he escapes the Alpha Protocol holding facility, and with the aid of his prior contacts, if any, fights or sneaks through the Alpha Protocol facility. After confronting Leland himself, Thorton may opt to execute or capture him, but Leland is killed if caught.
If Thorton agrees to work with Leland, or if he spared Shaheed and obtained the information against Alpha Protocol from him in the endgame, he also escapes the Alpha Protocol facility, eventually confronting his former superior Yancy Westridge. Shortly after executing or sparing Westridge, Thorton has the option to partner with Leland or betray him (if the player confronted Westridge via Shaheed's information instead, then he will then have the option of executing or sparing Leland as well). Additionally, Thorton can learn that the real assassin in Taipei was Scarlet Lake, in Leland's employ, and he will have the option of executing her for justice, letting her go, or inviting her to team up with him.
Escaping into a bay on a motor yacht (with a good handful of different allies potentially on the yacht with him), Thorton thinks on his next move, and whether or not life will continue to be exciting.
The development of Alpha Protocol began around March 2006. Earlier, in late 2005, developer Obsidian Entertainment was in the process of finishing work on their video game Neverwinter Nights 2, during which the studio received a call from publisher Sega about making a new role-playing game for them. Around this time, Obsidian was busy with their other projects and had no employees to spare for another game. This resulted in Sega asking Obsidian to come up with a new concept and to begin work on it when they become available, to which the latter agreed. Soon afterwards, Obsidian co-founders Feargus Urquhart and Chris Jones came up with the concept of a "spy RPG"; Sega was pleased with the idea, who positively noted its originality. At the beginning of development, the Alpha Protocol team at Obsidian consisted of staff such as creative lead Brian Mitsoda (who previously worked at the studio on a cancelled project) and Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir writer Annie Carlson.
During the early stages of its development, Alpha Protocol had no personnel assigned to the lead roles on the project. At around the two year mark, Obsidian co-owner Chris Parker joined the game as the project director, and the studio's creative director Chris Avellone volunteered to become its lead designer due to the absence of one. Urquhart stated that Alpha Protocol's four-year development cycle was overly long and tedious, and that the team struggled to choose what target audience it should appeal to. He said this was connected to the team not laying out a specific set of guidelines for how the game will be designed, and further commented that it is something all of the studio's future projects would require.
Initial story drafts for Alpha Protocol were done by Mitsoda. He decided which locations would appear in the game and also created all of the story characters, along with Carlson. However, the narrative in the released game was primarily written by Avellone, who took over the main creative role on the project two years after development began. This resulted in a substantial rewriting and repurposing of the plot; namely, player choice was given more importance, intertwining of gameplay and reactivity became a forefront design philosophy, and the core and motivations of several narrative threads were changed. The new narrative team, which consisted of Avellone, Travis Stout, and Matt MacLean, wrote new dialogue for the characters previously created by Mitsoda and Carlson, and wrote a new story and script using the locations previously determined by Mitsoda. Each writer was given a set amount of work; MacLean wrote the majority of the in-game emails, and Stout was the lead writer for the Taipei hub, writing for characters such as Steven Heck, Omen Deng, and Hong Shi. Stout was also responsible for writing several secondary characters in the Rome hub, while Avellone designed most other characters.
Sega was supportive of the team's rewriting of the plot, sending over quality assurance and cohesion strike teams to make sure there were no issues with the in-game reactivity or with plot holes, but they didn't have much involvement in regards to the narrative itself, with the publisher mainly focusing on the game and combat design. However, Urquhart said that one of the reasons for the game's development problems was due to indecision on Sega's part, particularly in regards to budgeting; he gave an example of one long segment of the game that cost around 500 thousand dollars to produce, which was eventually cut because Sega thought it wasn't a good fit for the game.
Although Alpha Protocol was being developed on Microsoft Windows, it is Obsidian's first game to be developed for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 platforms. While the company previously had experience developing on the Xbox with Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords in 2004, this was their first time working with the PlayStation. Consequently, the studio decided to license the Unreal Engine 3 for the game, which made developing for multiple platforms significantly easier; however, some systems had to be remade across all platforms, such as optimizing user controls for both keyboards and controllers and improving texture resolution for different hardware.
Gary Steinman writes, "Mina might seem normal enough, but Alpha Protocol has its share of quirky characters. We used a Kill Bill test." Chris Parker explains, "If a character fits in Kill Bill, that's probably too over-the-top. But we don't want them to be just normal suits. That'd be really boring. I don't know how many M60 wielding psychopath blonde girls there are, but there's one in our game!"
The game's original score was composed by Jason Graves and Rod Abernethy, with the main theme being written by electronic music producer BT. During the battle with Brayko, "Turn Up the Radio" by Autograph plays in the background.
Some critics were less forgiving, with VideoGamer giving Alpha Protocol 6/10 and criticizing its "huge range of technical issues" and "flawed combat." Destructoid gave it a 2/10 and said the game was 'absolutely dreadful', the 'enemy AI is an astonishing shambles, almost to the point of being impressive' and that 'there are games in their beta stage that are more complete, better designed, and more worth paying for than this mistake'.
GameSpot's 6/10 review was also mixed, stating that "Alpha Protocol's astounding intricacies are tarnished by bugs, clumsy gameplay mechanics, and rough production values." and "Alpha Protocol's ambitions are commendable, and if you're a role-playing fanatic, you'll enjoy investigating its intricacies. It's unfortunate that its various ingredients are so undercooked. The flaky cover system, the mediocre production values, the fundamental blemishes gone unchecked—these elements add up quickly and drag the experience down. The elaborate storytelling and character progression are impressive. It's too bad that the gawky, glitchy gameplay can't rise to the same standard."
Play magazine nominated the game as one of the top five most underrated games in 2010, stating that The "ingenious dialogue and story systems make for a brilliantly engaging experience."
Due to the less than positive reception, Sega employee Mike Hayes confirmed that they would not be publishing a sequel, but also added it was a good concept. In 2011, Obsidian Entertainment stated they were interested in making a sequel, though as of 2016 this has failed to come to fruition.
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Thornton fights using Kenpo, which the player will be able to improve as they progress through the game
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