[Overlooked Gems is where we discuss excellent games that have been forgotten by time, given an unfairly low amount of media attention, bombed in sales, or anything else of the sort.]
In “Alpha Protocol,” you can edit your character’s appearance to progressively grow out his hair and beard. This is very important.
It won’t happen dynamically, unfortunately, and due to the story being told by the character in an interrogation room, whenever the scene returns to the main character in an interrogation room, his character model loads whatever facial hair the player has chosen at the time. If, like me, you decided to change his facial hair according to where you were in the game, it would look like the main character is constantly running in and out of the interrogation in order to restyle himself.
This is a minor problem, though, and worth it, because you can change your character’s facial hair.
It struck me as a little odd, at first- Alpha Protocol’s emphasis on choice (particularly in the tagline, “your weapon is choice,” which suggests the rather fanciful possibility of an idea being weaponized) and its dialogue system both seem to invite Mass Effect comparisons, but the main character starts off looking the same no matter what. There is no character creation. I had subscribed myself to the notion that his appearance would be out of my hands, but lo and behold- facial hair.
This allowed me to start my agent off as a clean-cut, by-the-book soldier, whereas later on in the game, I had him sporting long-ish hair and a full beard to look like the strung-out, burned-out vet I imagined him as while doing missions in the Taiwanese underworld.
In “Alpha Protocol,” Michael Thorton is a new recruit to the titular Alpha Protocol agency. Considering that (spoiler alert) Thorton’s first mission goes terribly awry and he has to go rogue, as is so often the case, the game appears to have been named after an organization which the character works awfully hard to not get involved with, which I consider an odd choice. Aren’t titles supposed to reference a major theme in the storyline, instead of that place you visit for 5% of the game? Ah, well.
I like “Alpha Protocol.” I really do. Thorton makes sarcastic statements often, he can openly flirt with attractive females almost immediately, and killing people stealthily is almost always satisfying on a very cruel, base level.
I bring up stealth because this is a stealth game, which is true because if one plays the game as a shooter, they will have a very bad experience with this game.
The majority of negative reviews of this game complained about how weak the shooting is, but I don’t consider this a major detriment. There are lots and lots and lots of games in which you can shoot people, and many are quite good. I wouldn’t dare tell you not to use any guns in the game- that would be silly. But when I read and watched negative reviews of Alpha Protocol- of which there are unfortunately many- it wasn’t uncommon to get the general idea that the game was being judged as a third-person shooter, and not the stealth/RPG hybrid it was clearly trying to be.
That hybrid is one of the elements of the game which made it special. In practice, the game is a mildly clunky stealth game with some remarkably entertaining dialogue, surprisingly satisfying stealth segments, and a handful of rather difficult choices to make along the way.
An example: you venture out to an ice cream shop which your analyst insists is a hideout for government agents. There is a particular phrase you can say to any agents on staff to indicate that you are “one of them.” Yet when you enter the dingy, dirty ice cream shop, the light showing off your perfectly trimmed facial hair, you find a greasy, shady-looking man behind the counter who only looks at you funny when you tell him the secret phrase.
What do you do? Do you keep trying the phrase? Do you play it off and hurry out? Do you take out your gun and blow him away?
I tried the sequence multiple times to see how it unfolded, and the tension remained high every time. This also brings to light another of the game’s accomplishments: now and then, you’ll go on missions which have zero combat or stealth or anything action-y at all. More often than you’d think, you’ll simply go somewhere and have a conversation with someone. Be it with a potential foe, one of the game’s handful of love interests, or a greasy Italian in an ice cream shop with much tackier facial hair than yours, I was always surprised when I completed a mission simply by talking it out with people.
Yet I can’t recall a single review in which the game was lauded for this.
Why did Alpha Protocol sell so badly, even though it appears to be a fascinating take on the espionage genre? Because in today’s world, a 63 on Metacritic is tantamount to a catastrophe.
Why did Alpha Protocol receive a 63 on Metacritic?
This is a game that really asks for the player to not go into it expecting something- to not boot up the game expecting a Splinter Cell or Metal Gear, a Gears of War or Max Payne. Every time I spoke to someone who played the game, their level of satisfaction with the game directly correlated to how much they were expecting of it. Those who were pulling for a big-budget blockbuster were woefully disappointed; those who wanted to try out something fun and were willing to accept a few faults walked away incredibly pleased.
It’s too late for Sega to be convinced to do a sequel, unfortunately, but that doesn’t mean more people shouldn’t experience the game. Alpha Protocol is a fun, if flawed little spy game which didn’t receive as much respect as it deserved- and if you’re looking for a good game on the cheap, you could do much, much worse.
Also: you can edit your character’s facial hair.